Many years ago, I wrote an essay on the extraordinary sexual politics of Angela Thirkell‘s novel Wild Strawberries. To summarise, the dim young heroine spends most of the novel convinced that a man is about to propose to her because . . . he took her out to a restaurant. Now, in an era where even minor surgery is not indicative of a relationship in progress, such an attitude may seem ludicrous, but it was my opinion that even in the 1930s what Thirkell was describing was unrealistic in the extreme. My opinion, shaped by many too many years reading the world of P G Wodehouse, himself no encourager of loose behaviour, led me to believe that pretty much any intimacy short of actual sex was considered acceptable between the unmarried young in good society.
The assembled great and good of the Angela Thirkell Society of the UK did not agree with me. They argued that Thirkell was, in fact, not a creator of imaginary realms, but a documenter of reality as it was, and that all my sources that screamed otherwise to the high hills were mere nothings as compared to her cast iron testimony of the way things were. I was not convinced, and so I wrote this essay rebutting them. Needless to say, the Society was not pleased, and more-or-less black balled me forthwith. I revive it now largely because it is amusing and well written, and also because I can use it to draw some conclusions about attitudes to the past: I am now able to see beyond the simple chagrin of rejection to understand why it was that the Society had to reject my work. So here we go.
When I wrote my piece on Wild Strawberries I had not yet encountered Anne Fielding, that oracle of bad poetry. Having read of her antics in Peace Breaks Out I have only one thing to say: Oh God. I accept that Anne’s intellect (which was clearly never great, if it was of the same order as that of her mother) has been sapped by her association with the abominable Miss Bunting, but it is still disturbing to find a character touted as a paragon of higher education complaining that David Leslie behaved badly by being nice to her while having no intentions, honourable or otherwise.
While on the subject of Anne Fielding, if she had to quote poetry, why Tennyson? Why not a good poet? Is he the only poet Thirkell thought her readers would have heard of? Or did she have a subtler agenda? Tennyson is emblematic of high Victorianism, an era which any right-minded person would consider philistine and utterly immoral. Aleister Crowley summed this up with admirable clarity: “craven fear, prurient shame and narcotic piety: of such is the kingdom of Tennyson”. Thirkell seemed to think this was the epitome of cultural excellence. It is strange that two thinkers of the early twentieth century should disagree on so basic an issue.
Thirkell’s reactionary social attitudes made her promote the Victorian period as an alternative to the hated realities of post-war life. This enforced on her the (from a modern perspective) comical celebration of one of England’s worst poets. The spectacle of an author expressing foolish opinions derived from contentious theories is not unique to Thirkell. Elizabeth Wurtzel, in her book Bitch (which would be entirely undistinguished if she had not elected to appear naked on its cover), expounds a theory that leads to the assertion that Ted Hughes is no more than a “footnote in his dead wife’s life”. Like Thirkell, Wurtzel does not seem well acquainted with the subject under discussion, but she doesn’t let that stop her from airing her prejudices.
Perhaps Thirkell harps on about Lord Half-a-league because he is the symbol of a lost Victorian Eden, preserved in Barsetshire, despite half a century of civilisation? This makes a lot of sense. When I first read Wild Strawberries I was flabbergasted by the irrational behaviour of its heroine. The only really close literary parallel that I could think of was Angel Clare in Tess of the D’Urbevilles. This satirically named gentleman suffers from a morbid theology which says that Tess is married not to him (her lawful husband), but to the man who seduced / raped her. I can accept these attitudes in Hardy’s era (though I share his outrage at them) but I find them a bit startling in the world of Vile Bodies. I now believe that my confusion was caused because my working hypothesis at the time of my first reading the book – that Thirkell was a realistic novelist – was incorrect. If her depiction of society was driven by ideology, the problems disappear. David Leslie’s girlfriends are much easier to explain if we assume that Barsetshire is not meant to be realistic. It is idealistic. Exactly what kind of person would see la Fielding as ideal is another matter entirely.
In this article I will explore this idea by revisiting the subject matter of the aforementioned article in greater depth, exploring attitudes to love and courtship in Thirkell’s world. Part one looks at her ideal of pure womanhood, and sex rears its ugly head in the forms of Phoebe Rivers and Jessica Dean. Part two compares Thirkell’s world-view with that of Nancy Mitford – a contemporary writer noted for her realism. As we shall see, there is considerable evidence supporting my thesis.
