This is the seventh of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire books. It’s been over a year since I’ve read one, mostly because they aren’t available at my library and I have to get them through interlibrary loan, and every time I remember to order one, I think the same thing: how could I have waited for so long? These books are utterly enchanting.
This installment, Before Lunch, is about Mr. and Mrs, Middleton, who live at Lavering, and Mr. Middleton’s sister, Mrs. Stonor, and her grown children Denis and Daphne, who have come to live in the Middletons’ guest house for the summer. Mr. Middleton is a self-important blowhard whose only redeeming quality is that he loves his wife very much. Mrs. Middleton and Mrs. Stonor are both intelligent and wise, things that don’t always go together in Thirkell’s books. They look out kindly for the well-being of the people they love, as the summer winds on toward the triumph of the Agricultural Show and the happy or unhappy union of… let’s see… I think at least four couples, depending on how you count. There is a wealth of minor characters, as well, all of whom are worth meeting, and several of whom I already knew from earlier books.
It is difficult to explain how wonderful this book is (and how wonderful Thirkell’s books in general are.) They are very funny, but they are not high-key farce. The prose bubbles along in a gentle way, never stressful or jarring, and occasionally something so funny happens that I can’t stop laughing: the ongoing feud between Lord Bond and his butler over the whereabouts of the piano key, for instance, or Miss Starter, who obsesses over her, and everyone else’s, diet:
‘That’s all wrong, Miss Starter,” said young Mr. Bond, who had been hoping for some time that his mother’s guest would choke on a fishbone and die. “What you ought to say is ‘I am not worrying.’ Keeps the old Ego in much better order.”
“Oh, is that what you do?” said Miss Starter.
“Well, not exactly. The fact is I simply don’t worry at all. It saves me a lot of trouble. More of those nice little new potatoes, Spencer. They look a bit young to have been killed, but they taste uncommonly good.”
Miss Starter said earnestly that they were poison, which caused young Mr. Bond to put six into his mouth at once, give a single chew and swallow them. Lord Bond, who came in just then from seeing about a drain down in the seven acre field, said talking of poison they had found a vixen dead down near the stream undoubtedly poisoned, and the question was who had done it.
“Miss Starter says it is potatoes,” said young Mr. Bond.
The very best thing about these books, though, is that they are not just sheer frivolity. There is real humanity, compassion, and sometimes even pain below the rippling surface. I adore these books. If you haven’t read Thirkell, and you want a real rest when you read, do try them. They’re wonderful.