One could have a nice rest if they would all just go away…
First Published: 1939
Date Reviewed: 23rd July 2015
Mrs Lavinia Brandon, a youngish widow, finds people very difficult. Most everyone adores her to the point that they won’t leave her alone in peace to wonder about what she’s going to wear to dinner. It’s all very tiring and she really would rather not have to listen to readings and upsets and so on. When her aunt-by-marriage asks Lavinia and her children to visit – so that she can assess their suitability for inheritance over another relation she’s never met – they go grudgingly. No one wants the old house. Francis prefers live as usual, Delia loves learning about death. And out of the woodwork comes Mr Grant, the fabled relation, to adore Lavinia. It’s going to be a sadly eventful summer.
The Brandons is a very funny novel, set in the fictional county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope, that has a bit of a plot but is all about the characters. There are many characters to keep track of, but keep track of them you do because Thirkell makes every one memorable in their own way and makes a point of giving them all ample opportunities to make you laugh or sigh. The author gives you some leeway to make up your own mind but this is a book in which the writer decides who you’re going to like and makes it so; she has full control of her characters. This may signal a problem in other books, but here it’s magnificent.
To be sure you’ll be wondering whether anything you’re reading about is going to go anywhere but you get used to it pretty quickly. The threads that are tied at the end are the only ones there were to tie to begin with and Thirkell never pretends it will be any different. You’re here for the ride.
Speaking of rides (there is a fairground in the book), it’s a good thing to know that this book, whilst not outdated, is very set in its time. Beyond the problematic words – words that have since gained a sexual connotation that in Thirkell’s time were quite innocent (there’s actually an entire paragraph that out of context reads as explicit!) – there are words and concepts used that we’ve since confined to history. There are illegitimate children and ‘children of shame’ who are termed as such many times because it was an issue as far as the 1930s were concerned. (Thirkell reserves comment on this point: due to her style of writing one cannot ascertain whether she is speaking personally or simply in terms of the people she has created.) There is the use of ‘half-caste’ which, whilst not used with disdain for the people it describes, is prevalent. So normal a word is it to Thirkell that she even uses it to describe a dog.
So this book definitely has to be read in context. And it’s a hilariously funny book with a fair amount of black humour. Delia’s obsession with death and disease; Mrs Brandon’s disinterest that’s obvious only to a few; Mrs Grant’s constant referencing of Italy, which is so superior to the England she left; Amelia (Miss) Brandon’s thought that idling is awful, so said as she sits in bed as she has for weeks for no real reason. The book practically begs quotation, so here we are, each block a different extract:
“But I would certainly have come to the funeral,” Miss Brandon continued, ” had it not been my Day in Bed. I take one day a week in bed, an excellent plan at my age. Later I shall take two days, and probably spend the last years of my life entirely in bed. My grandfather, my mother and my elder half-sister were all bed-ridden for the last ten years of their lives and all lived to be over ninety.”
“I have only just thought of it!” Mrs Morland suddenly exclaimed in her impressive voice, pushing her hair and her hat widely back from her forehead with both hands. “We are all widows!”
“So we are,” said Mrs Brandon, looking round distractedly as if she might see a few more somewhere, “but not what I would call widows.”
“I suppose,” said Mrs Morland, “the longer one is a widow, the less one is a widow. Or is it that one just has it in one or else one hasn’t?”
Mrs Grant said Hilary must get his hair cut and there was a delightful old custom in Calabria by which young men and maidens spent the night under a tree on the night of the full moon and drew lots with the bristles of a hog who had died a natural death, and whoever drew the longest bristle died in childbirth within the year.
As for the prose, it is good. There are places that read awkwardly, grammar-wise, and a few places wherein the editor may have been out for tea and scones at the time and more interested in those than the text (issues that would be picked up by today’s editors) but on the whole it’s easy, comfortable, and welcoming.
Everything is pretty simple and laid out in the open, in fact the only thing that may leave you wondering is Mrs Brandon herself. In reading this book you can rest assured that the only real thinking you may have to do will revolve around Mrs Brandon’s interest or lack there of, and even that won’t take long. This is a book for a lazy day, a book during which you just want to pick up your embroidery, relax, and have a laugh; the book is a manifestation, of sorts, of what Mrs Brandon hopes for, indeed if she could just read this book and do nothing else she’d be in her element.
The Brandons is one book in a saga but it stands by itself. It lets you enjoy the simpler things, life as it was some decades ago. It’s just a good, solid, read that asks for little and offers little, and yet provides in spades.
July 27, 2015, 12:21 pm
I have been looking forward to your thoughts on this, and I’m not disappointed it sounds wonderful. An ‘easy, comfortable, and welcoming’ book sounds perfect for me. I will definitely be making a note of this.