For those who have read and reread Austen, Trollope and Dickens, discovering a novel by Angela Thirkell is akin to finding gold in an abandoned mine. Long out of print, her novels are currently enjoying a minor renaissance.
Before Lunch is a portrait of the charming English community of "Barsetshire," based on the author's own Yoknapatawpha County. When a newly built tea shop and garage threaten to spoil the bovine pastures of Pooker's Piece, Lady Bond and Lord Pomfret unite with the Middletons and the Stoners to stop it. In the meantime, the young and the not-so-young all fall in love—though not always with the right person—and sort out their affairs in a hilarious welter of cross-purposes.
Release date: May 5, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 320
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Giving his camel hair dressing-gown a petulant twitch he walked back to the table where his breakfast tray and his letters had been put. The cup of coffee that he had poured out ten minutes ago was now tepid with a crinkling skin on its surface. It was more than flesh and blood could stand. He strode to the door, opened it and bellowed his wife’s name into the passage. No one answered. He banged the door to, spooned the horrid skin clumsily into the saucer, drank the tepid coffee to which nauseating fragments of milky blanket still clung, and looked at the rest of his post. Business, letters from the office, contractors’ estimates. He slammed them angrily down again and returned to the east window, chewing the cud of his resentment against his sister, who by her inconsiderate wish to spend the summer near him had entirely and eternally wrecked his peace of mind.
Presently a creaking sound became audible, then the clop of a horse’s hoofs at a slow walk, then a gentle clatter of harness and trappings, the encouraging voice of a carter. Round the corner of the lane came a bright blue farm cart with red wheels, drawn by a benevolent monster with long hairy trousers and a shining coat. The cart was laden with early hay, and one axle was in sore need of greasing. Perched sideways behind the monster’s hind quarters was a middle-aged man, giving monosyllabic instructions to the horse who took no notice at all, knowing by long practice exactly what his driver was going to say. On the side of the cart was painted in slanting white lettering:
J. MIDDLETON ESQ.
At the sight of this equipage the watcher from the window felt an exquisite sense of peace and well-being steal over him. There are various degrees of fame. Some would give their name to a rose, some to a mountain, some to a sauce or a pudding, but John Middleton’s secret ambition, ever since boyhood, had been to have a farm cart of his own with his name painted on it. He became vaguely conscious that earth held nothing more satisfying than to look out of one’s window on a summer morning, warmed by coffee, glowing with anticipation of a visit from one’s only sister and her stepchildren, and see a blue farm cart with red wheels, drawn by an imperturbable cart-horse, driven by Tom Pucken, containing fragrant hay, emblazoned with one’s own name.
‘Morning, Pucken,’ Mr Middleton shouted from the window.
Tom Pucken looked up, showing a handsome, crafty, weather-lined face, touched his disgraceful almost brimless hat, shouted some pre-Conquest instructions to his horse, and was carried away towards the gate that led to the farm. Mr Middleton, refreshed by this encounter, took off his camel hair dressing-gown, finished dressing, and went in search of his wife. But he did not, as one might have expected, go out of his bedroom and down the staircase.
In his earnest desire to make life really comfortable for himself he had arranged his house in an unusual way. For at least four hundred years there had been a farm at Laverings and for most of that time it had been in the possession of the same family, passing sometimes to a son, sometimes to a daughter and the husband, so that however often the name may have changed, the blood was the same. Even so the farmhouse itself had been altered, pulled down in parts and rebuilt, added to, occasionally burnt, but had kept its own spirit and the name of its original builder. When the last owner, having ruined himself by building the White House and trying to be gentry instead of sticking to the farm, decided to sell the place and go to join a cousin with a motor works in Canada, most of the land had been bought by neighbouring farmers, but the house, with a few acres round it, remained derelict.
