Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

Wild Strawberries is the second book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series and the book chosen for me in the last Classics Club Spin. I had mixed feelings about the first book, High Rising, which I read nearly two years ago, but still wanted to try this one as I knew it was about a different set of characters and I thought I might get on better with it.

Published in 1934, this book introduces us to the Leslie family who live at Rushwater, their estate in West Barsetshire. The family consists of Henry Leslie and his absentminded wife, Lady Emily, their two sons John and David, and their daughter Agnes, who is married to Robert Graham and has three young children. There was also another son, the eldest, who died in the Great War, and his sixteen-year-old son Martin is now the heir to Rushwater and lives with his grandparents. As the novel opens, Robert Graham has gone to South America on business so Agnes and the children are spending the summer with the Leslies and so is a niece of Robert’s, Mary Preston.

This probably all sounds straightforward enough to you, but for some reason it took me ages to remember who was who and I wished I had drawn a family tree at the beginning! Anyway, once I started to settle into the story and get to know the characters, I found it quite enjoyable. The plot mainly revolves around Mary Preston and the question of which of the Leslie men she’ll marry – David or John. David, the younger brother, is charming but selfish and thoughtless (he promises to bring Mary the ‘wild strawberries’ of the title, then forgets them), while John is quiet, kind and considerate. I knew which of them I wanted her to choose but Thirkell keeps us in suspense until the end of the book!

There’s also a subplot involving a French family, the Boulles, who move into the vicarage for the summer. Keen for Martin to improve his French, the Leslies arrange for him to study with the Boulles’ children, but instead he becomes involved in a plot to restore the French monarchy. Meanwhile, the lovely but irritating Agnes spends the entire book fussing over her children, and Mr Holt, an acquaintance of Lady Emily’s who talks about nothing but gardens and his titled friends, keeps imposing himself on the family, oblivious to the fact that nobody wants him there.

I enjoyed this book once I got into it; although it doesn’t have much more substance than High Rising, I found it funnier and can see now why people praise Thirkell for her humour and wit. There are also touches of poignancy when the Leslies remember their lost son, killed in the war, and when John, who is a widower, grieves for Gay, his late wife. Some of the characters, such as Mr Holt and the Boulles, are clearly there for comedy purposes, but the family themselves, annoying as some of them were, felt realistic to me. I liked John and Martin, while I found Mary’s infatuation with David, who treats her carelessly, frustrating but all too believable. I should mention, though, that there are a few instances of racism, mainly in the first half of the book, that even though I’m used to it in books of this era, I found more jarring than I normally would.

I still haven’t been completely won over by Angela Thirkell but I liked this better than the first book and will probably continue with the series at some point. However, the third book is about Tony, the teenage boy from High Rising whom I found almost unbearable, so I don’t know what I’ll think of that one!

This is book 35/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

15 thoughts on “Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell

  1. mallikabooks15 says:

    Glad you enjoyed this better than High Rising. My experience of Thirkell so far is only limited to August Folly which I quite enjoyed. I have this waiting on my TBR and am keen to see how I enjoy it.

  2. margaret21 says:

    Other people I know who have read Thirkell also don’t seem to get more enthusiastic than ‘quite enjoyed’, so I don’t think she’s ready to be moved up the TBR queue yet.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad it’s not just me who couldn’t stand Tony! This book was about completely different characters, which is probably why I preferred it.

  3. cirtnecce says:

    I actually gave up on Wild Strawberries after the first few chapters; keeping track of whose who as well characters like Mary & Agnes grated on my nerves. Maybe I will read it at some later time. Bypass Book 3. You will not gain anything with that one.

    • Helen says:

      This book got better after a while, but I can understand why you gave up on it. It’s good to know it’s not essential to read the third book! I might still try it but if Tony annoys me too much I’ll stop and move on to the next one!

  4. Karen K. says:

    I couldn’t stand Tony either though he appears less and less after the third book, which was a slog because I disliked him so much. I also found it tricky to keep all the characters and their relationships straight. I recently finished #15 in the series, Peace Breaks Out, and I really wish I’d kept notes as to who belonged to whom because I honestly couldn’t remember! The Leslies show up again and I couldn’t remember them at all.

    And I know what you mean about the racism, it just comes out of the blue and YIKES. Peace Breaks Out was also really classist, there’s an election and some of the characters get REALLY preachy. Thirkell was clearly conservative and she doesn’t try to hide it at all.

    • Helen says:

      It’s good to know that we see less of Tony after the third book. I found him so annoying in High Rising! Yes, I’m usually prepared for racism in older books, but it was more shocking than usual in this one. Thanks for the warning about the classism in Peace Breaks Out!

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