Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell (1934)
The events of the book occur over a period of several summer months, centered chiefly iat Rushwater House, the rural home/estate of the Leslie family. Over that period of time the grandson of Lady Emily and Mr. Leslie turns seventeen and some gentle pairing off occurs of eligible members of their social circle. The plot, such as it is, unfolds with the greatest of gentleness such that it feels, at the end, that the reader spent a very agreeable weekend with the family and watched as their life unfolded.
past here, there be many many spoilers
Wild Strawberries belongs firmly to a time past. Set in the English countryside of (the fictional) Barsetshire, the book is separated from the modern (and especially the non-English modern) reader by what feels like like a much more than a century’s chasm of time. Yes, many of the differences between the world of the books and that of the present-day reader can be set down to the effect of technological change and another war that spanned the globe, but what makes the book read slightly more like science fiction (or an alternate reality) are the cultural/social differences between the world in which Thirkell wrote and the world inhabited by the present day reader.
Take, for example, the treatment (by the narrator of the book and the individuals who people the book) of Lady Emily Leslie. As the book opens the Vicar is anxiously waiting for Lady Emily to arrive before the (public) church service could begin. The Vicar, who finds her constant lack of punctuality stressful, also considers her to be universally loved although universally irritating. Lady Emily does not limit her lack of consideration for others to her chronically and disruptively lateness that interrupts the church service for everyone, she also makes it a point to instruct others where to sit, to insist of “helping\” others who have asked for no help and need none, and at her daughter’s wedding she went so far as to “attempt[ing] to rearrange the order of the bridesmaids during the actual ceremony.” The Vicar, we are told, prayed that he would never criticize Lady Emily again after seeing the pain on her face after her woman’s son was killed in the Great War.
At this point my class sensibility rises up and I cry foul. Yes, Lady Emily’s eldest son died in the field somewhere on the continent. But, I would venture, it was unlikely that there were many families in that parish who had not lost a loved one in the Great War. Does one imagine for a moment that the Vicar would have been so understanding (and so hard on himself for resenting her behaviour) if the woman who was routinely disrupting every church service had been an housemaid, a washerwoman or the wife of workingman? We may be told that Lady Emily was loved by all but what we see is Lady Emily displaying the monstrous self-centeredness of a member of her class. Thirkell describes Lady Emily as “behaving altogether as if church was a friend’s house\” and indeed she does act in church just as she does in her own house, and the houses of her friends, expecting others to defer, to be patient, to serve and to privilege her wants above even (or perhaps especially) their own.
It is a theme that ran through much of English writing at the time this book was published, that thoughtless, indeed criminal, behaviour was eccentric and charming if it was carried out by a member of the upper class. And indeed it is clear, if one reads closely, that members of Lady Emily’s household are quite aware of the fact that she is disturbing the lives the those around her, that she was causing extra work and much concern for many of their retainers and that, in end, Lady Emily got what made her happy rather than what would really make those around her contented. [Note: The person who disrupts your life in order to make you sit in the chair zie would sit in if zie was you is not considerate and thoughtful–they do what they do in order to present themselves to the world as being thoughtful without having ever to go to the actual effort of considering the wishes of others.]
The world of Thirkell’s characters is one with class assumptions/presumptions so thick on the ground that individual instances melt into one another. Lady Emily’s grandson will inherit the estate on the death of her husband, and since we are told that “[i]nheritance and death duties were not words that trouble Martin much” the estate is rich enough that there will both both and yet that information is imparted as if having sufficient assets that taxes must be paid were a special burden that the family must bear with great difficulties. Of one of Lady Emily’s surviving sons we are told, “If he had had to earn his living, David would have been a serious problem. But, owing to the ill-judged partiality of an aunt, he had been independent for some years.\” In other words this is a world in which there is often a family member who is well off enough that they can leave substantial amounts of money to relatives.