John Middleton, a rising architect, happened to pass Laverings on a walking tour, recognized it at once as his house, but could not afford to buy it. He had a simple confidence that he would always in the end get what he wanted, a confidence which so far had never been disappointed, though a generous habit of mind and an aged mother to support made it very difficult for him to save money. For ten years Laverings remained empty and desolate. At the end of this time a very unpleasant gentleman called Sir Ogilvy Hibberd suddenly made an offer for it. The county, who disliked and resented Sir Ogilvy because he was a Liberal and not quite the sort we want (though admitting that there had been some perfectly presentable Liberals only one didn’t really know them), suddenly resolved itself into a kind of informal Committee of Hatred, with Lord Bond of Staple Park near Skeynes, well known for having voted against Clause Three of the Root Vegetables Bill, in the chair. Lord Bond, who had more money than he knew what to do with, was pushed by his masterful wife into buying Laverings, together with the White House and four large fields, while Sir Ogilvy Hibberd bought ‘The Cedars’, Muswell Hill, which had come into the market on the death of the Hon. Mrs C. Augustus Fortescue (Fifi), only child and heiress of Bunyan, First Baron Alberfylde.
Lord Bond had felt for some time that there ought to be a sound man at Laverings. What Lord Bond meant by a sound man no one quite knew, nor, apart from a strong feeling against anyone from Cambridge, did he, but a chance meeting with Mr Middleton settled his mind for him. Mr Middleton talked to Lord Bond for an hour and a quarter without stopping and Lord Bond invited Mr Middleton to stay with him at Staple Park. On Sunday afternoon he walked his guest over to Laverings to see the repairs he was doing on the house. By Sunday night Lord Bond, a little dazed, had offered Mr Middleton a long lease of the house at an absurdly low figure and promised to make all the alterations that his new tenant wanted. Mr Middleton at once decided to have the east end of the house entirely to himself, using the original kitchen as a library with the old back stairs communicating directly with a bedroom, bathroom and dressing-room, which he also used as a work-room, on the floor above. His mother, who was unwillingly installed in the country, preferred a hipbath in her bedroom and soon languished and died. Her son mourned her sincerely with the largest wreath of expensive flowers that Skeynes had ever seen, which was described in the local paper as a floral tribute, and then forgot about her, except when sentiment got the better of him.
For ten more years Mr Middleton lived alone at Laverings in great happiness, going to town from Tuesday to Friday every week, working with concentrated violence on Monday and Saturday morning and talking to weekend guests from Saturday afternoon till late on Sunday night or well into the small hours of Monday morning. During this time he set up as a very mild amateur gentleman farmer and had lately added to the little herd of cows; he already possessed the blue farm cart with red wheels whose acquaintance we have just made.
When Mr Middleton met his future wife she was an orphan and over thirty and Mr Middleton was nearly fifty, so it seemed a suitable marriage enough and they had a large wedding in London with a reception at the Bonds’ town mansion in Grosvenor Place and the bride said Thank Goodness now she need never see any of her family again. So she never did, for they lived in quite another county and hunted. Mr and Mrs Middleton had no children, but, as Catherine Middleton truly said, once one had got over the mortification it was really a very pleasant life.
So Mr Middleton went out by the door that led to his little back stair and descended to the library, a large, low, sunny room, with a French window on to the garden, lined with books, furnished with one very comfortable chair, a few less comfortable ones, three large tables heaped with books and papers, and a piano which no one ever played. He looked at the table where material for an article for the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects was accumulating, put his morning’s post on another table and again bellowed aloud for his wife. This time his appeal met with more success, for Mrs Middleton, who had been doing a little gardening, heard his call and came across the lawn. Her husband went out onto the flagged terrace to meet her and affectionately kissed the top of her head. Not that Catherine Middleton was a small woman, but Mr Middleton’s impressive bulk, topped by a slightly bald leonine head, was apt to make everyone else look frail and insignificant.
‘How are you this morning, darling?’ said Mrs Middleton. ‘You look very nice and peculiar.’
‘I fail to see anything peculiar about myself,’ said Mr Middleton.
‘That is because you can’t see yourself, Jack,’ said his wife. ‘You really look very nice and I like you just as you are.’
