Saturday, March 8, 2014

Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

This delightful romantic comedy is also an expertly observed study of bustling family life. Angela Thirkell is brilliantly witty, and her disorganised matriarch Lady Emily is a comic creation worthy of Dickens or Austen.

There were a lot of witty British novelists working in the early part of the twentieth century, before the Second World War. Think of E. F. Benson, Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons and P. G. Wodehouse. Angela Thirkell, going by her 1933 novel Wild Strawberries, firmly belongs to this group. Her writing shows her to be a shrewd observer of the English upper classes and a talented reporter of their quirks and odditities. She also has a superb ear for dialogue and is highly skilled at portraying complex family dynamics.

The focus of Wild Strawberries is the Leslie family, a rather rambling and idiosyncratic clan, led by the shambolic matriarch Lady Emily Leslie, whose chronic disorganisation is almost an art form. A cast of other interesting family members keeps the story lively and are convincingly drawn, especially the selfish yet charming David Leslie. There's not much plot to talk of, and what plot there is does seem a bit contrived. It's tempting to think that Thirkell lifted some basic story treatments from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (another writer expert at describing bustling family life in full flight.) What makes Wild Strawberries work and feel authentic is the dynamic interplay of the characters and their well rounded personalities. The outsider Mary, who must gingerly negotiate her way amongst the Leslie family, is brilliantly portrayed. Every social gaffe she makes (or thinks she makes) she self-consciously agonises over at painful length. Thirkell takes the reader through every social twist and turn, every awful awkward moment, giving her work a great degree of realism.

What's not yet been mentioned is the brilliant comedy timing and pitch perfect dialogue. A lot of it is a hoot and also very aesthetically satisfying. This is real reading for pleasure. The scenes with the delightfully chaotic Lady Emily are like something straight out of Jane Austen or Dickens. It's always risky to liken authors to Jane Austen, but Thirkell's Lady Emily, both matriarch and unwitting agent of chaos, is surely worthy of the compliment.

At 190 pages long, it was very sad to come so quickly to the end. The good news is Virago have recently published more titles by Angela Thirkell. Wild Strawberries is light entertainment, but it makes for a very pleasant and rewarding diversion.

Wild Strawberries, by Angela Thirkell. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9781844088843 RRP: $22.99