The Brandons – Angela Thirkell

Angela Thirkell is one of those writers whose books I believe I first came across at a library sale, and picked up primarily for Mom; she can be hard to find reading matter for sometimes, but a nice solid British novel from the thirties is usually a safe bet. I don’t know if Mom liked this (probably) – but I did. It plunked me down in the middle of Angela Thirkell’s Barteshire Novels, but the structure of the series seems to be very forgiving of this sort of thing. It worked for me, anyway.

I’ve read Mapp and Lucia since finishing The Brandons, and I have to say that from this point of view Angela Thirkell’s take on the upper middle class is a slightly kinder, gentler version of E.F. Benson’s. There is skewering going on, and the characters are shown in their most ridiculous light – but my impression is that, unlike Benson, Thirkell genuinely enjoyed the characters she brought to life. For me, this makes for a much more pleasant read.

Mrs. Brandon is a gently self-centered, stunningly shallow, yet still somehow likeable young(ish) widow with two grown children, who tolerate her in a lovingly exasperated way. Her main concern in life is to avoid effort and strain; theirs is to keep her from saying too many completely inappropriate and overly frank things in any given public situation. One of their concerns is not, particularly, one which they might be expected to care deeply about: whether or not their crotchety elderly maiden great-aunt will leave her fortune to them or to the cousin she keeps bringing up as a threat whenever she feels neglected. She feels neglected fairly often, because she was their father’s aunt, not their mother’s, and sheer stubborn stiff-upper-lip duty is all that has dragged any of them to her door over the years. She is difficult, she is cantankerous, she has a stuffed gorilla, and it really doesn’t matter to them where her money goes; they have enough of their own – but she is their relation, after all, and alone (except for the servants), and so go they must. They’re rather nice people, despite themselves, and grudgingly.

There is match-making, match-avoiding, unrequited love, and a country fair. The book as a whole is not exactly plot-heavy, but it’s also not utter froth: it’s more of a meringue, toothsome fluff you can actually bite into. (That should be part of what “toothsome” means, darn it.) It’s written with a light touch, so that not a soul in the book is wholly unpalatable; everyone has some crinkle or quirk that is if nothing else interesting. It’s a lot of fun.

An Englishism I was driven to look up: Tin loaves – which are simply loaves of bread baked in loaf pans, and nothing to do after all with that brown bread baked in tin cans. But then how are loaves baked otherwise? Just as is on baking sheets? Obviously I need to do some serious bread research.

Lamb House, home of E.F. Benson and model for ...

Lamb House, home of E.F. Benson and model for “Mallards” in the Lucia series (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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