Book reviews

The Headmistresss, by Angela Thirkell

After hearing about Angela Thirkell books for such a long time at The Captive Reader’s blog, I finally decided to give one title a chance. I borrowed The Headmistress from the library. Oh, joy! This year is going to be difficult to say which was my favorite author from those I have discovered up to now. How can one not like a writer who loves Thackeray, Dickens, and Gaskell.

What was the novel about?

The book takes place in Barsetshire, a fictional English county created by Trollope,  whom Thirkell admired. The Headmistress, Miss Sparling, moves with the students from the Hosier Girls School to Harefield Park, the former residence of the Beltons that are forced to rent it. She is one of the main characters, as well as Elsa Belton, and her family, specially her mother.

It happens during the times of IIWW. I learned much about how people had to lived with coupons, scarcity of food, and it was nonetheless such an upbeat novel, to see them get creative to maintain normalcy, and foster community ties and life.

What have I loved the most while reading this book?

The humor, the tenderness. Thirkell writes conversations so well, it is like being a fly in the wall. It had such a variety of personalities and people, it was like traveling in time and space. The school affairs were a delight. The way Miss Sparling handles herself, as the ‘new to the community’, is fascinating.

Apart from entertaining, have I gained something more substantial reading The Headmistress?

Absolutely. Weaved in the book there were many ideas and views of life, marriage, war, motherhood, adolescence, class, race, prejudice, work ethics, love, death, family… I even got to see how, in schools in the 20th century, everybody saw the importance and place of doing some Shakespeare. It was very revealing to see they abridged the plays, some girls of that Hosier Girls School had to double or triple parts. It is said how Miss Ferdinand, who loved literature and knew all Shakespeare, wished everyone would have caught a cold to do a one person play all by herself, 🙂 But Heather Adams, a plain and unattractive girl, great in math and not so good in literature, was fond of being in the play, with a small part, no matter how bad her acting skills. You got to laugh with the other girl who emphasized the first syllable of each word, LOL. Putting together a small play was a binding and community affair. Someone donated fabric, the vicar practiced memorizing lines with the girls, others played the music… There is a hilarious part in which one girl is saying Eye Faith, and Isabelle Ferdinand says it’s truly I’ faith as in “In faith”. It made me realize it’s OK not to understand 100% of a play to enjoy reading it as we do. In some years, with my girls and a few more children, I simply would love to do the same. A small home production of a play, even if shortened.

Any other remarks?

Yes. Thirkell is so modern, or I was so ignorant that I did not know that authors like her, and also Wilkie Collins, and Thackeray, and I am sure others I have not read, addressed the reader and talked about them as writing fiction. In one part she said something like, “it could happen in real life, so it can happen in fiction too”; in another place, she tells us she had prepared the stage for that which was coming next to happened… and she said, “you did not think I would have written about this and that if I wasn’t thinking about writing this conclusion next?” But I don’t want to quote because I don’t want to spoil it for you.


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