In August Folly, the village of Worsted is staging Hippolytus. Inevitably, the most absurd romances bloom. Boorish young Richard Tebbins, just down from Oxford, falls in love with Mrs. Dean, mother of nine, whose oldest son loves Richard’s sister, but she loves another. And round and round it goes. Amidst a series of comic catastrophes, everyone manages to redeem themselves.
Witty, snobbish, sweet, and evocative, Mrs. Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels provide a bemused scrutiny of British manners in the most delightfully entertaining doses.
Release date: May 1, 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 288
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The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings. At Winter Underclose, Lambton and Fleece, the train stops to allow the passengers to extricate themselves and their baskets from its narrow doors. It then crosses the little river Wool-ram and enters a wide valley, the further end of which is apparently blocked by a hill. Just under the hill is Worsted, where you get out. The valley is not really impassable, for a few hundred yards beyond the station the train enters the famous Worsted tunnel, whose brutal and unsolved murders have been the pride of the district since 1892.
The line is staffed and controlled by three local dynasties: Margetts, Pattens and Polletts. If a Margett is station-master, you may be sure that there is a Patten in the goods yard, or on the platform. If a Patten is engine-driver, his fireman can hardly avoid being a Pollett. If there is a Pollett in the signal-box, there will be a Margett to open the gates of the level crossing and warn the signalman that the train is coming. All three families are deeply intermarried.
Mr Patten is the station-master at Worsted. His head porter is Bert Margett, son of Mr Margett the builder, and his nephew, Ed Pollett, whose father keeps the village shop, is in the lamp-room, and gives such extra help as zeal, unsupported by intellect, can afford. He also has a genius for handling cars.
The inconvenience of the hours of running is made up for by the kindness of the staff. They will hold up a train for any reasonable length of time if old Bill Patten, cousin of the station-master and father of the second gardener at the Manor House, is seen tottering towards the station half a mile away; or young Alf Margett, Bert’s younger brother, from the shop, has forgotten one of the parcels he should have brought on his handlebars, and has to go back to fetch it. Since no trains can proceed until their various drivers have exchanged uncouth tokens of metal, like pot-hooks and hangers, or gigantic nose and ear-rings to be bartered with savage tribes for diamonds and gold, there is no danger.
Most of the land hereabouts is owned by Mr Palmer, whose property, bounded on the north by the Woolram, runs south nearly as far as Skeynes, the next station down the line. East and West are Penfold and Skeynes Agnes, where there is a fine Saxon church. Mr Palmer is a J.P., an excellent landlord, and owner of a very fine herd of cows which supply Grade A milk, at prices fixed by the Milk Marketing Board. His wife, in virtue of her husband’s position and her own masterful personality, has taken the position female Squire.
Of other gentry there are few in the immediate neighbourhood. Lady Bond at Staple Park does not count, because she and Mrs Palmer have not for some time been on speaking terms. There are also the Tebbens, who live at Lamb’s Piece, near the wood above the railway. At the moment when our story opens, on a warm June morning last summer, Mrs Tebben was in her drawing-room, reviewing a book on economics. Happening to raise her eyes to the window, she saw Mrs Palmer opening the garden gate, so she went to warn her husband. Mr Tebben was a Civil Servant during the week, from ten or eleven to six, or such later hour as his country might require, and carried an umbrella wet or fine; but in the evenings, and from Saturday to Monday, he gave himself entirely to the past, taking for his province the heroic age of Norway and Iceland, with excursions into the English Epic. During the War his knowledge of the Scandinavian tongues had been of great use to the censor’s department, from which he had emerged scatheless owing to his great presence of mind in deliberately forgetting to acknowledge the official communication offering him an inferior order of the Empire he had served. He was at this moment sitting in his very small, uncomfortable study, drafting a letter to a learned Society of which he was President, and did not wish to be disturbed.
‘Warning, Gilbert! Warning!’ cried Mrs Tebben, putting her head in at the study door. ‘Louise Palmer!’
As her husband only stared at her with the expression of a mad and rather obstinate bull, startled from its dreams, she began to insert herself into the room. To open the door wider was impossible because of the furniture. The house at Worsted had been altogether Mrs Tebben’s doing. Her husband would have preferred to live permanently in London, where his books would all have been under one roof, but Mrs Tebben, feeling that her children, who were both at school in the country and liked London more than anything in the world, ought to have pure air for their holidays, had plotted and saved towards the purchase of a perpendicular field on the side of a hill near the village of Worsted. From her own earnings, for after taking a first at Oxford she had coached for many years, not letting marriage interfere, and had produced several useful and uninteresting textbooks on economics, she had bought the land and caused to be built Lamb’s Piece, a local name on which she had pounced with educated glee, but no provision had been made for a study. After two miserable years of trying to work in a corner of the drawing-room, distracted by his wife’s village activities, by his son’s rudeness during school holidays and, later, University Vacation, by the ebb and flow of domestic life, Mr Tebben had insisted on a separate work-room.