David Leslie has trouble with virgins. In fact, with hindsight, I should have chosen that as the title of my article in the previous issue of Thirkell. Recall also that at the time I wrote it I had not been privileged to make the acquaintance of the Fielding being, and the plentiful extra evidence that her exploits would have given me. In my newly enlightened state I find the whole thing more mystifying than ever. What is it about Thirkell’s young unmarried women that makes them constitutionally incapable of treating any male acquaintance outside the forbidden degrees of affinity as being anything other than a potential husband? In fact, given how startlingly minimal the mental apparatus of some of them seems to be, I am not wholly convinced that they would be very concerned about forbidden degrees. Certainly the lower orders appear to be whole-heartedly in favour of incest, judging from the unnatural preponderance of “village idiots” (to use Thirkell’s charming description of those with learning difficulties) in Barsetshire. I suppose the county may object to a too-obvious revival of the marital practices of the Pharaohs, but I see signs in the eugenic broodings of Lady Fielding of a trend in that direction.
Consider the evidence. In Wild Strawberries Mary Preston seems to think that she is engaged to David because he talks to her in a fairly friendly way. When he invites her to lunch it is obvious that this is almost a proposal (in her mind), and she reels in horror at the though that he actually invited another woman. Finally, David’s moronic brother more or less has to ask permission before he can bring himself to burble words of passion at Mary’s feet. In Pomfret Towers, Lady Pomfret prepares to welcome Alice Barton as countess-in-waiting purely on the strength of the heir’s seeming to like her. Of course, what makes Julian Rivers a rotter (apart from being a modern artist – anything other than unswerving kitsch is a sure sign of depravity in Thirkville) is that he spends so much time with Alice and never proposes.
In Marling Hall, David is at it again, but now the excitement is elsewhere. Lettice Watson fancies Captain Barclay something rotten, and ties herself into knots, because he is obviously Lucy Marling’s property. Why? She got to him first, and seems to like him. In Love Among the Ruins there are hints of necrophilia, given that the young woman who inhibits Our Hero and Our Heroine from achieving a satisfactory conclusion would appear to have been dead for some years. In Peace Breaks Out there is an outbreak of lunacy (and some deeply disturbing comments about ballet), starring guess who. Martin spots his uncle holding his beloved Sylvia’s hand, jumps to the conclusion (as would we all, I am sure) that they are planning their honeymoon, resolves on suicide, and is rescued only when Rose Bingham suggests to him that he give reality a try. In addition, we have the enthralling spectacle She Who Must Be Avoided, a.k.a. Anne Fielding, suffering from a crush. Anne convinces herself that David loves her, because he pays her attention, and then proceeds to suffer the agonies of the damned over his selfishness (translation: David talks to Anne, therefore he must renounce all other women). One of his high crimes and misdemeanours is writing to Sylvia mentioning Rose Bingham but not Anne. Time for some amateur dramatics:
But a hostess must not derogate from her hostess-ship, so Anne went on chattering and giggling, but all the time, which gave her a miserable satisfaction, with death in her heart; so what with laughing with Sylvia and secretly despising David, she felt quite light-headed.
Anne is all shook up:
Some kind of revenge on one who was base enough to be nice to Sylvia and herself while toying with the horrible Rose Bingham, was clearly indicated. If only Robin were here, he would understand.
Fortunately she is saved from the ignominy of fashioning a voodoo doll by the memory of her mentor Miss Bunting, who did not entirely approve of David. The fact that Miss Bunting would probably not have approved of the Lord Almighty, had she ever been introduced to Him, is neither here nor there. Anne resolves to wed her tiresome schoolmaster (who, judging from the above, must have had his brain surgically removed at the same time as his foot). Rose proposes to David, so he is now permitted to talk with young women without their automatically eyeing up his reproductive potential. The rogue male is tamed, and all is well in Barset.
It is understandable that in an era before serial monogamy had become a practice endorsed by all the best celebrities Thirkell should hold dear the belief that matrimony ended only by death (her women seem to prefer death to divorce as a means of removing unwanted spouses) is the norm. It is, however, rather startling to see that she believes in the rigorous pairing off of the sexes prior to matrimony, and that there should be no concept of friendship between the unwed. Thirkell would clearly have been a staunch supporter of the Taleban’s social policies.