Mrs Middleton did not exaggerate in calling her husband’s appearance peculiar, for ever since he had bought the farm cart, he had thrown himself vehemently into the part of gentleman farmer and, after a severe struggle with his tailor, ordered his clothes accordingly. This morning he was dressed in a blue shirt, a kind of shooting jacket in large checks with pockets capacious enough for a poacher, orange tawny plus fours, canvas gaiters and heavy nailed shoes. It is true that no gentleman farmer off or even on the stage ever wore so preposterous an outfit or wore it so unconsciously, but to go about looking like an eccentric gave Mr Middleton such unalloyed pleasure that his wife had not the heart to point out to him the marks his nailed shoes made on the parquet floor of the library.
‘I am glad you can tolerate me as I am,’ said Mr Middleton, still suspicious, ‘for at my age it is very improbable that I shall change. Had I been a younger man when you married me, Catherine, a man more suited to you in age, you might have remoulded my life, shaped me again to your liking. But you took pity on an ageing wreck, your young life twined itself round the rugged roots of a storm-shattered tree, and I cannot alter my way of living, I cannot change my spots.’
‘I do love the way you say everything twice over,’ said Mrs Middleton, ‘and I would hate you to change your spots. What were you calling me for?’
Mr Middleton’s impressive face dissolved in a flash and became as formless as water.
‘I called you because I needed you,’ he said, suddenly becoming a heartbroken child. ‘I called you once and you did not come.’
‘And then you called me again and I did,’ said his wife, whose adoration of her husband was unshadowed by any illusions about him. ‘Can I do anything?’
‘It is my sister Lilian,’ said Mr Middleton, recovering himself under his wife’s bracing want of sympathy. ‘I had a letter from her this morning. It is here, in my pocket. No, it is not. You see, Catherine, my memory is not what it was. It is on the library table.’
He turned and went indoors followed by Mrs Middleton.
‘Sit down, Catherine,’ said Mr Middleton, seating himself in the one comfortable chair, ‘and I will read Lilian’s letter aloud.’
When he had done so his wife asked him to give her the letter as it was much easier to understand things if one read them oneself. Rather offended he handed over the letter with a pained and studied courtesy which Catherine ignored.
‘That sounds very nice,’ she said as she gave it back to him. ‘The White House is quite ready and aired. It only needs the beds making up and it will be great fun to have Lilian and the children, and as she says she will bring her own maid there will be no difficulty at all.’
‘Children!’ said Mr Middleton.
‘Well, Denis is twenty-five and Daphne is four years younger, and I could be their mother at a pinch. And at another pinch you could just be their grandfather, I suppose. I mean if you had had a son when you were sixteen and he had had a son when he was sixteen, that’s thirty-two and you are sixty-two, so Denis could be thirty, which leaves him several years to the good.’
‘Why Lilian had to marry a retired Colonel who did nothing but die and leave her with two grown-up stepchildren, I don’t know,’ said Mr Middleton, determined to have a grievance.
‘I daresay she didn’t either,’ said Mrs Middleton placidly. ‘One usually doesn’t. Falling in love makes one do very peculiar things. Look at us. There couldn’t be two people less suited, but we simply had to get married. I do love you, Jack.’
Mr Middleton looked at his wife and his face which had been wearing an uneasy irritated expression melted to pure tenderness, a look that always pierced his wife’s heart, though she did not think it good for him to know this, so she asked when Mrs Stonor wanted to come. Her husband said next week and this was one of his working days and she must know that if he could not break the back of the day’s work before lunch he might as well retire and leave his practice to a younger man. So she laid her hand on his shoulder and went across the garden to the White House.
Lord Bond when he bought the property had so altered and improved the White House that it made a very pleasant residence, forming part of the Laverings estate. Up till the beginning of the year it had been let to the widow of a retired General, and when she died Mr Middleton decided to keep it as an overflow lodging for his weekend parties or to lend or let it to friends. Sarah Pucken, the carter’s wife, was willing to oblige when the house was full and could usually produce a daughter for emergencies. Mrs Pucken had been a kitchenmaid at Staple Park before she married and knew her place to quite an alarming extent. It still pained her to feel that her husband was one of the lower class, but she fed him very well and allowed him half a crown a week out of his wages for himself. Her three elder daughters were all in service in good houses. Two were still at home and showed rebellious symptoms of wishing to go into Woolworth’s, but their masterful mother had already found a place as kitchenmaid with Mrs Palmer at Worsted for Ireen whom no one but Mrs Middleton called Irene, and had her eye on a sixth housemaid’s place for Lou. This youngest scion of the Puckens had been christened Lucasta after Lady Bond, who had with overpowering condescension personally stood godmother to her ex-kitchenmaid’s child, but it was well understood by the village that the name Lucasta was no more to be used than the best parlour.