Mrs Tebben prided herself on being able to argue like a man, with logic and without rancour. This very mistaken point of view was based upon her early passion for a young don, Mr Fanshawe of Paul’s, whose courtesy to his women pupils cleverly concealed his contempt and abhorrence, which passion had consumed her during her last year at college, or rather, during that portion of the year spent in residence. After taking her degree she had done some research, gone on a Norwegian cruise, met and married Mr Tebben, and settled down to coaching and the rearing of a son and daughter. Mr Fanshawe had determinedly ripened into an Oxford character, refusing to use any other than a small, flat, tin bath, and arguing with his women pupils with logic and without rancour; while for his intellectual equals he used every weapon fair and unfair, and nourished feuds which overflowed into every learned journal in Europe.
Mrs Tebben had therefore replied to her husband’s plea for a study:
‘Your point of view is perfectly reasonable, Gilbert. You are the wage-earner, therefore it is only just that you should be comfortable. I will send for Margett, and we will see what we can do.’
‘Isn’t it more a job for an architect, Winifred?’ said Mr Tebben. ‘Margett is only a builder, and look at the mess he made of Mrs Palmer’s barn.’
‘That was quite different. Mrs Palmer wanted to use the barn for Greek plays, so she had to have a fixed basin put in for the actors to wash before they changed into their ordinary clothes. Sandals do let the dirt in so frightfully. It is true that the basin did leak, but as there will be no fixed basin in your study, Margett could do it quite well.’
Mrs Tebben, thus open-mindedly arguing, or rather, trampling kindly over her husband, had summoned Margett, the carpenter and builder. After a long conversation, only two plans were found possible. One was to put the study in the basement, which owing to the perpendicular nature of the land was really a ground floor, the other to take a piece off the dining-room. Mr Tebben would have preferred the lower storey, from which he could escape straight into the garden and away down the valley into the woods, if pressed by enemies, but Mrs Tebben, who liked to have her household under her eye, decided to take a piece off the dining-room. The result was two rooms, both too small for human habitation. In the one the family took their meals, seated at a narrow table, the backs of their chairs grating against the walls, in the other Mr Tebben had made a little hole for himself among his books, where he sat with an oil-stove in winter, and fried in the sun in summer. An ancestral bookcase, with which he refused to part, almost blocked the entrance. It was as high as the room, it stuck out so far that the door could never be more than half opened, its shelves were edged with faded, scalloped fringes of red leather, which, disintegrating, shed dust and leathery crumbs. Owing to the great depth of the shelves the books were double banked. Mr Tebben always knew where a given book should be found, but could not always summon the energy to dig it out from the back row. Mrs Tebben rarely knew where any book she wanted was placed, but was willing to remove all the front rows, lay them with ready cheerfulness on the floor, and when she had found what she wanted, put them back in their wrong places. Their son, Richard, now in his last year at Oxford, had a deep contempt for these and all his parents’ other ways, though, unlike Mr Fanshawe of Paul’s, he did not attempt to conceal his contempt under a mask of courtesy, a social virtue which he condemned as hypocritical snobbery.
‘Louise!’ cried Mrs Tebben again, getting herself through the door and shutting it behind her. ‘Her van will be upon us, before the bridge goes down!’
‘Her van?’ asked Mr Tebben, justifiably puzzled. ‘Oh, I thought you meant she was bringing the milk-lorry down the garden. Well, I can’t see her. I’m busy. I’m writing to Fanshawe. The letter ought to have been sent a week ago. Can’t you stop her?’
‘You’ll have to see her sooner or later,’ said his wife, ‘if it’s about her Greek play. You know she wants you to do Theseus, and she said she would take no denial.’
‘I certainly won’t be Theseus,’ said Mr Tebben. ‘I won’t wear sandals and catch cold and wash my feet in that leaky basin of Margett’s. I have never acted in one of her plays yet, and I never will. Besides, what does the woman know about Greek plays? Let Richard do Theseus when he comes down, or Margett, or Mrs Palmer’s nephew that she’s always talking about. I will not make a fool of myself. You really must tell her I am busy, Winifred.’
