High Rising is the first of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels. I read the second, Wild Strawberries, a few years ago — that I barely remember it and also apparently didn’t write about it hints at what to me is both the appeal and the limitation of Thirkell (so far, since this is a pretty small sample): she offers charm without much substance, so the reading experience is light and enjoyable but not particularly memorable.
High Rising is definitely a funny novel, and it is well-plotted, at least insofar as its characters move around each other in a kind of dance that resolves in a perfectly satisfying way. Though there is some good situational comedy around their rivalries and romances, the novel is wittiest in its comments on contemporary literature. Thirkell is clearly self-conscious about her own modest aims, and she tacitly invites us to place her fiction in the context of her heroine’s “good bad novels.” Laura Talbot (a kind of country house Lady Carbury, to invoke the author of the more famous Barsetshire novels) has turned to writing fiction after her husband’s death when “the problem of earning money was serious”:
She had considered the question carefully, and decided that next to racing, murder, and sport, the great reading public of England (female section) liked to read about clothes. With real industry, she got introductions, went over big department stores, visited smart dressmaking friends, talked to girls she knew who had become buyers or highbrow window-dressers, and settled down to write best-sellers. . . .She was quite contented, and never took herself seriously, though she took a lot of trouble over her books.
The mediocrity of her successful literary output is perfectly fine with Laura. Her total lack of pretension about her writing is actually kind of refreshing: she would never be vexed at not being taken seriously by the literary establishment, whose elitism is nicely skewered when one of her best friends, an eminent historical biographer, flirts with fiction himself and identifies as his most likely avenue to success the genre of the “Awfully Dull Novel.” “Dull novels?” asks Laura in some dismay; “But, George, why? Anyone can do that.” “Laura, they cannot,” he promptly replies: “It needs a power, an absorption, which few possess. If you write enough dull novels, excessively dull ones, Laura, you obtain an immense reputation.”
That’s about as intense as the metacommentary gets, and it is a peripheral part of a novel that is primarily about a small knot of people figuring out who they will or won’t marry. There’s some nice pathos around the ailing mother of one of the characters, and a little bit of intrigue around an interloper, the secretary who earns the epithet “The Incubus” when she latches onto George and seems likely to ensnare him, not so much through her wiles (which are quite transparent) but through his own kindliness and inability to see what is going on right in front of him. Her comeuppance is decisive but mild, like Mapp and Lucia without the malice.
The series clearly aims to be associated with Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire, and my edition even includes a map with Barchester at the center. Based on the two novels I’ve read, Thirkell doesn’t really deserve to stand as Trollope’s equal: for all their similarly companionable charm, his novels are both more subtle and more profound. (Jenny at Shelf Love is further along in the series; from her review of The Brandons, it sounds as if the quality stays about the same as you keep going.) High Rising is perfect weekend reading, though. My one real complaint is on Thirkell’s behalf: the reprint editions from Moyer Bell are really sloppily done, full of typos and spacing errors and extraneous punctuation, all minor in themselves but cumulatively distressing. Just because these are “good bad novels” doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be properly proofread!