Anne Fielding, the loathly one, is a nice girl, but fortunately for the sake of our sanity, not all girls in Thirkell are nice. Certainly Rose Bingham does not merit that description. She talks to men on equal terms, she proposes to David Leslie, and in Peace Breaks Out she entirely fails to sympathise with Martin’s impassioned maundering about how David has ruined his life by talking about children with Sylvia. Of course, she also lives in London, which is a sure sign (at least in the later novels) of being not quite quite. Clearly by the time Thirkell was writing Private Enterprise, where London is made out to be rather like hell only not so salubrious, she had forgotten that in High Rising Laura Morland spends most of the year in the big bad city. Or that in Summer Half Lydia (whose latter-day incarnation apparently hates London) was in the habit of popping up to the metropolis to take in a show.
Are there any young ladies in Thirkell’s novels who do not subscribe to the “three words and you’re out” theory of courtship? I use the word ladies advisedly, because young persons of the lower orders seem to be in a state of permanent rut, which militates against their having very many inhibitions at all. Surprisingly there are some – Jessica Dean and Phoebe Rivers fit the bill precisely. Both are at ease with men they are not married to and have no intention of marrying. Anybody who has followed the interminable saga of Oliver Marling’s infatuation from Private Enterprise to infinity and beyond will be aware that Jessica has no trouble giving an unwanted male the brush-off. It is interesting that Oliver cannot understand why this seemingly nice and uncommitted girl doesn’t immediately fall into his arms when he sends a smouldering glance in her direction. Phoebe gets on perfectly well with Gillie Foster but does not have a burning desire to bear his children, and many of her difficulties with Guy Barton stem from his inability to comprehend his relation to her as being anything other than that of the affianced. Though Phoebe has problems, they are not rooted in sex. If anything, they derive from the psychological warfare waged against her by her mother, who demands that she behave like a truly womanly woman. It is interesting that the young people in Shaw’s Philanderer considered this expression a mortal insult a mere forty years earlier.
Phoebe’s and Jessica’s distinctiveness goes further. Very few of Thirkell’s women are ever described physically; for example we have no real idea what Lydia actually looks like. The way they dress is also often unclear (presumably they do dress – manners in Barsetshire, though eccentric, are not so louche as to embrace nudism). The occasional exception, such as the description of Mrs Brandon’s fluffy skirt in Cheerfulness Breaks In merely reinforces this; clothing tends to be left to the imagination. Alice Barton is a typical Thirkell woman. She has three evening dresses and all we are told is their colour. We never find out whether they are on of off the shoulder, or how long they are. Now consider Phoebe Rivers, the atypical woman:
She was wearing the kind of frock technically known as ‘little’ … and had the most elegant legs, the thinnest stockings, and the highest heeled shoes imaginable.
Phoebe, in the most clinging and barebacked of gowns, more sophisticated in hair and makeup than ever.
She stands out from other people in Pomfret Towers as the possessor of a vibrant physicality – for once we can imagine what a character looks like. Turning to Jessica Dean, in Love Among the Ruins she paints her legs to create the appearance that she is wearing stockings. The description makes it clear that she has a high hemline and that plenty of leg is exposed to the admiring view of its owner (and presumably any males who happen to be in the vicinity).
There is an unusual degree of physical immediacy about the depiction of these two young women, particularly when compared with Thirkell’s other characters. They come across as having a genuine physical presence, and not just as bodiless voices. They also have a degree of allure. Jessica complacently admires her own charms, and expects to be admired (in a purely physical, as opposed to ideal) sense by others. Phoebe also exudes physical attraction, though she seems rather bitter than complacent. I can only think of one other example of a character described with such attention to physical appearance. Eileen, the barmaid of the Red Lion in Cheerfulness Breaks In is: “The most dazzling blonde Mr Bissell had ever seen, dressed in skin tight black.” It is clear from Everard’s introduction of her that the local gentry do not exactly object to enforced contemplation of her physique: “Besides here we get Eileen. Look at her.” By Thirkell’s standards this is almost lubricious. Of course, barmaids are not noted for their chastity. Or for objecting to being treated as sex objects.
Is it a coincidence that Phoebe and Jessica, who are at ease with men in a way that other women could scarcely imagine (Alice Barton is shocked at Phoebe’s assurance), are the only two who come across as being genuinely sexy? Mrs Brandon and Mrs Dean may be flirts who inspire pure minded devotion in silly young, middle aged, old and probably even deceased men, but they don’t have the flagrant physicality of Miss Rivers and Miss Dean. Also observe that on the occasions when the younger pair’s appearance is described in unusual detail, there is definite emphasis on the fact that they are exposing their bodies to public view.
