DCIB Book Club One Off Reviw: Angela Thirkell’s Cheerfulness Breaks In, History As it Happens “All You Can Do is Trust in God, and Isn’t That The Worst Part?”

This book is so FASCINATING, and also so odd, that instead of telling y’all to read it and then having an equal discussion, I want to write a really in depth review so you can make an informed decision, and I can get all my thoughts out. Mostly you need to know that it is weirdly relevant to 2020/2021, as you can see by the quote above summing up a character’s feelings.

Angela Thirkell was a proper upperclass British woman who wrote books to supplement her income after she left her husband and was trying to raise her sons. She wrote a very particular similar kind of book, and she wrote one book a year, steady as clockwork. They were all set in the fictional county of “Barsetshire”, the community that Anthony Trollope invented about 70 years earlier for his classic novels. And, like Trollope, they were essentially just chronicles of this community. In British novels I am always hearing about the “county set” or “county” people, and the Trollope and Thirkell novels really give a glimpse of that. One county in England has dozens of overlapping separate communities within it. There are the aristocrats who spend time in London and politics and the greater world. There are the “county set” who are ancient landholders with old large houses, and old large lands, and tenants to whom they feel an obligation. There are the new wealthy merchants, the church hierarchy, the gentleman farmers, the visiting artists, and under all of it the ancient yeoman class landworkers and house servants, whose families are intertwined with those they serve.

NPG x185639; Angela Thirkell - Portrait - National Portrait Gallery

The first book in Thirkell’s series set the tone. A single mother author (clearly modeled on Thirkell herself) is dealing with her rambunctious young son during the summer school holidays while staying at her small house in the country. Over the summer, her good friend and fellow author falls in love with her spinster secretary. And her friend’s young daughter falls in love with her young publisher. The romances are maybe 20% of the book. The rest of the book is less “plot” than a series of happenings. There is a dinner party, a picnic, a minor car accident, just life happening. It isn’t a book you read to find out “what will happen”, it is a book you read to just enjoy the experience of reading it.

Thirkell’s world of Barsetshire is very small and very cozy and very circular. The same families have owned the same land and done the same things for hundreds of years. And the same characters pop in and out of every book, making you feel like it is a little community where you are living yourself. Grand events of the world don’t really effect it. And then WWII happened, the kind of thing that is not just broad in it’s effects, but also deep. A global event that changed all the little details of your life, as deep down as putting sugar in your tea in the morning.

That brings me to the book Cheerfulness Breaks In. It was written and published during the first year of the War, and it chronicles in the little details of life how all of life suddenly changed. It starts in the summer, when even at happy events like weddings the possibility of Bad Things hovers in the air. Thirkell doesn’t describe the big world events, she captures the sensation of being at a party and knowing everyone in the room has the same unspoken worries you do, and are trying not to think about it.

Cheerfulness Breaks In (Virago Modern Classics): Thirkell, Angela:  9780349013411: Amazon.com: Books

It leaps from there to the fall, as people try to adjust to this new world that has rapidly descended. Suddenly people are moving from the city to the country, there is a sense of isolation already as public transit is affected (no gas, no trains), and a sense that you should be DOING something. On a day to day basis, it is no longer okay to think “what do I want to do today?” you have to think “how could this help the war effort?”

One thing Thirkell really captured that I don’t remember seeing elsewhere is the huge generational divide in response to massive world changes. The Young People adjust easily, this is the world now, they pick up war jobs and join the army and move on with the job at hand. The Old People have a special sense of melancholy, an awareness of not just what they have lost but what all the ignorant young have lost, of the happy youth these people should and would have had. They aren’t sad for themselves, they are sad for others, because the others don’t even know enough yet to be sad.

As a historic document, this book and the 5 subsequent War Time books that Thirkell wrote are invaluable. While newspapers were writing contemporary stories of battles and so on, Thirkell captured in the moment what was happening for the majority of average citizens. Not just “my life in war time”, but “the life of a small community tidily broken down year by year”. Because the first year wasn’t like the second or third or fourth, people changed internally as time went on, and the world changed drastically too.