The unfairness of this is obvious in a further description of David’s life, “and every now and then his looks and his easy manners and his independent income landed him a job, though not for long.\” Those “easy manners\” [manners that were viewed as appropriate and acceptable to other members of the social circle to which David was born] were at least in part the result of being first raised by nannies and then being sent off to an expensive school and the independent income was a result of being a member of the class in which is was not uncommon to have wealthy relatives. These initial advantages result in him having a continued marked advantage over the many unemployed who actually needed a job.
The fact that, at the time this book was written, unemployment was a serious problem in England is only touched on tangentially and then only by attacking some of those who worked for taking the jobs from others who wanted to work. One often finds characters quite openly speaking out against the idea of woman working– although this is quite clearly about women of their class working since the book is full of nannies and cooks and housekeepers who are all women and most definitely work:
Having paid this lip service to the hateful Miss Stevenson, she felt she had gone far towards appeasing her conscience in the matter of her bad behaviour at lunch.
‘Don’t know what they want all these girls for,’ said Mr. Leslie. ‘Taking jobs from the men. Glad you don’t want to have a job, Mary.’
“I am afraid I did have a job for a bit,’ said Mary, ‘ in a library.’
‘Oh, books, that’s all right. No harm in a girl reading a bit. It’s all this education I object to. Same everywhere. All these young young people going to the university and coming away half-baked. Can’t even talk English.’ (385)
Even within Thirkell’s world of established country families (daughters of dukes and earls married to untitled gentlemen who have country homes, who have with daughters who take tea at Buckingham Palace and whose sons engage in businesses just to keep themselves occupied rather than to put food on the table) there are great variations in wealth. Mr. Holt lives on declining dividends while managing to live in the style he wished to be accustomed by “being a toady” and is portrayed cuttingly by Thirkell and mocked by the Leslies. Mary Preston is shown in a much more friendly light:
‘Let’s sit down and bask,’ said David. ‘I can’t feel happy till I get
the sun in my bones, can you? Would one do without the Riviera?’
‘Do without it, I suppose,’ said Mary….’I’ve never been there, but I’m still alive.’
‘Never been to the Riviera,?’ said David, looking at her with interest.
[Mary] realized that to him an existence which did not imply at least a couple of thousand pounds a year of one’s own was fantastic. She was tempted to say, ‘I have two hundred a year of my own and mummie has about six with her pension for daddy, and we pig along somehow,’ but felt this would be unladylike.(348)
While the impact of social/cultural changes sometimes subtly underlines (or undermines) the reader’s appreciation of the book there other moments which resonate chillingly over time as in the following case: Two characters have gone to a train station to pick up a visitor…
The crowded bank-holiday train had only just pulled in…In any other place the sight of two stalwart young men advancing with a gliding step, arms liked like skaters, uttering what they fondly hoped was a college yell, might have attracted attention, but the hikers, many of whom had already struck up folk-songs of whose doubtful meaning they were luckily unaware, took David and Martin for some of themselves. A few gave the Fascist salute, to which David politely made reply, ‘Good morrow, good my lieges,’ while Martin more simply responded ‘Ave.’ (339)
The stereotyping of “foreigners\” is not only unrelenting it is accepted with amusement in that social circle. No group or country really escapes the mockery although it is clear that it is slightly less offensive to be from north Europe than from other places in the world. Anyone who falls outside of that zone of “almost English” is referred to in terms which the modern reader may find breathtakingly offensive:
John gave his mother her barley water. David helped himself to whisky and soda and drifted over to the piano, where he played and sang snatches of music from revues and musical comedies with such masterful ease that Mary was more than ever glad the men had not been in the room when she was singing.
‘You must have had a black mammy for your fairy godmother, David,’ said John. ‘I don’t see how else you got that nigger ouch in your voice.’(366)
The Nazis are mentioned in passing but one would be hard pressed to deduce from reading Thirkell (or many other authors of the time) that various European countries has been, since the end of the Great War, suffering from massive unemployment and occasional hyper-inflation. The closest any the characters come to these fiscal realities is a concern about declining dividends. Jews were not, at that time, part of the social life of the gentry/aristocracy of England and it will not be until several years later when Jewish refugees start to arrive in larger numbers that the subject of what is happening in Germany will even surface in most of contemporary English fiction.
