A captivating comic novel from Angela Thirkell's much-loved 1930s Barsetshire series: trainee barrister Colin Keith makes an ill-advised foray into teaching at Southbridge School.
To his parents' dismay, Colin Keith — out of the noble but misplaced sense of duty peculiar to high-minded young university graduates — chooses to quit his training for the Bar and take a teaching job at Southbridge School.
Little does Colin imagine that he will count among his pupils the demon in human form known as Tony Morland; or that the master's ravishing, feather-brained daughter Rose will, with her flights of fancy and many admirers, spread chaos throughout school and village. Humorous, high-spirited and cleverly observed, Summer Half is a comic delight.
Release date: May 1, 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 288
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‘What’s he like?’ Colin Keith asked the eighth applicant, who came out of the headmaster’s study into the room where Colin was waiting.
‘Fine Old English Gentleman,’ said the applicant enthusiastically. ‘You are welcome to him.’
‘Thanks awfully,’ said Colin. ‘Did he – I mean, did you —?’
‘He turned me down. I might have turned him down, but he got in first,’ said the applicant, who appeared to be taking his failure in a pleasant spirit. ‘I dare say I’ll go on the films.’
Colin, watching him from the window as he got into a small car and drove away, suddenly envied people who had been turned down. At least they were not netted and put into a cage with hundreds of boys. It had been madness to think he could be a schoolmaster. Loathsome visions of novels on school life flitted before his eyes. He saw himself falling in love with the headmaster’s wife, nourishing unwholesome passions for fair-haired youths, carrying on feuds, intrigues, vendettas with other masters, being despised because he hated cricket, being equally despised because he didn’t know the names of birds, possibly being involved in a murder which he could never prove he hadn’t committed, certainly marrying the matron. Just as he had made up his mind to escape, leaving word that he was suddenly taken ill, the headmaster’s rather terrifying butler opened the door and said, ‘Mr Birkett will be glad to see you in his study, sir.’
Of what followed Colin never had any very clear impression. He had a vague recollection of having talked for hours in a voice sometimes shrill with nerves, sometimes unaccountably so husky that Mr Birkett had to ask him to say whatever it was again. He felt that he had said far more about himself and his family than any decent fellow would ever wish to say. He had boasted of his dislike for cricket in a way that would justify his immediate rejection, and told his possible employer that he wouldn’t care if he never saw a bird again. When asked, very courteously, if he was engaged to be married, or likely to be so, he had expressed a few ill-chosen views on women, suddenly seen three large photographs of what must obviously be Mr Birkett’s wife and daughters, and wished he were dead. As through a veil he had heard Mr Birkett’s voice say that the interview had been quite satisfactory, and that he would write to him within the next few days. He had then somehow shaken hands and got away.
The journey between the school and Colin’s home was only twenty miles by road, but as Colin had no car of his own he had to catch a train at Southbridge for Barchester, where he changed into the local line for Northbridge Halt. His father was a solicitor who managed a good deal of the cathedral business in Barchester. When Colin and his elder brother and sister, Robert and Kate, were little their parents had lived near the Close, in the upper storeys of the red-brick house where the family business had been carried on for three generations. The firm of Keith and Keith throve, then another girl, Lydia, was born, and Mr Keith decided to move out of Barchester. A small property called Northbridge Manor, belonging to the cathedral, happened to come into the market and Mr Keith, who had early knowledge of this, was able to buy it at a reasonable figure. The house was a square red-brick building, about a hundred and fifty years old, with well-proportioned rooms. The rambling servants’ quarters had been improved and modernised by Mr Keith, and the garden, which was only separated by a water meadow from the river, was his particular pride. Here he settled very comfortably, partly as a business man, going in daily to his office, partly as a mild form of country squire. His eldest son, Robert, was a junior partner in the family firm of solicitors, and his younger son Colin had only left Oxford the previous summer. As Colin had no particular wish for any one profession, beyond a very ignorant desire to be a publisher, his father had suggested that he should read law, with a view to having a barrister in the family. He had been sent abroad for a few months to improve his French and German, and had come home in the early spring and begun reading at home, till such time as his father told him what to do next.