This may be a hint at their profession. It is surely not a coincidence that Jessica and Phoebe act. Their choice of career suggests a degree of awareness and worldliness on their part that is not shared by Thirkell’s other women. Neither of them is a blushing ingénue, nor would either play that role. As you would expect from professional actresses (Thirkell’s more proper ladies may act, but only if they do it badly) they are very much aware of their sexuality and the influence that it gives them over those men whose brain is only their second favourite organ. Phoebe’s self-description in Pomfret Towers makes this very clear: “I’ve appeared in several dirty Sunday night shows.” This comment, with its suggestion that Phoebe’s place in the glorious world of theatre is in that segment known to connoisseurs as “Adult” (“Live show – Girls, Girls, Girls!” would be another way of putting it), is extraordinary. From the frank acceptance of one’s body as a source of revenue to casual sex is not a very long step, and it is one that Phoebe had probably taken. It is a shame that Thirkell decided to give such a fascinating character only one outing, killing her off with a strong dose of holy matrimony. Perhaps she felt that Phoebe would not readily fit in the atmosphere of post-war petulance that poisons her later works. Jessica Dean is more suitable, being a sanitised version of the Scarlet Woman without Phoebe’s cynicism and rebellion, though oomph and dubious virginity are all present and incorrect.
Why is it that when Thirkell wanted to invent unmarried women who feel able to befriend a man without committing to bear his children, she was unable to make them otherwise normal, but felt forced to create sexpot actresses who were probably not virgins on their wedding nights? This fits very well with my thesis that Barsetshire is not real, but ideal. In the neo-Victorian time capsule, untainted by the civilising influence of decadence, that is Barsetshire there is no middle ground between the archetypes of good wife / mother and actress / whore. Thirkell was forced into this categorisation of her women characters by her self-imposed agenda.
So I have shown that Thirkell’s depiction of the relationship between the sexes in the 1930’s and 1940’s is extremely polarised, with the norm being virtual segregation before marriage. I argued that this is not representative of reality as it was, but rather reflects Thirkell’s desire for a restoration of Victorian certainties (no doubt together with the huge hypocrisy required to make those certainties sustainable).
To support this contention, I will now compare Thirkell’s depiction of love, courtship and sex with that given in The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Nancy Mitford is well suited for this. She described the world that Thirkell’s novels purport to, and it cannot be denied that she was herself County. In fact she went one better – she was Aristocracy. In addition, these two novels were notoriously considered to be romans à clef at the time of their first publication, so we can be certain that they accurately depict the society of the time in a way that we cannot be with Thirkell.
Compared to the puritanical world of Barsetshire, where ladies can hardly bring themselves to admit to pregnancy (with the inevitable exception of Jessica Dean, who trumpets her happy state far and wide in County Chronicle), let alone its invariable precursor, Mitford is a shock. In Love in a Cold Climate Jassy expects recently married relatives to pass on sex-tips:
Hardly had I arrived in the house that I was lugged off to their secret meeting-place, the Hons’ cupboard, to be asked what IT was like.
“Linda says it’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” said Jassy, “and we don’t wonder when we think of Tony.”
“But Louisa says, once you get used to it, it’s utter utter utter blissikins,” said Victoria … “It is unfair, nobody ever tells … Very well then, we shall go to our marriage beds in ignorance, like Victorian ladies, and in the morning we shall be found stark staring mad with horror and live sixty more years in an expensive bin, and then perhaps you’ll wish you had been more helpful.”
She also takes paedophilia in her stride:
But the fascinating thing was after the lecture he gave us a foretaste of sex, think what a thrill. He took Linda up on to the roof and did all sorts of blissful things to her; at least, she could easily see how they would be blissful with anybody except the Lecturer. And I got some great sexy pinches as he passed the nursery landing.
All forms of sexuality are present – Cedric Hampton is triumphantly and exuberantly homosexual. In Barsetshire, we assume that Miss Hampton and Miss Bent have been lovers at some point, but now their principle source of pleasure seems to be gin. Compared with Cedric, who bestrides the world like a polymorphic colossus, they are a mere footnote. Nancy Mitford’s characters do not merely enjoy sex, they revel in it; Thirkell’s seem to be stuck in the anal stage (and I frankly doubt that Oliver Marling is even that advanced).
