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Northbridge Rectory

Barsetshire in war-time: officers billeted in the Rectory, black-out in force in the village, and good manners vanished from the shops for the duration. Old friends in a new setting.

Each of Angela Thirkell's books brings a few characters to the fore. Northbridge Rectory tells us more about Harold Downing and Ianthe Pemberton, living within their means by excercising the strictest frugality and economy while continuing research into obscure Provençal poets. Both from external circumstances and from the tension between their characters, their life is not easy; a corrective to anyone who might carelessly conclude that Thirkells are all to do with effortless, happy love and marriage in the monied middle classes.

But as Thirkell is too wise and generous to set an entire book in the same key, there is of course just as much evidence of people living a less complicated life, people like Mrs Turner's cheerful nieces innocently and safely flirting with the soldiers they – of course – end up engaged to.

And then, and then ... there is Mrs Major Spender. We see very little of the major himself, who seems to be a quiet, shy and retiring sort of man. The marriage of these two people is a convincing mystery, an illustration of the fact that "I can't think what they see in each other" criticises our blindness more than their judgement. Here's an example of Mrs Spender at her best, supremely unselfconscious:

Believe it or not, for it sounds too fantastic, my dears, if you know what I mean, but the Germans had absolutely millions of boats with no bottoms. I mean they were flat underneath, not spiky, and they filled them, simply filled them, my dears, with these poor boys who had never left home before and didn't even know what the sea was. Of course I'm funny that way, but what I say is boys will be boys. My cousin who is in the Service said the sea was like a millpond and all the boats coming across till they were near the coast, and then what should appear but one of our warships, but of course I mustn't say which, and she steamed round and round among the boats, simply round and round I ask you and made such a wash that all these poor boys, for really they were no better, were so sick they didn't know what to do and all the boats were swamped. Their officers set them all on fire to try and save them, but not a single one escaped and the shore was one mess of remains next day, I mean too ghastly for words, practically unrecognisable if you see what I mean. And to this day little Adolf hasn't an idea, I mean not an idea what happened.