Book review – Angela Thirkell – “Cheerfulness Breaks in” #20BooksOfSummer20  @ViragoBooks | Adventures in reading, running and working from home
Here’s three of them, the three clearest representations of wartime Britain, the start of war through the “I guess this is our life now” dreary middle, to the anticlimatic ending.

Reading Thirkell’s wartime books last summer, and reflecting on them this summer, there is a real personal power to them for me. Covid isn’t WWII. But it is a massive global event that reaches way down to effect the day to day life. There was that same sense of worried trying-not-to-talk-about-it in the winter of 2020, the same massive sudden alarming social change in just a few months in the spring, the same sensation of “I must DO something” as we got into the thick of it, and now the sort of adjustment, the acceptance that this won’t be tidy and this won’t be something that just gets “over with” and we magically pretend it never happened. Even if the only ripples are surprising new friendships that formed, surprising new activities that became normal, and a generation that came of age in a very different way from their predecessors, it will still stay with us forever.

Oh, and also, this book includes a nice Lesbian couple who rent a cottage in a village and everyone likes them and no one seems to care they are Lesbian.

30 thoughts on “DCIB Book Club One Off Reviw: Angela Thirkell’s Cheerfulness Breaks In, History As it Happens “All You Can Do is Trust in God, and Isn’t That The Worst Part?”

  1. Ha! So she *was* supporting a gaggle of boys somewhere. That was one of my questions after reading how Thirkell describes the two fictional authoresses in the book.

    Now I need to hurry up and finish so I can really fully discuss it. I’m roughly at the 70 percent mark and starting to see that there might at least be a romance in there. And while in the very beginning I rooted for the girl to start breeding cocker spaniels with her school friend, the guy has kind of won me over by now.

    But I have to admit that I’m really here for the lesbians. I want to thoroughly examine who reacts to them in what way, because it really breaks down into so many interesting encounters. But for that I am going to finish the book first.

    Apparently I did not think as deeply about the war setting as you did, because I only noticed the more superficial stuff. Like the sewing parties, where instead of masks, they’re making clothes for evacuee children. The emptied-out hospital also reminded me a lot of the early days of the pandemic. But I think the black-out humor was what hit closest to home. When the maid was protesting that no neighbor could see the back windows anyways, I was uncomfortably reminded of the way my family quickly dispersed in front of a police cruiser on Easter. (We still have an upper limit on allowed group sizes.)

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    • Thirkell bio: She married youngish to a performer, and then after they had 2 (or 3?) boys together, he told her he was bisexual and they broke up with no bad feelings on either side. She married again and moved to Australia with her new husband and ended up with a total of 3 sons. She left that husband largely because she HATED Australia, and then very happily moved back to England to live all comfy in the community where she grew up. That’s when she started writing. One of her sons went on to be a significant writer of 1950s-60s urban Britain, particularly addressing racism and homophobia, very forward thinking. And I think he also wrote a memoir at one point about being gay, and about tracking down his biological father in adulthood and finding he was also Queer?

      So with your response, one thing to keep in mind is that Thirkell’s “happy ending” really WAS to live single and raise dogs. She loved her boys and I assume was glad she had married so that she had them, and the social status of being a married woman, but seems to have had no desire for a husband and been very happy living alone most of her life. This Mrs. Moreland character really shows that, she occasionally gets proposals and immediately turns them down because life as a widow with children is pretty much perfect,

      On Wed, Apr 14, 2021 at 2:05 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I should be curious about lesbians discussed during WWII, but really I’m just interested in the history of the day to day life. When my other books eventually get here maybe I’ll order these too! The analogy to COVID, the shared worry, is great. Also, as you point out, the long haul of it, though we shall see how long our haul really will be. I may wear masks in grocery stores for the rest of my life, by choice, but that is a superficial change at best. The bigger changes, that I hoped would happen (more support within public education for home schooling and changing attendance based funding…) most definitely have not happened.

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    • If the quote in the headline intrigues you, that is exactly what you get from the book. It’s day to day life and conversations dealing with the sort of human reaction to “wow, everything has changed, and changed so very fast”. And the weird experience of an underlying worry that never quite goes away, while at the same time you are still irritated with your neighbors, and grumpy because you didn’t sleep well, and all that day to day stuff.