Colin found the law a fascinating form of literature, and rather enjoyed the drudgery till his conscience very unnecessarily rose and pricked him, telling him that young men ought to be up and doing, and not live on their parents. If Colin had been reasonable, he would have mentioned this matter to his father, with whom he was on perfectly good and easy terms; his father would have pointed out that one must live on something while reading law, and why not on one’s natural helpers and supporters, and he might have settled down again. But Colin, having as was suitable to his age and education a belief in ideals and unconsidered action which it would take him several years to bring into any kind of relation with life, concealed his trouble from his parents and wrote to friends and ex-tutors at Oxford. Through one of these he heard of a position to be had at Southbridge School under an excellent new headmaster, Mr Birkett. He sent in his application, was weeded out from the rest, interviewed, and as we have seen selected, though his choice had not as yet been confirmed in writing.
Colin was the only passenger to get out at Northbridge Halt. As he walked along the lane that led from the station to the Manor, noting with pleasure some early primroses, he rehearsed to himself the interview he would have with his father. In well-chosen words he would explain that he felt his position as a parasite acutely, that a young man should be ashamed to take a small allowance from his parents as well as partaking of their excellent bed and board for long periods, that his father was ageing, that there were his sisters to consider, that having carefully weighed all these considerations he had decided to give up the law, take a position as a schoolmaster, renounce his allowance, and be on the whole the support of his parents’ declining years. His father would then be deeply moved, though in a self-controlled way, the allowance would be withdrawn, Colin would take up his job as Junior Classical Master at Southbridge, and Mr Keith would be able to afford an occasional shrimp with his tea.
When Colin reached home, bursting with self-sacrifice, he found to his annoyance that his father was attending a dinner in Barchester and would not be back till late, and that everyone else was out. Deprived of an immediate outlet for his noble scheme he had a rather sulky tea by himself, with leisure to continue his imaginary dialogue. But as the exhilaration produced by his interview with Mr Birkett and his walk through the spring lanes subsided, the common sense, of which he possessed a considerable though undeveloped quantity, began to perk up its head.
If he looked dispassionately at his excellent and altruistic plan, he had to admit two facts. The first was that his father, though ready to discuss other possibilities, would like him to be a barrister very much indeed. The family firm had done very well since Colin’s great-grandfather founded it, but Mr Keith had a deep wish that one of his sons should go into what is still socially regarded as the higher branch of the law. Robert would make an excellent solicitor and liked the business, so Colin, who had plenty of brains, should be a barrister. It was improbable that he would oppose Colin’s change of plan, for he was a reasonable and indulgent father, but he would be disappointed, and that he wouldn’t show it would make Colin even more uncomfortable.
The other indisputable fact was that Colin knew his father to be almost a rich man. The business was doing so well that even if Mr Keith suddenly died, Robert could perfectly well carry on. His father would treat his suggestion of giving up his allowance as a piece of silliness, and even if Colin refused to take it his father would probably put it into a bank for him, or leave him something more in his will, or in some way thwart his aspirations. In fact, the more he thought of it the more he realised that the world wasn’t properly arranged, and the more doubtful he felt whether anyone would sympathise with him. He went into the darkening garden to commune with nature and in the drive was nearly knocked down by his younger sister, Lydia, returning on her bicycle from the station. Lydia went to the Barchester High School by train every day. As she had to leave the house too early for her father to take her with him in the car, she usually bicycled to the station, left her bicycle with the station-master and picked it up on her way back. Being a Saturday there had been no school, but Lydia had been taking part in the last hockey match of the season. She was wearing the school uniform, supplied by the school without any particular reference to anyone’s age or shape, namely a grey silk blouse, a blue gym tunic, and a blue blazer with brass buttons. Her hat was of blue felt with a grey hatband bearing the school symbol, a tree with three leaves and two pieces of fruit, though no one knew why. Everyone hoped that she had stopped growing.
‘Hullo,’ said Lydia, dismounting, ‘any tea left?’
Colin said there was, in the library, though a bit cold by now, and was going to pursue solitude once more when the thought struck him that Lydia, regarded as an audience, was better than nothing, so he turned with her and went back into the house. Lydia threw her hat onto one chair, her satchel of books onto another, banged against the chair so that the satchel fell off, hit the library door with her body, and dropped herself heavily into a chair. While she drank tepid tea and ate a great deal of bread and butter and cake, Colin was able to consider the best approach to the momentous news he had to impart.
‘I went over to Southbridge today,’ said Colin.
‘Miss Pettinger is an absolute beast,’ said Lydia. ‘She gave us a talk about what do you think today? Honour! Made us ten minutes late for the match.’
‘I went to see the headmaster at the school,’ said Colin.