‘So be it,’ said Mrs Tebben. But it was not, for Mrs Palmer, who had annoyingly come round by the garden, in at the drawing-room window, and so through the hall, now intruded herself. Those who did not admire Mrs Palmer both disliked and feared her hectoring methods, but she was entirely indifferent to moral temperatures. Her husband avoided her activities as much as possible, and was very fond of her, having that affectionate reverence for his wife which is one of the advantages, from the female point of view, of the childless marriage. It is so much more difficult for a husband to cherish and revere the mother of several healthy children who take possession of her time and devotion.
Mr Palmer’s only and much younger sister, Rachel, had married Frank Dean, the head of a large engineering firm. The Deans had lived abroad a good deal, on account of Mr Dean’s work, and their large family had made the Manor House a kind of headquarters. Of late they had not been down so often, and were not well known to the Tebbens. The nephew that, according to Mr Tebben, Mrs Palmer was always talking about, was Laurence Dean, the eldest son. He had been for some years in his father’s firm and was eventually to inherit most of Mr Palmer’s property. His aunt Louise was devoted in her high-handed way to him and his brothers and sisters, and made as much fuss over them as if she were the hen that had hatched someone else’s eggs.
‘News! News!’ cried Mrs Palmer, waving a letter at the Tebbens. ‘I had to come round and tell you, Winifred, and as I met your Mrs Phipps at the shop, I knew there would be no one here to answer the bell, so I came creeping round by the drawing-room. I shall just tell you about it and run away, for the great man must not be disturbed.’
Mr Tebben, who detested being called a great man, got up, but was unable to offer his caller a seat, as he had the only chair in the little room, and Mrs Palmer could not have squeezed her stout, imposing person behind the table. Luckily Mrs Tebben, who in some ways had never developed spiritually since the days of cocoa-parties in a bed-sitting room at college, remembered refreshments, and said to Mrs Palmer:
‘You must have a cup of tea. Mrs Phipps will be back in a moment, and the kettle is just on the boil. We always have tea in the morning. Come into the drawing-room and Gilbert will join us.’
Rather suspiciously Mrs Palmer allowed herself to be led into the drawing-room, where sofas and chairs heaped with papers showed that Mrs Tebben had been working. It was a pleasant side of Mrs Tebben’s character that although her own books were described, by those who read them, as important, she was entirely modest about what she had done, and never dreamt of demanding elbow-room or solitude for herself, although she accepted their necessity for her husband. There were more bookcases, photographs of places in Norway and Iceland that they had visited before children put such an expense out of the question, and in a corner a small upright piano, celebrated for having belonged to Mr Tebben’s mother, but possessing no other merit. Mrs Tebben, clearing an armful of papers and a huge tabby cat off the sofa, invited her visitor to sit down.
‘It is about the Deans,’ said Mrs Palmer. ‘I have had a letter from Rachel. She and Frank and five, or is it six, of their children, are coming to the Dower House for the summer.’
‘Mr Palmer’s sister and her husband?’ said Mrs Tebben. ‘Gunnar, put your claws in!’
‘Yes. Fred is so delighted, and so am I, because they will be able to help with my play. You know we are doing Hippolytus this summer. That is partly what I came to see you about.’
‘I must see about the tea,’ said Mrs Tebben, getting up again. ‘I’ll send Gilbert to you, if you’ll excuse me for a moment. Gilbert! Gilbert!’ she shouted as she passed the study door, ‘Mrs Palmer is alone in the drawing-room. Entertain her. I must see about some tea,’ and so disappeared into the kitchen.
Mr Tebben unwillingly rose, went into the drawing-room, saved Mrs Palmer from Gunnar, who was preparing to sharpen his claws on her skirt, sat down beside her, and said nothing.
‘We are doing Hippolytus this summer, you know,’ said Mrs Palmer, for the second time. ‘We know that you are only free at weekends, but we are very anxious to get you. Theseus cries out for you in the part.’
‘Greek isn’t my subject,’ said Mr Tebben. ‘The Scandinavian languages are more in my line. Now, if you were doing something in the nature of a saga – but no, it wouldn’t do. No, I positively couldn’t act, even in a saga. Besides, I don’t think the village would understand Norse.’
‘But we aren’t acting sagas,’ said Mrs Palmer, ‘it’s Euripides.’
‘Greek is much the same,’ said Mr Tebben. ‘They wouldn’t understand Greek. No, I really don’t think they would.’
