“Pomfret Towers” by Angela Thirkell

Visitors are requested not to ring for their servants between the hours of twelve and one, or six and seven.

“Did you see this?” said Alice, showing it to her new friend.

“Like their cheek,” said the girl, glancing at it. “It’s some mouldy idea of Lord Pomfret’s. He was a vegetarian or a philanderer or something and that’s how it took him.”

Alice, guessing that philanthropist or humanitarian were probably the words in her new friend’s mind, asked if it was out of kindness for servants…

If you’re looking for a jolly festive read, Pomfret Towers would be a fun place to start.

Set in Angela Thirkell’s 1930’s Barsetshire, the novel tells the story of Alice Barton, a terribly shy nineteen year-old  set to attend her first proper house party at the neighbouring Pomfret Towers. A delicate girl who trembles in the presence of dogs and sobs at the very idea of social interaction, Alice is terrified by the prospect – yet with the promise of the support of her brother and closest friends, Sally and Roddy, she girds her loins and sets forth to join the party.

Once she arrives Alice is taken under the wing of a ravishing young actress, Phoebe Rivers, and finds that Society is not nearly as gruesome as she had feared. Indeed, much to Roddy’s chagrin she promptly falls in love with Phoebe’s brother, Julian, a self-important young artist who insists on dragging Alice into corners so that he can Talk about Himself at length, whilst Lady Pomfret becomes convinced that she should instead marry her husband’s young heir, a very kind young man called Giles Foster. Gentle confusion ensures as the young people form attachments, accidentally become engaged to one another, and thwart their parents’ plans.

The only disappointment here is that Alice never really ceases being fairly wet and irritating. Her foray into Society gives her the first glimmers of self-confidence, but she is not a particularly beguiling heroine. That almost becomes irrelevant, however, in light of the wonderful supporting cast of bores; eccentrics; artists; and hearty country types crying “Gad!” at every available opportunity. Julian Rivers is a particularly excellent creation – a handsome, sulky young modernist who bangs on about surrealism, maintains that he is Misunderstood and at one point leaps out of the casement window in a fit of pique. It is a brilliant skewering not only of the Bloomsbury set, but also the kind of narcissistic young poet many of us thought we wanted to fall in love with when we were teenagers.

It is immensely readable, full of light-hearted absurdity, and offers a very happy escape from the EastEnders Christmas special, should one be required!

Pomfret Towers

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