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.
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.
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.
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.