‘I should have thought you’d never want to see a headmaster again,’ said Lydia. ‘I’ll never want to see a headmistress, but men aren’t quite so foul as women in those sort of ways.’
‘Mr Birkett wasn’t foul at all,’ said Colin indignantly. ‘In fact he was particularly decent to me. He —’
‘Oh, Geraldine Birkett’s father. She’s in my form. She says apart from being a headmaster he isn’t bad at all. She has special Latin with the Pettinger twice a week, poor mutt, but she says she can always make the Pettinger switch off onto Honour, or Nurse Cavell, or something. Her elder sister is engaged to a master in the school. She seemed to think it rather noble, but I said “Farewell, Romance”, and so she had a feud with me for two days. Fancy getting engaged to an assistant master!’
This was getting less and less promising.
‘I’m sorry you think assistant masters such a poor affair,’ said Colin stiffly, ‘as I’ll probably be one myself this summer.’
If Colin wanted to astonish his young sister, he had succeeded. Lydia sat, obviously disbelieving but temporarily silenced, while Colin continued, ‘I’m tired of being an expense to Father, and I think it’s high time I did something for myself. So I applied for a job at Southbridge, and I had an interview with the headmaster today, and I think it’s all right. If it is, I’ll start next term, next week that is.’
‘I do think it’s rotten of Pettinger to make our term begin ten days before lots of the other schools,’ said Lydia. ‘I don’t see why all schools shouldn’t have the same Easter holidays. Pettinger and Mr Birkett ought to get together and do something about it. What are you going to teach?’
‘Latin and Greek, and some English and history, and I expect a few other things.’
‘Anyone can teach English,’ said Lydia, ‘even the Pettinger. I say, you couldn’t help me with my Horace, could you? It was all right for Horace, he could put the words in any order he liked, but we have to get them sorted out, and even then they don’t make sense. It’s that one about the man who is just and tenacious of his proposition, you know the one I mean, but “man” is in the accusative in the very first line, and that isn’t English.’
‘Horace was not attempting to write English,’ said Colin, even more stiffly.
‘Oh, all right, if you can’t, you can’t,’ said Lydia, ‘but you’ll have to polish up a bit if you are going to teach Mr Birkett’s boys.’
So saying she rose, swept a teaspoon onto the floor, and left the room as majestically as a gym tunic will permit. Colin felt seriously snubbed and annoyed. An Ode of Horace, even if it started with an accusative, presented no insuperable difficulty to him, but it would now be impossible to make Lydia believe this. Lydia’s views were simple, but unassailable. Being apparently incapable of connected thought, she saved herself a great deal of trouble by a kind of mental toss-up on any question that came under her notice. Black was then black, and she thought no more about it. To distract his thoughts from his disheartening sister Colin decided to have another shot at going for a walk alone, but the noise of the motor outside and his mother’s voice in the hall told him that escape was, for the moment, impossible. His mother came in followed by the parlour-maid, who began to remove the used tea-things.
‘I have just been to the office,’ she said, handing a parcel to Colin, ‘and your father asked me to bring you this. Just some tea, please, Palmer, nothing to eat. He said it would tell you exactly what you wanted about something. He has to dine in Barchester at the County Club, but he won’t be late. Robert and Edith are dining here. Have you had a nice day, darling?’
Colin recognised the book as one which his father had mentioned to him as giving some very valuable information on Railway Law, but now out of print. Mr Keith must have gone to some pains to get it for him, and this was an uncomfortable feeling, just as he was proposing to desert the law.
‘Quite nice,’ he said. ‘I went to Southbridge.’
‘Did you, darling? How nice. Yes, Palmer, just put my tea here, by me, on the little table. What did you do there?’
‘I rather want to talk to you about that, Mother, I went —’
‘Excuse me, madam,’ said Palmer, ‘but Mrs Crawley rang up to say would you and Mr Keith and Miss Kate dine at the Deanery on Tuesday next at eight.’
‘Thanks, Palmer. Please write it down and put it on my writing-table so that I’ll remember to speak to Mr Keith about it. Last time we dined at the Deanery was the day the water main burst and the Bishop’s cellar was flooded.’
‘Yes, madam,’ said Palmer, with an intonation implying that though custom compelled her to wait till her employer had finished speaking, she knew perfectly well that Mrs Keith’s last sentence was only addressed to Mr Colin, and therefore valueless.
