August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)
In August Folly, the fourth of Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, the reader finds hirself once again the world of the English gentry in the years between the two World Wars. It is tempting to categorize this as light-weight book with two main functions: to entertain and the second to sketch in more completely the existing characters that make up the cast of the Bartsetshire novels and to add a few more members to that cast.
Those functions may have been the conscious intentions of the author however August Follyleaves the modern day reader with a carefully sketched picture of the realities of provincial life among the English gentry in the 1930s. In particular the reader is given an insight in the nuanced complications of economic inequalities among people of similar class status. The England in which this story has set has already begun to undergo the changes that would lead to, if such a thing c ould exist, a partial upheaval in the class system.
Many of the characters in this book seemed trapped in the contradictions between the economic/class system that was and the economic/class system that is to come. The families around whom this book revolves all belong to the gentry (they are, in the terminology of the time, ladies and gentlemen.) The sons attend university and clearly studying at Oxford or Cambridge are their only options for acquiring tertiary education. However, unlike previous generations of young men of their class, this cohort is more conscious of the limitations of such education in providing them with the skills required to get jobs (and make money) in the world of business. Whereas earlier generations of the gentry had been content (and able) for the most part to live off dividends and perhaps the income from their land the current generation was finding it more and more difficult to do the same.
The story itself revolves around one summer in the country life of three families living in the Barset countryside: the Palmers, the Deans and the Tebbens. As is not uncommon in books of this type characters meet, interact, and misunderstand each other. Their actions and interactions take place against the attempt on the part of Mrs. Palmer to stage Euripides’s Hippolytus. Usually in romance/soap operas there would be a clear echo between the themes of the play being staged and the drama enacted among those rehearsing the play and yet, in this case, there is not. The modern reader may be struck with the extent to which the English at the time had such a shared culture that one could be fairly sure that any other ‘educated’ person would have read the same plays and know the same poetry. Aside from that sense of “shared culture” the overwhelming echo from play to book is that the characters about whom Thirkell is writing live as constrained lives as those in the play. There were but a narrow number of people that any individual could pair up with and there was but a narrow range of jobs any individual could enter be they upper, middle or working class.
Unlike many other novelists who include a number of characters who all belong to the gentry Thirkell does not rely on subtle clues to indicate to the readers the differences in financial statuses of the different families. Of the Palmers we learn little save that they have no children and they are quite comfortably situated. The Deans are clearly well heeled. There are nine children in the family and at no time is there any indication that choices are made for financial reasons. Mr. Dean works and is evidently successful although one doubts that the lifestyle of the family arises only from his wages. They own more than one car. They employ more than one chauffeur. They eat caviar and spend money without consideration. The Tebbens, on the other hand, are clearly struggling to maintain the what they consider the necessities of life. Mr. Tebben holds a position as a civil servant (or which we learn precious few details) and his wife writes economic text books. They cannot afford a car but they have a (not particularly good) cook. They hire household servants but worry about the cost of tea. Though they belong to the same class as the Deans and the Palmers the economic realities of their lives are so dissimilar that a modern reader, less schooled in the nuances of class, will wonder why they consider themselves part of the same social set.
If August Folly had been set in London the counterpoint of the old ways dying set against the formation of the next generation might have become lost in the midst of its own playing out. It is says much for why Thirkell was considered a popular and accessible (but fundamentally lightweight) author by her contemporaries that it is possible to read and enjoy her books without even noticing the underlying themes and tensions yet if one considers them carefully if the thematic material was removed there would be little left to read.
This is a story a people who are at best only minor actors upon the stage of their county and their country. They react rather than act and thus are at the mercy of the fates as to the direction of their own lives. Because they are born to a class that is accepted as “the leaders” they see themselves as having some degree of control over their lives and yet, as one looks back over the occurrences of the book, one realizes that Thirkell has presented to the audience characters with as little final control over their lives as had the characters in the Greek play they were staging.
 For those unfamiliar with the work of Thirkell – one of the major conceits of the greater number of her novels is that they take place in the same corner of England as Trollope explored in many of his novels. Not only do Thirkell’s readers encounter place names familiar from many of Trollope’s books the reader is also explicitly informed that Thirkell’s characters inhabit Trollope’s created England by having the narrator or characters identify other characters as descendants of individuals in Trollope’s books.
Rating: 3-1/2 stars