      I don’t recommend reading all of her wartime books because there is a definite variation in quality. The three listed are the best for sure. But I am also glad I read all of them, and read them in order, because that variation in quality is part of understanding what the experience was like. You can tell that some years she just did not have the energy to write and was forcing herself to do her annual book. And that those same years she truly could not imagine happy endings and lightness, the darkness snuck in far too much. I’ve felt the same just blogging! Some days I am perky and optimistic and have lots to say. Other days, I really have to struggle.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 12:24 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Thanks for the warning. When I found that the last chapter was titled “Story without an end”, I despaired of the book for a moment, fearing that the very nice couple who had known each other for ages would not in the end get together. With the actual open end I can somehow deal better.

    I think I’ll get my general feelings about the book out of the way first: It’s a perfectly pleasant little thing, maybe like one of the dinner parties it describes. A lot of everyday talk, quite a few witticisms, and those people that are disagreeable in one way or another can at least be made fun of. By the end, some of the prattling was starting to be a little tedious, but I guess that’s just like a real dinner party, too. Even after a year where we mostly missed out on that kind of thing.
    At the same time the perfectly pleasant everyday kind of love story was picking up pace, almost satisfying my desire for a plot by the end.
    For me, there were lots of cute little insights that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Like the fact that even British people among themselves disagree about what constitutes tea and what constitutes dinner. Now at least I know why I’m confused, that’s a relief.

    But yes, what really what really makes this book special is the insight into history as it happens. Not even things like the evacuation of whole schools to the countryside. But in retrospect the book tells us a lot about the attitudes of the time. For example, the odious refugees with their overpriced embroidery are from a fictional country. But it seems to still have been okay for Thirkell to make the most disliked family in the whole county a family of “British Israelites”. One, at that, whose very first way of making themselves impossible is to say how different things would be if the young people just refused to fight. Then again, I may be biased. One of the things held against them is how they shirk participation in the war thanks to a “reserved occupation” – nothing more important than making films. That reminds me a lot of my job being deemed “relevant to the system”, which has consistently allowed us to continue sending our boy to daycare.

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    • SPOILERS FOR OPEN ENDING She doesn’t swing back to Lydia for one or two more books, which is AGONY. I think Thirkell herself hadn’t decided yet what she wanted to do with that open ending. But we do finally see them again and get a quick summary of the intervening years. He survived, she nursed him back to health, and then spent two years traveling up and down the country after him so they could spend as much time together as they could while he was on leave, and overworking herself into having a miscarriage. It’s interesting, Thirkell doesn’t kill Lydia’s husband, but she doesn’t quite give her a “happy” ending either. Because life isn’t a simple “happy” and “sad”, it’s sort of in between. END SPOILERS

      Agree about the dinner party comparison. You meet a group of people for the first time, you listen to them talk to each other, you are amused, and then the evening is over. I read all the books in a row, which was interesting. They all blur together (as you would imagine), but it also didn’t feel that tiring. It wasn’t like finishing a story and starting a new one, it was just picking up the threads of a continuing event.

      Yes on the cute little insights! I feel like I finally understand SO MUCH that was unclear to me thanks to reading these books. Agatha Christie and stuff just assumes we already know what “tea” means, Thirkell gets into the dull little conversations breaking it down.

      The evacuee children also, I knew about it happening as a historical event, I had no idea of the sewing parties to make them clothes, the complications of assigning them to houses, and all the little details that the Big History books skip over.

      With her made up refugees, she keeps swinging back to them in later books. She never really softens, but she sort of gets used to them? Accepts them more as the fabric of the community? The Jewish thing is frankly weird and I don’t understand it and it feels exactly the same as the weird British Anti-Semitism that I see in everything from that era. I don’t know why I am saying “weird”, America was just as much if not more anti-Semitic, but in our own way. I can’t fully grasp the British way, it seems to be mixed up with class and wealth in combination? As for the passificism (sp?), it reminds me of a similar character in LM Montgomery’s book about WWI in Canada. In that case, it is known that her book was heavily censored, first by her publisher and then I think by the government. I am sure Thirkell’s books had to go through extreme censorship. I don’t know if she was forced to put that in, but I am sure she was aware her book would be allowed to get published more easily if she had a nice “rah rah!” message.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 10:57 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • I just found it interesting that apparently with the refugees, she didn’t want to offend people from any specific real country. But she doesn’t even consider not offending the Jews.

