Thursday, January 14, 2016

Book Review 2015 #6 - Angela Thirkell's High Rising

High Rising by Angela Thirkell
Published by: Virago Modern Classics
Publication Date: 1933
Format: Paperback, 276 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★
To Buy

Laura Moreland is off to her cottage in High Rising with her son Tony for the winter holidays. Her three other boys are all grown up and flung to the far reaches of the earth after she ably raised them alone as a widowed author. In fact she ended up with quite a following for her fun and frivolous tales told in the world of high fashion staring Madame Koska. In fact many of her fans are right on her doorstep, with her assistant Anne Todd being a neighbor who nurses her ailing mother but has a penchant for couture. Fellow author, though of a historical and biographical bent, George Knox lives in nearby Low Rising with his daughter Sibyl. In fact the holiday season is bound to be interesting by a new arrival at the Knox's house, because it's sure not going to be enlivened by Tony's litany of train facts. George Knox has a new secretary, a Miss Una Grey. Miss Grey, while competent, seems to have her eye on her employer for a precipitous rise in her station. The locals aren't having any of this and soon the gossip over this "Incubus" has both High and Low Rising talking. But George Knox is an honorable man and he can't send a poor, defenseless orphan out into the world, no matter how ambitious and amorous her attentions. Though perhaps Miss Grey isn't as she has presented herself and that might just turn the tables and perhaps give Laura an idea for a new book.

How would it feel to write all your books in a world created by another person? I guess a good author to ask would be Gregory Maguire whose "Wicked Years" are set in the world created by L. Frank Baum in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Though Maguire expanded and parodied the world that Baum created making it very much his own. The reason I bring this up is that most of Angela Thirkell's books are set in the fictional English county of Barsetshire created by Anthony Trollope in his six book series that make up The Chronicles of Barsetshire. I'm of two minds with this. One is that it's an interesting experiment freeing the author in this case from onerous worldbuilding. The other mind is going: lazy, plagiaristic hack, and seeing as she often quoted from other authors without attribution, leaning towards plagiarist. But I knew I'd have to come to a conclusion on my own by reading the books, despite the enthusiastic recommendations of my many friends. And seeing as they are set in a world created by Trollope, I felt I'd have to read those first. It's not like I have anything against Trollope, in fact I quite love him, I just wasn't enamoured of his first Barsetshire book The Warden. But having at least nominally dipped my toe into the world created by Trollope I felt I could take a plunge into this world that Thirkell expanded on.

What struck me most about this book is why did she bother to set it in Barsetshire? This could have been any little small British town anywhere, so why did she frame it within someone else's work? Was it her desperate need for a map? Maps are easy to come by, you pick them up anywhere. Get them while you get your gas! It's not like there was a wicked witch with green skin that needed to be her antihero, so why do it? Because, in all seriousness, by co-opting the world of another author she is doing a great disservice to herself and her work. Going into the book I had prejudices against it's originality because of this. Yet it is so original, minus the county. There's a freshness to it, a world weary snark that spoke to me so deeply that I just wanted to be a part of this story. High Rising has an honesty that makes the misanthrope in me happy while at the same time creating a cast of characters that are in a happy place; which makes me wonder if it was maybe love versus laziness that made Angela Thirkell set her books in Barsetshire. Maybe she loved the world so much that deep down in her bones she didn't want to leave and set out to spend her life there? If this is the case then perhaps her books are some of the very first fan fic there is. Now that would be an interesting topic for a dissertation, "Angela Thirkell, the Origins of Fan Fiction."

The character of Laura Morland is now my literary heroine. I seriously adore her. In a time when parents are always PC in books and television shows like The Slap make headlines it's so refreshing to have a heroine who loves her children but knows that they are annoying brats. Laura will willingly hate on her child, but not vindictively. She points out that which aggravates one in the young but never is mean spirited about it. Ah, to have children in a book that aren't precious or precocious! Laura is just honest. She knows herself, she knows the world, she just seems to know everything, including the perfect put-down for an ill-advised yet ardent suitor and seriously, can I be her when I grow up? She is not deluded, she knows she's not the best writer in the world, she knows where she belongs. To read about a person who knows their place in the world so well is interesting. Because so often the world doesn't make the least sense and we can never quite fit, always feeling like the last puzzle piece that obviously doesn't go where it is supposed to. Yet here comes Laura, self assured, self deprecating, self reliant, and true to that self. So many books are about characters finding their place, trying to fit in, the struggle is all, to read a story with a heroine who is past all that is a luxury. To me, this is the ultimate comfort read. I, like Laura, will chose my bed and a gruesome book over King Lear any day.

Another aspect of Laura that I love that extends outwards to the whole of High Rising is this love of the literary, books within books. We have a handful of authors as our main characters and they run the gamut from poets to scholars to cozy mystery writers. I love how Thirkell is able to convey their personalities through their chosen mediums. Adrian Coates was a published teenage poet, and has therefore the right level of demureness coupled with a desire to forget his opus that you would expect of a languishing poetic soul. George Knox is verbose and preachy, which you would expect of a historian. Laura, well, Laura I think is the author in disguise, all honest about her work being their to pay the bills. Laura in fact shares a kindred spirit with another of my favorite literary character, Ariadne Oliver, who, as anyone knows, is Agatha Christie in disguise in her own Poirot mysteries. Perhaps there's just something about authors "secreting" themselves into their own stories that lends something extra, something jovial to the story that is addictive. The ability for anyone to laugh at themselves is key to a good personality, in my mind, so therefore an author who can do the same and then incorporate that into their work, well, that just tickles me. It is rare to find a book that so tailors with what I value in life and in literature, and High Rising is definitely a book written for me.

The most interesting fact of this entire book is even the character I hated, aka Miss Una Grey, aka the Incubus, I loved to hate, and rarely have I hated a character more. I totally disagree with Alexander McCall Smith's statement in the introduction that Miss Grey should have our sympathy. Doesn't he see that she is a total sociopath? She's not a poor lonely girl who is misunderstood, she is a lying, manipulative, she-devil. Yes, sure, occasionally working with someone you might develop feelings, but she takes it to stalker levels. In fact she takes everything too far. She does her job flawlessly, but this is balanced by her doing her crazy flawlessly too. Everything is done to the perfect extreme. When I tried to think of other characters that you are meant to love to hate, Caroline Bingley, Blanche Ingram, Loki, yes, I had to work Tom Hiddleston in somehow, never have I had such a visceral reaction where I longed for the moment everyone would have the definitive proof of her wrong doing and she would be sent packing. This was up there with the childish glee I got when watching The Parent Trap for the first time and the upstart Vicky was sent packing, bear cubs and all! I almost want to re-read the whole book again just to see Miss Grey get what's coming to her.


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