‘It isn’t Greek, it’s English – a translation.’
‘I don’t think they’d understand a translation either,’ said Mr Tebben determinedly.
‘My nephew, Laurence Dean, that you have so often heard me talk about,’ said Mrs Palmer, trying a fresh point of attack, ‘will be here for the summer. His parents, my sister-in-law and her husband, will be at the Dower House with some of their children, I mean Laurence to do Hippolytus. Now, if you did Theseus, we should at least feel that we had a nucleus.’
Mrs Tebben now came in, with a three-legged cake-stand, followed by Mrs Phipps, carrying a wavering brass tray of tea-things. When the tray had been balanced on an eight-legged folding stand, Mr Tebben got up.
‘“Two legs sat on three legs, milking four legs”,’ he said meditatively. ‘Dear Mother Goose. Well, I must get back to my work. That letter to Fanshawe should have been written a week ago. Goodbye, Mrs Palmer. Villagers understand nothing, so it really will not matter what you do.’
With which helpful remark he picked up the tabby cat, and going quickly back to his study resumed his letter to Mr Fanshawe, whose society held outrageous views about the Elder Edda.
‘What a splendid Theseus he would make,’ said Mrs Palmer, as her host went out.
‘Milk?’ said Mrs Tebben. ‘I’m afraid you will never get Gilbert to do Theseus. In fact, I know he won’t. Gunnar! Gunnar! Do you want some milk? Oh, Gilbert must have taken Gunnar into the study. You know he doesn’t like the Greeks. Gilbert, I mean. He says they were uncomfortable.’
‘Well, it can’t be helped,’ said Mrs Palmer, taking a notebook out of her bag and crossing out an entry. ‘We shall have to find someone else. It isn’t a big cast. Theseus, Hippolytus, a huntsman, and a henchman are all the men. Margett will be the huntsman, and Patten, my second gardener, the henchman. I dare say Pollett, at the shop, will do Theseus if Mr Tebben really can’t be persuaded. And then, about Hippolytus…’
‘Richard comes down today and might be able to help. He will be here all the summer, I hope. He has been doing Greats, so he would know the play. Not in English, of course, but then he knows the original, and could get the spirit,’ said Mrs Tebben, going into the trance of adoration which any thought of Richard always induced.
‘Perhaps he would train the chorus for me, then,’ said Mrs Palmer, with great presence of mind. ‘That is where real skill is required. I had thought of Laurence for Hippolytus. He has had a good deal of experience. He is in his father’s engineering firm, and they have an excellent amateur dramatic society.’
She did not add that, in her opinion, anyone whose ears stuck out as much as Richard’s was naturally disqualified for a part which did not demand a wig.
Mother, and aunt by marriage, each eager in the defence of her absent young, were silent for a moment, massing their forces for the next move. Mrs Palmer, who had quicker wits than her friend, got in first.
‘I wish there were a part for you, Winifred,’ she said regretfully. ‘Your Lady Montagu was such a success the year we did Romeo and Juliet. I could hardly ask you to do the nurse in Hippolytus.’
There was no inflection of interrogation in her voice, but Mrs Tebben chose to take it that there was.
‘Of course I’ll do the nurse,’ she said obligingly. ‘It’s a longer part than Lady Montagu, but I learnt those two lines very easily, and it will simply be a question of application. I shall give myself regular hours for study, as I used to do in the old days. And what about you?’
Mrs Palmer had been thinking very quickly.
‘I shall lead the chorus,’ she said, feeling that by so doing she could foil any attempt on Richard’s part to train the villagers in his own way. ‘And my niece Helen, Laurence’s sister, will do Artemis,’ she continued hurriedly, ‘she drives a racing car. That fat daughter of Mrs Phipps’s, Doris, I mean, will have to do Aphrodite, because Mrs Phipps is helping with the dresses. That only leaves Phaedra. Neither of Dr Thomas’s girls from the Rectory can act without giggling, and I don’t want to ask Lady Bond, because we are at war about a fence. My sister-in-law, Laurence’s mother, would take the part, I am sure, and she looks wonderfully young for forty-eight, but she cannot ever remember her words. What shall we do?’
‘Margaret will be coming home next week,’ said Mrs Tebben, suddenly remembering the daughter whom, in her worship for Richard, she often forgot. ‘She has been at Grenoble with a family. Not Greeks, but highly cultured people. I think she said something about having met Laurence there in one of her letters.’
Because her mother could only think of Richard, Margaret, who was two years younger, was often forgotten li. . .
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