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.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is an author I’ve never read but have been meaning to try for a long time, so when I put my list together for this year’s 20 Books of Summer I decided to include High Rising. Originally published in 1933, this is the first of her Barsetshire novels, a series of twenty-nine books set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire which was created by Anthony Trollope in the 19th century. I loved Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, so I hoped for a similar experience with Thirkell’s.

The book begins with novelist Laura Morland, a widow with four sons, collecting her youngest, Tony, from school and bringing him home to the village of High Rising for Christmas. High Rising, together with nearby Low Rising, is the sort of small 1930s middle-class community in which everyone knows everyone else’s business and where the arrival of a newcomer causes a great deal of gossip and excitement. The newcomer in this case is Miss Una Grey, who has come to work as a secretary for Laura’s friend and fellow author George Knox. It seems that Miss Grey – or the Incubus as Laura calls her – has set her sights on marrying George and will do whatever it takes to get her wish. As well as trying to save George from the clutches of the Incubus, Laura spots the seeds of a romance between her publisher, Adrian Coates, and George’s daughter Sibyl, and decides to do what she can to push them together.

There’s not really much more to the plot than that, but what makes this book worth reading is not the plot but the characters and the interactions between them. Although some of the characters, such as Adrian and Sibyl, seemed to lack depth, others interested me much more – for example, Anne Todd, Laura’s secretary, who is trying to make a living through typing manuscripts while caring for her invalid mother. It took me a while to warm to Laura herself, but eventually I became quite fond of her; I can’t say the same for Tony, whom I found unbearably irritating with his incessant talk about his toy trains, which carriages and engines he should buy next and the model railway he wants to build in the garden. To be fair, though, I think there are a lot of children like Tony and he was probably the most convincing character in the book!

I couldn’t quite manage to love this book, but I enjoyed it overall. It does have some of the problems common to novels of this period, such as attitudes to race and class, and I also felt that it didn’t have a lot of substance, but otherwise it was a quick, light, entertaining read at a time when that was just what I needed. I don’t think I want to start the next book, Wild Strawberries, immediately, but I’m sure I will read it at some point.

Book 3/20 of my 20 Books of Summer 2021

This is also book 20/50 read from my second Classics Club list.