While the author has not attempted to limn a portrait of English political life in the mid-thirties she does do a wonderful job at drawing a picture of how “ordinary\” life was lived among the class on which is she is focusing. Whether Thirkell intends the reader to notice, indeed whether Thirkell herself notices, the gentry around whom this story revolves are bullies. They may be solicitous of “their own” but they are openly proud of their right and ability to bully. This can be seen in almost all their actions from Lady Emily and her family taking as their right the power to disrupt community church services, to the joint and open baiting of Mr. Holt whose only sin is to be a toady whose time has passed to the casual reference to the fact that as a child David Leslie made a habit of harassing the kitchen cat.
The Leslies, their friends and those in their social circle live in a world distanced from the what were, for most, the realities of life. Mr. Leslie raises and sells bulls but does not seem to do so for reasons of profit as much as he does because it is an interesting hobby. John Leslie has a business, indeed Mary Preston visits him there, and yet there is nary a hint as to what type of business is conducted at his office although one does learn details about when tea is served and with what type of biscuit. Mary and her mother struggle to get by on a sum that would have seemed a fortune to the maids who unpacked her suitcases when she arrived at Rushwater House. Much of what the characters do is not work so much as it is “make work” and often what is defined as work (for example, picking the flowers for the house) turns out to be the haphazard supervision of servants who actually cut the flowers, arrange them and place them around the house.
Just as there is always a servant to do the actual work there is always a plenitude of space. Agnes (the married Leslie daughter) has no job and only three children and yet she has not only a nannie (referred to only as “Nannie”) but also “a girl” (Ivy) who helps her. The children have bedrooms and also a nursery which appears to be a large room given over to the children and their needs. You get a sense of this when Agnes tells John why she and her family couldn’t manage in the house he is thinking of selling:
I wish I could take it myself, only there wouldn’t be room for the children. We really need so many rooms now. A day nursery and a night nursery, and a room for James, and a room for Ivy. And when Emmy is a little bigger she will want a room for herself. And when I have some more babies it will mean another nursery as well.
John laughed and asked if Agnes didn’t find her household difficult.
‘Oh, no,’ said she in surprise,’ it is quite easy. And when I have some more babies I shall get a second nurse as well as Ivy. It is really no trouble.’(413)
The one thing that the Leslies seemed to be short of is private time in which individuals could actually get intellectual and physical work done. No wonder women dreamed of having “a room of their own” when most of their lives were taken up in looking after others even to the point of staving off their boredom. While one set of women cleaned up the remains of the dinner another set of women played the piano, sang and read aloud. Only women who, like Lady Emily or Lady Dorothy, were renowned for their selfishness, did not mold their lives around the needs and desires of the greater family.
By the end of the book this reader felt a strange affection for two fairly minor characters–Lady Dorothy Bingham and Miss Joan Stevenson–both of whom were judged harshly by others (a domineering widow and a “hard” university woman with a job) and both of whom had a tendency to carefully survey their environment and clearly asses the situation:
‘I think Lionel Harvest is a nephew of yours,’ said Miss Stevenson. ‘He us under me at Broadcasting House.’
“Is he? Queer boy, Lionel. I’d let my girls go out with him, but I do’t know that I’d let my boys.’ Here Lady Dorothy laughed the laugh before which every fox in her division of the country quailed. ‘He’ll come into four thousand a year though when old General Harvest dies.’
Miss Stevenson registered this statement with her well-trained brain. (450)
Lady Bingham deploys her money and influence without asking that others pretend that she is doing them a favour and Miss Stevenson has realistically decided that the best thing insurance for a university educated woman is to find a well-off husband who will be happy with what Miss Stevenson so diplomatically refers to as a “companionate marriage.\”
The Second World War looms, not yet on the horizon but not that far away. This reader thinks that Lady Dorothy and Miss Stevenson are better prepared to navigate the upheavals to come than are the Leslie family.
Rating: 3-1/2 stars
Thirkell, Angela, 1966 An Angela Thirkell omnibus / with an introduction by Elizabeth Bowen Hamish Hamilton, London,