Turning to the sexual segregation of the young unmarried that pervades Thirkell, there is an interesting passage in The Pursuit of Love that makes it evident that this is idealised Victorianism. Linda Radlett has been invited to lunch by her amour Tony Kroesig. She longs to go, but there is a problem:
The Alconleigh standards of chaperonage were medieval; they did not vary in the slightest degree from those applied to Uncle Matthew’s sister, and to Aunt Sadie in youth. The principle was that one never saw any young man alone, under any circumstances, unless one was engaged to him … The argument, often put forward by Linda, that young men were not likely to propose to girls they hardly knew, was brushed aside as nonsense.
Linda goes to lunch, is found out, and all hell breaks loose. Uncle Matthew’s reaction would probably be immoderate if she had installed a red light outside her bedroom and taken to placing advertisements in phone-boxes. Linda does get a season, though:
We were chaperoned, as was to be expected, with Victorian severity. Aunt Sadie or Uncle Matthew literally never let us out of sight of one or the other.
I think this makes it pretty clear what is going on in Thirkell’s novels. The troubles of David Leslie (and all those dim dumb dolls we described in part one) can be attributed to a slightly softened version of the Victorian model for courtship. Thirkell doesn’t go so far as to demand total segregation, but the idea that there is nothing between mere acquaintance and betrothal clearly harks back to the era of Aunt Sadie’s youth, and is not representative of the time in which the novels are set.
Now it may be argued that most young Barsetshire women have parents old enough to have had direct experience of Victorianism or its aftermath, and have been successfully indoctrinated with its attitudes. I can easily imagine this to be true of dinosaurs like Lady Fielding, who seriously seems to believe that she belongs to a different species from common humanity; she comes across as a prototype for Lord Melchett, prejudiced against anything she doesn’t understand and intent on preventing contact between Anne and lesser breeds, for fear of pollution by Frankenadams. But can this be true for all the families and all the young people of Barsetshire? On the evidence of Nancy Mitford’s novels, probably not. Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie may espouse Victorian values, but those values have signally failed to be adopted by their daughters (Linda takes to serial monogamy; Jassy runs off to America and marries a film star). It cannot even be said that Thirkell represents the views of the County, as opposed to London. Uncle Matthew loathes the County, and would be likely to do the exact opposite of what it expects of him. In Love in a Cold Climate, Lady Mountdore (who epitomises the County) would be happier if her daughter Polly were more interested in sex, going so far as to wish she had had an affair and deliberately inviting an erotomaniac Frenchman to stay in the hope of provoking one. Respectable ladies hearing a fumbling by night think that he has decided to dally with them and lie in delighted anticipation, unaware that they are being robbed. Respectable gentlemen tell the intruder the way to their wives’ bedrooms. We have to conclude that Thirkell simply flies in the face of reality by portraying an entire county whose people, of all ages, are relics of a long discarded Victorianism.
We are (regrettably) back in Tennyson country. Thirkell’s take on sex and courtship clearly reflects her desire to return to a less complicated time, when morality was a simple matter of grinding the faces of the poor into the mud, treating women as property and ferociously enforcing the sexual double standard.
Now you can perhaps see why the Thirkell Society were so unhappy. The myth, for it clearly is a myth, there can be no doubt about it, that Thirkell was an accurate social historian is only part of the equation. If one feels uncomfortable in the modern world, there is a tendency to look to other eras for places where one might have felt comfortable, often to the time of childhood. But one looks back not to the reality of that past (who would want to live in an era were a dental abscess was a death sentence?) but to an idealisation. And Angela Thirkell, by means of her creation of a myth of mid-century county England, created such an idealisation. So it was necessary to the Society and its members to believe that she was a historian, paradoxically, precisely because what she had created was such a splendid myth, so utterly resonant with their needs.
 Page 186, paperback edition. Yes, I did buy a copy. The people who designed the cover knew what they were doing.
 Of course, some trailblazers had already started on the onerous task of popularising this exciting new fashion, notably in Nancy Mitford’s novels. Clearly “the Bolter” was a revolutionary before her time.
 Interestingly, however, neither Mrs Brandon nor Mrs Dean are “County”. It is hard to imagine (say) Mrs Belton reclining on a sofa having poetry read to her by a starry-eyed idiot.