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        • Oh I hadn’t even thought of that part. You are right, that is FASCINATING.

          On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 2:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. The book does the same thing with regard to Miss Hampton and Miss Bent – show the attitudes of the times. I have been on a minor quest for books like that, ever since I read The Count of Monte Cristo: books that include lesbians, even before there was a word for it. TV tropes calls it “Hide your lesbians”, but that’s really not what happens in Monte Cristo. Dumas goes to a lot of trouble to paint his character as masculine, not interested in men, to allude to Sappho and the goddess Diana. In the end he even goes so far as to show her sharing a bed with her “friend”.
    I was a little more unsure about Agatha Christie until recently. There is a lesbian couple in “A Murder is Announced”, but they are really just described as a couple of women with slightly masculine mannerisms who live together and are desperate for each other’s safety. That might just have been the author describing something she didn’t really understand. “Nemesis” goes into her character’s motivations, though, and it’s very clear to me that she loves the girl, if in an unhealthy way.
    Then of course there are real people writing about themselves, but I’ve found when tackling the secret diaries of Anne Lister that real life really doesn’t have a plot.
    All this to say: “Cheerfulness Breaks In” is by far the meatiest entry yet on my list. People meeting Miss Hampton and Miss Bent happens about as often as the young lovers meeting. And they all seem to understand the nature of their relationship and accept it as just a fact of life. Just like everyone else, the ladies are everywhere and do their part. But there are hints of people not being fully comfortable with them, there’s teasing about their clothes, there are all kinds of actual reactions to them. In some sense, I would almost say the book is *about* Miss Hampton and Miss Bent as much as it is about Lydia and Noel. And that is a lot of fun to read and to break down.

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    • I know EXACTLY what you mean! I wrote a whole paper about queerness in Karan Johar films and the way he has to imply/explain queerness without using the word “gay”. It’s there, under the surface. And it’s not that the culture is unaware it is there. It is just that clear vocabulary literally does not exist. It has to be explained using the terms of the period, and in the modern era sometimes we just don’t recognise what they were trying to say.

      Thirkell’s routine with her books (as you probably figured out) is to have some kind of vague love story, but the really enjoyable part is the introduction of all the new characters. This was Hampton and Bent’s first book, and the Bissells. I think literally everyone else was a returning character. So Thirkell leaned heavily on helping us get to know these new folks. Putting those two couples together, isn’t it interesting how Hampton and Bent were definitely “one of us” and the Bissells were NOT? I don’t know if Thirkell did that on purpose or unconsciously, but we have the outgoing Hampton and Mr. Bissell, the homebody Bent and Mrs. Bissell. The dog, and the foster child. The schoolmaster, and the books about schools. And so on and so forth.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 10:58 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, I read your paper a while back. But while Karan definitely has to imply and explain, he does have the word “gay” at his disposal. He only needs to define it.

        Wait, so if they are returning characters, do previous books actually cover stuff like Rose throwing away her engagement ring?

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        • Oh yeah! Everything that is mentioned actually happened in previous books. It’s a whole tapestry.

          On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 2:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Yeah, by the later books she started making all sorts of mistakes. Too many books and she was just too old.

            On Sat, Apr 17, 2021 at 1:42 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  5. The author herself, most importantly, seems to view the pair as just another colorful addition to her village. They may present a “case”, but no more so than the stuttering Mr Needham or the bewitching Mrs Brandon. And their “thing” is at least as much about their capacity for drink and the changing name of their dog as their relationship.
    But Thirkell very obviously has done some homework, bringing up what I found out to be a satire about lesbians, “Extraordinary Women”. (Goes on my reading list immediately.) And she has considered how lesbians would feel about some real issues. “I am perfectly prepared to pay Income Tax for the sake of my principles.” That has continued to be an issue, even during my lifetime. I remember sitting with a group of women, it doesn’t feel like that many years ago, and one couple mentioning that they were just filing their income tax like a straight married couple would and hoping the authorities would let it slide. It wasn’t yet legal even then.
    But I think Thirkell also got it right that people do have reactions to their situation.

