This is the sixth of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, and it is just possible that it’s the most charming one yet. The novel centers around the unbelievably alluring (if rather scatterbrained) Mrs. Brandon and her two sensible children, Francis and Delia. To this contented family we add the high entertainment factor of Mrs. Brandon’s many admirers: among them, Mr. Miller, the vicar; and Hilary Grant, Mr. Miller’s pupil, who is Francis’s age. Hilary, in particular, has fallen violently in love with Mrs. Brandon the moment he saw her, and his earnest passion (complete with poetry) is extremely funny:
…his incoherent and jumbled wish had been entirely a prayer to be allowed to die some violent and heroic death while saving Mrs. Brandon from something or somebody, to have her holding his chill hand, and perhaps letting her cheek rest for a moment against his as his gallant spirit fled, all with a kind of unspoken understanding that he should not really be hurt and should somehow go on living very comfortably in spite of being heroically dead.
(To this sort of thing, Francis and Delia merely shake their heads. They are accustomed to their mother’s “hopeless cases.”)
Because Thirkell models herself on Trollope, though, behind this flamboyant background, a real love story is taking place. This one is between Mr. Miller and Miss Morris, companion to the now deceased Miss Brandon (an elderly relative of the Brandons.) The two had known each other forty years earlier, when Mr. Miller lived with Miss Morris’s father as he studied to become a priest. Ideological differences separated the two men, and Miss Morris found it difficult to forgive the young Mr. Miller for causing her father pain. But time has made it possible for these two to be gentle to each other, and to themselves, and watching them come back together is an absolute joy.
This isn’t a complicated book. There’s a death and an inheritance, people falling in and out of love, an engagement or two, and a glorious church fete (complete with Laura and Tony Morland, two of my favorite characters!) The entire thing is carried along on the river of Thirkell’s words, a sort of low, gentle, hilarious stream. If you’ve been feeling tired or stressed or worried, this is the sort of book that might really rest you, and I can’t say fairer than that. Thirkell wrote it in 1939, on the brink of war, knowing that this was the last peaceful English summer for some time, and it brims with contentment. Read it and garner some for yourself.