Friday, 20 November 2015

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell



published 1938



Pomfret Towers 2


[Young Alice is very nervous about her first country-house weekend: a new friend, Phoebe, is helping her]

‘And what will you wear tonight?’ [the maid] asked Alice, as Phoebe came back in a ravishing apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown.

‘Hi, Wheeler, let’s look,’ said Phoebe. ‘What’s she got? Red, white, black. Red’s your colour, so we’ll have that tomorrow. White tonight, and black on Sunday.’…

Alice got into her bath…. On the whole much happier than she head ever hoped to be. Miss Rivers had approved her evening dresses and perhaps she would have Roddy, or someone kind, next to her [at dinner]. The white frock and gold shoes would make her feel safe. She had remembered her gold belt and her gold bag….

[Alice’s mother has sent a package with her] Alice fell upon the parcel. What was in it but a charming rabbit-skin cape, lined with very soft apricot velvet.


commentary: Another Thirkell book, the second this month, with some very specific areas of interest.

First of all, that apricot-coloured Shetland dressing-gown – yes, it does sound ravishing.

Secondly, about two-thirds of the book covers the Friday to Monday visit of a group of young people to Lord Pomfret’s very grand house. We see it mostly through nervous Alice’s eyes (she is worried about nightgowns, housemaids and tips) but also via some other guests, staff and hosts and permanent residents – and it gives the fullest picture I have ever read of exactly what such a weekend would be like. I can see this might be a specialist interest, but I have read any number of books covering such events – novels, and also olde-worlde etiquette books - but never one that gave such detail: the billiard room fire, why Sundays are the difficult bit, how to decide whether to have breakfast in bed. If there is dancing after dinner, a young man is supposed to first of all ask the young women who sat near him at dinner. I ate up every detail: anyone writing a novel or script about such a 1930s weekend would find a treasure trove in this book.

And about that breakfast in bed: Alice is asked if she would like a fire in her room in the morning, and in a most un-Thirkell-like outburst of consideration she thinks:
Wasn’t it rather awful to be snug under soft blankets and silk eiderdowns while Wheeler, who was quite old enough to be her mother, and even her mother and a half, was down on her knees in the cold, sweeping up ashes, laying paper and sticks, putting on logs, kindling the warm fire from which she would get no benefit? And Wheeler was wearing a cotton dress.
Indeed, a perfectly good question, but practically Socialism, if not Bolshevism, from Thirkell.

The other great piece of interest is this: Angela Thirkell was a very popular writer of lightweight social romance and comedy books in the 1930s. Another very popular middlebrow author was Ann Bridge – and in fact blogfriend Lucy Fisher mentioned Ann Bridge after reading one of my entries on Thirkell.

So. In this book there is a character called Mrs Rivers (Bridge/River, you see?) who writes very popular romance books – which are described in some detail, repeatedly throughout the book, and are instantly recognizable as Bridge-style plots. Mrs Rivers is absolutely vile. She has virtually no redeeming features: she is a pushy, snobbish, ambitious woman. Her books are horrible and tasteless, and her readers are ‘middle-aged women of no particular charm or interest’. Her children dislike her because she is so embarrassing. Her publishers hate her, even though she is a best-seller. I don’t expect to be shocked by an Angela Thirkell (except by her snobbery) but there was a definite frisson round here when she referred to Mrs Rivers, several times, as “the Baedeker Bitch”. (Baedeker were the popular travel guides of the time: the novels of both Rivers and Bridge were always set in exotic locations.)

My goodness Angela Thirkell seems to have hated her fellow-author…

Apart from that, the book is the usual confection of romance and some very very funny scenes and perceptions – highly enjoyable.

For more from Thirkell click on the label below.

The picture – from 1930s Vogue – comes from the Clover Vintage Tumblr.














12 comments:

  1. What a fascinating look at the social customs of that time, Moira! You could really use it not just for writing a novel, but even if you were doing a non-fiction history. Really interesting, and shows Thirkell's ability to evoke the context. And I've often thought it really interesting to see how authors treat other authors in their work. Shows their human side (warts and all.)...

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    1. Yes - I was quite surprised that she showed her dislike of the other woman quite so blatantly. But at the same time writing a warm-hearted and funny book, with all that lovely social detail. People are funny....

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  2. Though they have no social redeeming qualities I love Angela Thirkell's books.

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  3. Good detective work! I wondered why older rich people gave these "house parties for the young", and the answer is of course - they were match-making. The right sort of people had to marry the right people and keep the whole thing going. They probably thought of it as a social duty. (Any research, I wonder?) (And now we have Tinder.)

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    1. Yes it is all so interesting - I like that in Nancy Mitford there's a distinction made between the house parties for older people (who are all arriving with spouses but sleeping with others) and the ones for the younger ones - purer and for matchmaking. Lady Montdore is very grand and can afford to have two level of social life....

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  4. Replies
    1. But SURELY you already have a copy? Perhaps lost amongst the other Thirkells...

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  5. Love that bit about the Baedeker Bitch - wow... *scratch* *claw* *hiss*

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    1. I know! So unexpected and so enjoyable. You wouldn't think the two of them would overlap but there was bad blood there....

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  6. Moira, I'd be interested in checking out her comedy books.

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    1. She can be very funny when she puts her mind to it.

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