Mrs Middleton went down the flagged path, through the gate, across the lane and in at the White House gate. With the key that she had brought with her she unlocked the front door. To her surprise she heard voices at the back of the house and going to the kitchen found Mrs Pucken and Lou having what Mrs Pucken called a good clean. Everything in the kitchen was wet. The kitchen table was lying on its side while Lou scrubbed the bottoms of its legs and her mother scrubbed out the drawer. Mrs Middleton stopped short on the step that led down to the kitchen and was one of the architect’s mistakes, and surveying the damp scene with interest, said Good morning to Mrs Pucken.
‘I dessay you was quite surprised to see me and Lou, madam,’ said Mrs Pucken in the voice of a conjurer who has produced a rabbit from a top hat. ‘I was just passing the remark to Lou that Mrs Middleton would be quite surprised to see me and her, didn’t I, Lou?’
‘Mum said you would be quite surprised seeing her and me,’ said Lou, whom no efforts of her mother’s could bring to say Madam, although she had no wish to be impolite.
‘Well, I am surprised,’ said Mrs Middleton, feeling that by making this confession she might escape a repetition of the statement. ‘And,’ she continued hurriedly, ‘I was just coming to ask you to give the house a good dusting as soon as you had time, because Mr Middleton’s sister, Mrs Stonor, is coming down next week with her stepson and stepdaughter.’
‘There now, Lou, what did I tell you?’ said Mrs Pucken. ‘When Miss Phipps at the Post Office told me there was a letter from Mrs Stonor gone up to Laverings I said to Pucken, Depend on it, Pucken, I said, we shall be having Mrs Stonor down on us before we can turn round. So I hurried up with Pucken’s breakfast and brought Lou along with me to give the kitchen a good clean out. When did you expect Mrs Stonor and the young lady and gentleman, madam?’
Mrs Middleton had long ago accepted Miss Phipps’s inquisitions into the mail bag and was indeed inclined to admire her unerring memory for every correspondent’s handwriting. Miss Phipps took the broadest view of His Majesty’s Post Office regulations and would always keep letters back at the shop instead of sending them up to Laverings if Mr Middleton telephoned that he was going up to town by the early train and would call in for his. More than once had she allowed him to hunt through the bag for his own letters, open them and alter a word or a figure, and if Laverings wanted to ring up any neighbour she always knew if the person wanted was at home, calling on a neighbour, or shopping at Winter Overcotes where the chemist would take a message. As she had never put her power and knowledge to any but kindly uses no complaint had ever been made and the Inspector, though he vaguely suspected something, could not put his finger on it.
Mrs Middleton said she expected the Stonors on Saturday week.
‘There,’ said Mrs Pucken, sitting back on her heels, ‘it’s a good thing I’ve got the kitchen clean. Monday me and Lou can do out the drawing-room and Tuesday the dining-room and Wednesday the best bedroom and Thursday —’
‘But you did them out only last week, after Mr Cameron had been here,’ said Mrs Middleton, who had housed her husband’s partner and another member of the firm at the White House for a weekend.
‘I like that Mr Cameron,’ said Mrs Pucken reflectively, ‘and Lou wished she had his photo, didn’t you, Lou?’
Lou giggled and set the table on its legs again.
‘But I couldn’t let Mrs Stonor come in here not without I give the rooms a proper cleaning, madam,’ said Mrs Pucken, suddenly becoming businesslike. ‘Come along, Lou. There’s some nice suds in the pail and you can wash the scullery floor. I remember Miss Stonor as well as if it was yesterday, the time she came down to Laverings and the Jersey was ill. Miss Stonor was up with her all night and Pucken said she had a heap of sense, madam, not like some young ladies. Mr Middleton quite took on about that Jersey, didn’t he, madam, Lily Langtry, that was her name.’