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    • Yes! Bent and Hampton are no more or less unusual than any other personality in the village. And “being Lesbian” isn’t even really their thing. It’s being blunt but kind, drinking a lot, having a dog, and so on.

      I totally missed the “Extraordinary Women” comment. But if Thirkell’s marriage fell apart because her husband was bisexual/gay, I can easily see her methodically sitting down and learning about this world. Or, alternatively, I can see her married life being filled with members of Queer society of the time.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 10:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Well, Bent was mentioning someone by the name of Rory Freemantle, who had “worn [herself] out to make the world a safe place for us”. So obviously I had to google her and voila, she’s a character in “Extraordinary Women”.
        If the queers of the day were already a part of their married life, I can’t see why it should have fallen apart. (Neither, for that matter, if her husband was really “just” bisexual. He would have still been able to love her, and Thirkell doesn’t come across as someone who would reject him because of that.)

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        • I suspect he was labeled as “bisexual” by others and himself because they couldn’t conceive of being a gay man and also fathering children with a woman. She divorced him for adultery with a servant, but I would not be surprised if it was actually adultery with a male friend and they mutually agreed to invent a servant instead.

          In one of her earlier books, she includes a female character who plans to marry a man clearly coded as gay to have a platonic marriage. Everyone around them kind of raises their eyebrows at the idea. I don’t know if this was supposed to be Thirkell making fun of her younger self who thought she could be happy in that kind of a marriage? Or Thirkell showing just how hard it would be to make that kind of marriage acceptable to the old county families? They can accept a same sex couple, but a marriage that isn’t really a marriage between a man and a woman is too hard.

          On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 2:14 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Interesting. I think I may still don’t have a very clear image of the “county set” in my head. So they’re not aristocratic enough to be used to more or less arranged marriages?

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          • Yeah, I think there is the top top aristocracy, and then the land owners below that who certainly prefer for you to marry within your class and maybe someone with a little dowry, but it is expected to be your choice. Like in Austen, ultimately the young men and women decided it for themselves.

            On Sat, Apr 17, 2021 at 2:58 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  6. Mr Bissell’s is the first one, and it confuses me quite a bit in retrospect. Is he like an inhabitant of Pleasantville and runs out of their bedroom in shock just because it contains a double bed? Or is it specifically the thought of two women in a double bed? But that would seem to be at odds with the friendship he and his wife strike up with the Misses later.
    And Mrs Bissell is the really confusing one. Without second thought she brings up “living in sin” in front of Miss Hampton and Miss Bent, and how living with a woman would have the same effect on income tax. But how am I to read that when I know of the Bissell’s twin beds? Other characters’ eyes seem to be opened to the truth by that remark, but I’m not so sure about Mrs Bissell herself, who is described as “innocent” elsewhere in the book. Then again, she is also the one with this insight into human differences: ‘Miss Keith is a very peculiar and I might say almost abnormal type … She is perfectly normal’.

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    • I saw the double bed as more in contrast to twin. This is just me guessing, but maybe it is a class thing? The big old double bed would be something in big old houses. The neat little twins would be modern and new. Bent and Hampton, as upperclass proper ladies, would have a double instead of a twin. Or maybe it was just the adjustment of perspective. With a male and female couple living together, a double bed wouldn’t be as surprising.

      I love the Bissells and Bent and Hampton as close friends! It feels like one of the best moments of the book for Bent and Hampton not being “just” Lesbians. They are really nice people, get along with everybody, we see again and again that they are extroverts (Hampton in particular) and can always find common ground. So of course just as Hampton bonded with Mrs. Moreland over her nephews, she is going to find a way to bond with the Bissells.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 10:59 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Maybe there’s something about the ladies’ bed specifically being “a very large square flat divan” that almost entirely fills the room. So it’s not the standard big old double bed either. (While we’re on the topic of their penchant for the oriental, don’t you love Hampton’s comment later on that “Kalevala” sounds Indian? So true.)

