Friday, 8 April 2011

Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell

Warning: this does contain plot spoilers, for which I won’t apologise, since I talk about the novel in relation to the author’s own life.

Ankle Deep was a first novel, and not one of her Barsetshire series (it followed her memoir of her early childhood, Three Houses). It’s a clearly autobiographical story of a young woman trapped in a marriage which isn’t on the surface particularly unhappy, but leaves Aurea deeply unsatisfied. Her new friend Fanny, frivolous, manipulative, and married to Aurea’s first love, decides that a mild flirtation is just what both Aurea and Fanny’s husband Arthur need to while away the period of Aurea’s visit from Canada, leaving Fanny free to continue her own harmless flirtation with their friend, Valentine Ensor. Of course, Valentine and Aurea fall painfully in love; in the end, only the rather wet Aurea is damaged, as Valentine is far too shallow to suffer greatly. I spent much of it wanting to give Aurea a good shake and to lock Fanny up where she couldn’t do any more harm.

I found it interesting that Aurea is a self-portrait, since Thirkell’s other alter ego is Mrs Morland in the Barsetshire novels, and you couldn’t have anyone more unlike Aurea. Mrs Morland is clearly Thirkell as she would like to be, but Aurea is much more surprising. Ankle Deep was written hard upon the break-up of Thirkell’s marriage, and acknowledged as autobiographical by both the author herself and her closest friends, but it’s not especially flattering; it’s interesting that the working title of the book was "Three Sillies". Aurea, although married, is naïve and inexperienced, and her refusal to embark on an actual affair serves to emphasise these qualities. And the close identification of Angela with Aurea, lends veracity to the characterisation. However, if Valentine Ensor depicts a real person that Thirkell fell in love with while she was home from Australia on a visit, she chose a wise course in not succumbing to temptation. Not that he’s a seducer and a cad, or anything, just that he’s weak and self-centred, and the charm would soon wear off. But then, after two failed marriages, Thirkell just might have started to learn about such men.

According to Thirkell’s biographer, Margot Strickland, in the senior Howards Thirkell paints a recognisable picture of her own parents, and apparently suffered some trepidation before publication. In many ways I think they are the best of Ankle Deep, affectionately portrayed in both their strengths and foibles, and a clear indicator of Thirkell’s potential as a novelist; elements of both recur in the Barsetshire novels, where she honed the gently irritating ways of Mr Howard is something much sharper and funnier. In the same year (1933), she published the first of the Barsetshire books, High Rising, and then she settled down, like Mrs Morland, to writing “the same book every year” until her old age.

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