A friend put me on to Angela Thirkell a couple of weeks ago, and I eagerly bought a copy of ‘High Rising’, prepared to savour it over the Christmas holidays.
Thirkell wrote prolifically and with – some have suggested – moderate success, but ‘High Rising’ has garnered a reputation as being a fine example of a kind of comedy peculiar to English writers. I can see why. The story is set in the splendidly named village of High Rising – situated, unsurprisingly, next to Low Rising. Laura Morland of High Rising is a vivacious, beautiful and rather eccentric widow and mother of four boys. She also earns her living by writing sensational novels about the fashion industry, in which dastardly mannequin dealers, innocent young fashion designers and cocaine smugglers suffer various misadventures. Endearingly she knows almost nothing about fashion and relies on her faithful secretary, Anne Todd, to help her with the finer sartorial details. Her Low Rising neighbour George Knox is an acclaimed author of historical tomes with a fondness for the sound of his own voice, remarkable loquacity and charmingly bumbling personality. George has managed to employ an attractive but unhinged secretary who loathes Laura and appears determined to ensnare her employer in holy matrimony. Set against a backdrop of village romances, literary aspirations and the unassailable social hierarchies of the 1930s, Laura and her friends set about averting this impending matrimonial disaster.
I must confess that I did not enjoy ‘High Rising’ quite as much as I hoped I would – the Wildean one-liners are not as effective or memorable as in other English comedies of this sort, and the occasional lapses into the bigotries of the period can be jarring. This is not, for me at least, on a par with something like ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ or ‘Love in a Cold Climate.’ That being said, I did find myself laughing out loud more than once, and the characters and wonderfully vivid. Laura is perfectly drawn as the rather eccentric mother and writer, strewing hair-pins in her wake and constantly struggling with her sea of hair. She is eminently practical, refreshingly dismissive of her smallest son’s obsession with trains, good-humoured and kind; and completely at ease with her status as an increasingly matronly widow – no husband-hunting for her. The book is best, I think, when it is slightly dotty – the one-liners might not stand up to scrutiny but the plots of Laura’s novels are wonderfully mad, and George Knox’s rambling monologues are a delight. When Thirkell abandons any attempt to ape a kind of sophisticated, Noel Coward repartee (which is particularly prevalent in the opening pages) and gives herself up to her own idiosyncrasies, she is terrific. It is huge fun to be transported into her world for a few hours, and I had grown very fond of her colourful cast by the end of the book. She might not have become one of my favourite writers, but I am very glad to have found her, and look forward to reading ‘Wild Strawberries.’