‘Well, darling, what did you do at Southbridge?’ said Mrs Keith.
‘I went to see the headmaster, and —’
‘Now, don’t tell me his name,’ said Mrs Keith, holding the teapot in suspense over her cup. ‘I know what it is, because the Dean is one of the Governors, and I remember his mentioning last time we dined there, which must have been more than a year ago, because it was that very night I was telling you about when the main burst, and we haven’t dined there since, because once they asked us and once we asked them, and each time we were engaged, that he had just got a very good new man for the school, but what his name was I can’t think. I had it just now, but it has gone,’ said Mrs Keith reproachfully, as she finished pouring her tea.
‘Birkett, Mother. He seems a very good sort of fellow. I went to see him because I do really feel I ought to be working, Mother.’
‘So does your father,’ said Mrs Keith. ‘In fact he has some plan he wants to tell you about that he has been arranging. But you can read just as well here as you could at Southbridge. No one disturbs you in your own room.’
‘I know, Mother, but this is different. I shan’t earn any money at the law for ages, so I’m going to give it up. I’m going to be a schoolmaster. It’s practically settled that Mr Birkett will have me, and then I’ll be independent and needn’t take an allowance from Father. I hope you won’t mind.’
‘You know I’m not a minder, darling. My Uncle Oswald – you can’t remember him, because he died when you were little, he was the eldest son of that immense family my grandfather had, the eldest of the first family of course, and my father was the youngest of the third family – was headmaster of a very large mission school in Calcutta and became a bishop. Of course you aren’t in orders,’ said Mrs Keith, looking affectionately and abstractedly at her younger son, as if she expected to see his collar turning from back to front under her eyes.
‘Well, so long as you don’t mind, Mother,’ said Colin, relieved and yet disappointed by his mother’s serene want of understanding, ‘that’s all right. I think I ought to go and do some work before dinner.’
He ran upstairs to his bedroom, tore open the parcel, lit his pipe and settled down to enjoy an enthralling account of two cases connected with the running powers of the now defunct London and Mid-Western Railway, which had been tried before Mr Justice Smith in 1847. He was so truly interested and absorbed that he did not look at his watch till ten minutes to eight, when he had to throw down his book and make a lightning change into his evening clothes. Downstairs he found his mother and his sister Kate.
‘Robert and Edith are late,’ said his mother. ‘Palmer, we will wait for Mr and Mrs Robert. Kate, has Colin told you?’
‘Told me what, Mother? Did you know that there are only eleven of those wine-glasses with the stars? I can’t think what has happened to the other.’
‘I knew it was broken,’ said Mrs Keith, assuming the air of a prophetess. ‘That was the kitchen-maid that had the false teeth. She had no business at all to be washing the wine-glasses. About Southbridge. It seems that the new headmaster is delightful.’
‘We might ask him to dinner, Mother,’ said Kate, whose true self was expressed in boundless hospitality and a care for the well-being of those about her. ‘Is he married, Colin? Because it is always awkward if you ask a man and then find he has a wife.’
‘I think so. I don’t really quite know. I went —’
‘I can easily find out at the Deanery,’ said Kate, who did odd jobs of secretarial and library work for the Dean when his chaplain was busy or on holiday. ‘The Dean is a Governor of the school. Mother, I hope you and Father will be able to dine at the Deanery on Tuesday. Mrs Crawley said she had telephoned and she is longing to see you again. Was it nice at Southbridge, Colin?’
‘Not exactly nice, but very interesting. You see, I went —’
‘Mr and Mrs Robert,’ said Palmer.
If it had been a dinner-party, she would have announced Mr and Mrs Robert Keith, but as it was only family, she unbent to their level.
A great deal of family kissing took place. Lydia joined them in an elderly black velvet dress which she had forced her mother to buy against her better judgement, and they went in to dinner. Colin sat between Lydia and his sister-in-law for whom he had a not very interested affection. But this evening he felt sure that he would find in her a sympathetic listener, for would not his renunciation of the allowance put bread, as it were (though he secretly had to admit that it wasn’t) into the mouths of her two children? But before he could begin on the subject, Lydia, magnanimously anxious for a reconciliation, had captured him.
‘I say,’ said she, ‘I didn’t mean to be a nuisance about that Horace.’
‘You weren’t. Shall I give you a hand with it after dinner?’
‘Thanks awfully, Colin, but I’ve done it. It wasn’t so bad after all. I liked that bit about “impa. . .
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