Invisible Ink No 239: Angela Thirkell


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The Independent Culture

Just as you can enjoy the novels of Virginia Woolf while finding her obsession with servants annoying, so you can appreciate Angela Thirkell even though her concerns about class clearly coloured her life.

Thirkell was born into artistic aristocracy in 1890. The daughter of the classicist J W Mackail and granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, she was also the sister of the novelist Denis Mackail, cousin to Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin, and the god-daughter of J M Barrie. Educated at St Paul’s, and in Paris and Germany, she was painted and sketched as a society beauty, married a bisexual baritone, and named her first son after his former lover. Two more children followed before she divorced her husband for adultery, married a Tasmanian engineer, and set sail for Australia.

But Melbourne life was not her idea of high society. Hating every minute, she dumped her husband and returned to Britain. Meanwhile, she had begun writing. Setting most of her novels in the fictional county of Barsetshire, nicked from Anthony Trollope’s novels, she borrowed liberally from John Galsworthy, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and William Thackeray. The idea that her books might be read by her upper class friends filled her with horror. She wasn’t producing literature, she said, but something frivolous, populist, and more easily digested.

In the 1930s, she ditched the more overt referencing of styles, and hit her stride with gently mocking social satires such as High Rising, that have value today as nostalgic reminders of the period. Her dialogue is frequently very funny and the novels are a delight, with touches of E F Benson, E M Delafield, and P G Wodehouse. There was one odd book out, Trooper to the Southern Cross, about an Australian troopship in the aftermath of the First World War, written under a pseudonym. Her later novels explored life on the home front during the Second World War, as well as the changes in society brought by the upheaval of war. Even more than her earlier works, the books are time capsules of the period, but as Thirkell aged, her novels turned into simplistic romances.

The only biography of her was deeply contemptuous, and long-refuted by her son Lance, who became a BBC controller. Her two other sons were Colin MacInnes, who wrote Absolute Beginners, and Graham MacInnes, a distinguished diplomat and a novelist, so she continued the family line. Her best books have now been elegantly republished by Virago.