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        • I forgot that part! I think it makes total sense for Mr. Bissell to run away, it’s not just a double bed, it is BED in big letters.

          On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 2:22 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Hmm. So it might just be the fact that they’re showing their bedroom to a complete stranger, I guess. Would that also have been what the contemporary audience took away from it? I wonder. Because that scene is of course also the one that confirms beyond a doubt the nature of their relationship. In the absence of a word like “gay” there seems to be no other way to do that beyond showing a bedroom. I even think Thirkell is doing her best to be as little invasive as possible by then discussing the equivalent arrangements over at the Bissell’s.

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  7. Then there are the other characters present at the “income tax” incident. Mrs Birkett is described as “weak” afterwards, though I’m not sure whether that’s more about the reveal or about the Bissell’s foster child – who does however not seem as odious to me as the characters make her out to be. It must be said that to distract herself, Mrs Birkett tags along with the Misses and is specifically said to like them later on. So maybe it was just the girl, after all.
    Much the same seems to hold for Mrs Morland, who appears to be the closest we get to an author avatar. She admires Mrs Bissell for what she sees as grasping the “sinister implications of Adelina Cottage which would never have occurred to her at all”. So it would be possible to overlook the nature of their relationship? Very interesting.
    Also, I just can’t imagine that she uses “sinister” in quite the same way I would. She’s too friendly with Miss Hampton afterwards, talking about their sons and nephews respectively and agreeing to like each other in person and not bother about each other’s books. Is there a way to read this “sinister” as meaning nothing more evil than being left-handed, for example? (Isn’t that what the word first referred to?) In this context, “sinister” seems to mean something more along the lines of the old meaning of “queer”, no?

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    • In later books, Mrs. Birkett (like the rest of the village) remains good friends with Bent and Hampton so there is certainly no judgement. I read both “weak” and “sinister” as more about the expected reaction of Mrs. Bissell? As in, Mrs. Birkett was stressed because she wasn’t sure if Mrs. Bissell would be shocked or not. And “sinister” as kind of a joke of “other people would think it is sinister”.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 11:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  8. The Phelps family fall more on the “miscellaneous” side, and it’s not clear whether they’ve ever considered the implications of two women living together. They react to the superficially visible, when in response to Miss Hampton’s dig about her trousers, Mrs Phelps replies that “neither a man nor a woman” is “exactly what you look like now”. Admiral Phelps gets scared when Miss Bent wants him to tell her about vice on the lower decks, but I don’t think that’s necessarily due to the person asking. Nonetheless, the Phelps’ are also specifically stated to have a good relationship with Miss Hampton in particular.
    I may be most curious about the vicar, who is only stated to be “terrified of Miss Bent and Miss Hampton, though deeply grateful for their generosity and kindness in the parish“. The text doesn’t really say why he’s terrified. Yes, they are opinionated and somewhat forceful, but is that enough to rattle him? Or is he uncomfortable about the moral questions they present? When did the Church of England start to condone same-sex relationships again?
    The book is so very vague in so many respects, none of the answers are clear-cut. Much like life itself.

    And now you know why I didn’t think my thoughts would fit on this blog.

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    • I read the vicar as just being scared of their forcefulness. Again, in later books, later vicars love Bent and Hampton, so I don’t think it is supposed to be a universal Church of England reaction.

      I found the exchange about trousers FASCINATING. Miss Hampton is a Lesbian and has short hair and writes shocking books, but prides herself on always wearing a skirt. That feels real to me. That somehow she would have developed and stuck with that particular standard for herself and, for some obscure reason, be proud of it.

      On Fri, Apr 16, 2021 at 11:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oh, the personal dress code feels very true to life. For me, clothes and styles were very much part of my early reaction of “but I’m not like that”. Which is weird, because nowadays I can’t think of a line that I wouldn’t cross. I can usually find stuff I like in the women’s section, but I’d shop with the guys, too. So I can very well imagine that Miss Hampton needs her skirt to remind everyone that she is a woman, after all.

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