Friday, October 30, 2009

Review: The Brandons by Angela Thirkell

This is not the cover on the book I own. When my grandmother was paring down her belongs to move from her largish condo to a smaller home in another state, she let me go through her books and decide which, if any, I wanted to keep. As I rescued books I remember reading as a child (Tales of a Korean Grandmother anyone?), I also stumbled across The Brandons by Angela Thirkell. I had fallen in love with Thirkell's writing some time before but had thought her to be fairly obscure. And perhaps she is not well known to the current generation of book lovers but she was obviously much better known at one point in time. Her relative obscurity now is a shame because she is a wonderful and wonderfully prolific author. So despite the fact that I already had a copy of this book, I happily set my grandmother's 1939 hardcover aside to keep instead of my more recent paperback copy.

The Brandons is one of Thirkell's Barsetshire series of books, set in her imaginary English countryside and is as delightful as the book which precede it in the series. Set before WWII, The Brandons focuses on the eponymous family. Opening when wealthy, elderly Aunt Sissy, a bit of a termagant, is starting to fail more substantially than she has been for these many years. She has called upon Mrs. Brandon and her three mostly grown children to attend to her, as she has done periodically over the years. When they visit, the family meets Aunt Sissy's self-effacing nurse, Miss Morris, as well as another relative who has as much claim on Sissy's fortune as Francis Brandon.

But this is no struggle over an inheritance, instead it is a gentle, mocking novel with flashes of Thirkell's formidable wit focused in many ways more on the characters rather than the situation at hand. As a matter of fact, neither Francis nor Hilary Grant, the other relative, want to be saddled with Aunt Sissy's stately, though rather frightening and damp, home. And Aunt Sissy's health and eventual death are really a background to the relationship machinations detailed herein. We watch as Mrs. Brandon gamely and somewhat unconsciously accepts the devotion of all the men in her orbit, being obliged to listen politely to the poetry and lengthy prose each of them has undertaken. She also quietly and off-handedly tries to manipulate one of her admirers into professing an attachment to Miss Morris instead. Her own children regard her with fond amusement and she is not only masterfully drawn, but she is a fantastic foil for Hilary Grant's abrasive mother.

Thirkell's character construction is outstanding and her grasp of human nature is spot on. Her books rarely shout out for recognition but their understated elegance and their high entertainment value should garner them that recognition anyway. She has been compared to Jane Austen and in some ways, the similarities of their drawing room comedies barely masking social commentaries do deserve the comparison. But in most ways, they are very different writers, tackling very different societal norms and expectations. I do love Thirkell and her precise characters, the gentle tone, the sparkling, unexpected humor, and English village plots of her novels. I only wish more people would discover the delightfully entertaining Thirkell.


  1. I've read two of these thanks to your recommendations, so this is a good reminder to see if the library has any others.

  2. These books sound wonderful - in a beautiful setting in a time period I love to read about!

    I've checked NS libraries and found at least 17 titles in the Barsetshire series. I'm going to reserve "High Rising" immediately.

    Thank you! I have a feeling that Angela Thirkell is going to be on of those authors I've never heard of but who becomes a favourite.

  3. Very cool! I hadn't heard of her either, but thought "Austen" while reading your review. I'm off to look for copies at my library!

  4. They are pretty much all available from a publisher called Moyer Bell that is distributed by Midpoint Trade Books. Although they might be hard to find, they won't be hard to order from a bookstore. Looks like a few of the rereleases are due out in the next couple of months. But there are 23 titles listed.

  5. Never fear Carin, I own them all. And yes Moyer Bell has done the most recent re-printing that I know of. Interestingly, they have had re-release dates for some of the books for years and yet they have never come out. But they aren't too, too hard to find if someone is so inclined to collect them. :-)

  6. I already have a book by Thirkell on my TBR list. I like gentle, humorous character studies, so I find myself reach back to older books more and more these days.


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