Do your favourite authors have a recognizable voice, so that you can identify them from a paragraph in the same way that you identify a voice over the telephone? Angela Thirkell has just such a voice, but even so she has been out of fashion since the 1960s – partly, I suspect, because her later work had a strongly rancorous tone. I’d never heard of her until I came to weed a technical college library in the ’70s and happened upon a hardback novel with a map of Barsetshire as a frontispiece. Who was this Thirkell woman?
Angela Mackail (her second husband, George Thirkell, was an Australian engineer) was brought up amongst academics and painters. Her grandfather, Edward Burne-Jones, claimed that when small she terrified him with her bossiness; but he also adored her and painted pictures in the corner where she was often put to stand as a punishment, in order to lighten the ordeal.
Tall, strong-minded and intelligent, but a bad chooser of husbands, she found herself needing to earn her own living. After a couple of false starts and one-offs she settled from 1936 on a form of fiction described in her own novels (via her fictional heroine, thriller-writer Mrs Morland) as the ‘good bad book’: in other words a competently conceived and well-written formula which readers could instantly identify and of which they would want more. She pictured those readers as wanting a ‘nice book’ from the ‘libery’; they wouldn’t mind if they found they’d read it before. As Mrs Morland explains: ‘My books are all alike.’ Mrs Thirkell went on to produce a novel a year for nearly thirty years, and in 1939 she even managed two.
Does this make her sound like an Enid Blyton for adults? There are some parallels, from the rather complacent value-system of the central characters to the sheer capacity to hold the reader’s attention. Angela Thirkell represents a civilized society in which roles are clear and in which there are plenty of common reference poi
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