Casting her mind back to the last visit the young Stonors had paid them three or four years earlier, Mrs Middleton thought that ‘put out’ but imperfectly represented her husband’s state of mind at the time. His anxiety for his best cow to whom he believed himself to be fondly attached, though he never knew her from her fellows, was combined with intense distaste for the medical details that his sister’s stepdaughter poured out at every meal during her attendance on the invalid.
‘And young Mr Stonor, he was took dreadful,’ Mrs Pucken continued, enjoying her own reminiscences. ‘The doctor come twice a day for a week and he looked like a corpse. I do hope he’s better now, madam.’
Yes, reflected Mrs Middleton, that part of the young Stonors’ visit had not been a success either. It was not poor Denis’s fault that he had been delicate and still got bronchitis when other people were having sunstroke, nor was it his stepmother’s fault that she had been in America at the time and could not come and nurse him herself. But Mr Middleton, while generously supplying money for nurses and doctors, had deeply resented the presence of an invalid in his comfortable house. He had a kind of primitive animal hatred of any kind of illness, except his own occasional colds which were in a way sacred and drove every other subject out of the conversation. Even his wife’s rare ailments drove him almost to frenzy with fear and dislike and it was tacitly understood that no servant must be seen if she was coughing or looked pale. The result of Denis’s unlucky illness had been that Mr Middleton nearly quarrelled with his sister on her return from America and had refused to ask the Stonors to the house again. Mrs Stonor, who really loved her brother, had concocted with her sister-in-law this plan for taking the White House, hoping that at a safe distance he and her stepchildren would get on. If only Denis would keep well and Daphne would be a little less healthy Mrs Middleton thought it might do, and she looked forward to the Stonors as next-door neighbours.
‘Yes, he is better, Mrs Pucken,’ she said, ‘and working very hard. You know he writes music’
‘Yes indeed, madam,’ said Mrs Pucken pityingly, for as she afterwards said to Lou no one didn’t write music. Play the piano, or the ocarina, or turn the radio on, yes: but write, no. Then she disappeared into the scullery with the nice suds and Mrs Middleton went upstairs. The bedrooms looked spotless in spite of Mrs Pucken’s threats of cleaning. Mrs Middleton automatically straightened one or two pictures which Mrs Pucken would certainly put askew again as she dusted them, and looked out of the window. Through a little silver birch, across the cheerful flower borders and the grass, she saw Laverings comfortably mellow red in the sunlight and could almost see, through the open library window, her husband wrestling with his article for the Journal of the R.I.B.A. Her heart suddenly swelled with affection for her large, overpowering autocrat, who bullied his clients so unmercifully and needed her own strength for his own weakness. How weak he was very few people besides his wife knew. Mrs Middleton thought of them. Lilian Stonor had never admitted it, but Mrs Middleton had once or twice caught a fleeting glance that told her how exactly Jack was estimated by his sister. Mrs Pucken, of all people, knew it and stood in no fear of the roaring domestic tyrant at all. As for Alister Cameron, the junior partner of the firm, she never quite knew what he knew. For ten years he had worked assiduously and untiringly with Mr Middleton, shouldering all the drudgery of the office and never putting himself forward. Beyond the fact that he was absolutely trustworthy, read the classics for his own pleasure, reviewed books on them with cold fury, and had rooms in the Temple, no one knew much about him. That he loved and admired Mr Middleton, she knew. How much his love was the protective pity that she herself often felt she did not quite want to guess. That her husband was a brilliant architect, a most unusual organizer and had an astounding gift for seizing the moment and making money for his firm she was well aware, but she feared that one serious check in his hitherto unchecked career might find him out. She had once hinted at something of the kind to Mr Cameron. He had listened attentively and then said that success could make people very vulnerable. ‘But,’ he added, ‘he will always recover himself because whatever events may do, you won’t let him do. . .
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