Christmas at High Rising | Angela Thirkell #ALiteraryChristmas

Back in March, when Covid news was dominating every airway and program, I turned to Angela Thirkell’s High Rising for some light relief and old-fashioned comfort. So when I spotted A Literary Christmas over at In the Bookcase, I knew that another trip to High Rising was imminent.

Christmas at High Rising is a collection of eight short stories written between 1928 and 1942, but only brought together into a Virago Modern Classic in 2013. Most are set in High Rising with our much loved characters, but a couple are stand alone pieces. Most are set over the Christmas period but not all.

Pantomime was first published in 1935 in Harper’s Bazaar and mostly features George Knox, author-at-large, planning to take a group of children to the theatre. His granddaughter being only 6 months old, his wife convinces him to take Tony, Rose and Dora instead. The story consists of a tedious game of charades initiated by young Tony followed by a ghastly display of ‘look-at-me’ whilst at the theatre, when he spots a school buddy in the audience. How on earth, his mother puts up with him, I do not know!

Christmas at Mulberry Lodge was first published in 1940 in The Shining Tree and Other Christmas Stories. This one takes us back in time to a Victorian era nursery and two young children, Mary and William on the night before Christmas. Mary is determined to stay awake to see Father Christmas. Naturally these plans do not go to plan.

St Valentine’s Holiday declares itself upfront, that it is not a Christmas story, it does however return us to High Rising. First published in February 1936 in Harper’s Bazaar, the tiresome Tony comes home from school for the weekend to create his Valentine cards. He is a man on a mission, although a lovely young French lass may derail his high-minded plans. Tony again reveals that his ability to talk himself up, is better than his actual doing – in the creation of Valentine cards as well as ice skating on the local pond.

Published in 1937 in Harper’s Bazaar, High Voltage at Low Rising, is George Knox, author-at-large, all a-flutter about his latest guest appearance on the wireless. Naturally, Tony knows all about electricity and transformers, having just learnt about them at school. Unfortunately, nobody at High or Low Rising is able to listen to George’s talk, after Tony manages to blow the fuses at several houses!

The Private View was published in Cornhill Magazine in 1934. It features the Dighton Phelps’, a Miss Brown and her friend Amelia, who is the niece of a celebrated, although ‘dead for a good many years’ artist. This is one of Thirkell’s stories hard to stomach by a modern reader. An Argentinian client at the art gallery is spoken of in very disparaging terms. In fact, it is now so offensive, I will not repeat the comments here. But it got me thinking about the nature of racism and cultural norms.

I am also currently reading My Love Must Wait by Ernestine Hill, first published in 1941. The casual, unthinking and culturally appropriate (for the 1940’s) racism is astounding to my more modern sensibilities. Both books and both authors are a product of their times. What they wrote was considered to be normal and fair by most of their readers. However, the so-called moral, cultural, educational and historical superiority on display with these comments makes me wonder what moral high ground that we now consider entirely appropriate, and even right and without question, today, will be held up to question by future generations.

Because every generation has its time.

As you’re living it, you cannot but help think that you are the most advanced, modern and with-it generation that ever was. You compare yourself to history and find this to be true. Yet, we fail to accept that those generations of old felt just like we do about our modern world. Their world was modern, advanced and with-it to them. They could not imagine that future generations would judge them harshly for the way they thought or acted. They believed that their beliefs were self-evident and a sign of how modern and with-it they really were.

But times change.

They always do.

These stories are problematic, but I will not ban them, or deny others the opportunity to read them. Being offended by their racist commentary is a sign of the progress we have made since then. It reminds us of our history and why our governments and institutions still struggle to stamp out the systemic racism embedded into their very beings. It’s easy to write these stories and these authors off as being wrong. But they did not see anything wrong with what they said back then. Back then it was the right thing to say, or at least the normal thing to say. It was how they lived. Denying this, or judging this, stops us from seeing the long line of history that we ourselves are attached to. A history of racial strife that goes back thousands of years, across every continent. We are all a part of the story of racial tension and discord, in a long history of racial tension and discord. We are simply the next chapter. More chapters are still to come.

Rant over! (Too much Christmas pudding for me!)

Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out was published in 1928 in Cornhill Magazine. It was a fun piece about the parties and eating experiences in Shakespeare’s plays. Thirkell was of the view that Shakespeare did not know what he was talking about!

The Great Art of Riding brings us back into young Tony’s world. First published in Harper’s Bazaar in1935, Tony is once again showing off with very little cause. He believes he is a very good horse rider with an amazing affinity for horses; his efforts on horseback prove otherwise. Chagrin is not in Tony’s vocabulary though, and his horse riding tales continue right to the bitter end.

A Nice Day in Town was published in 1942 in London Calling: A Salute to America. World War II was in full flight, with no end in sight. These are the stories I find particularly fascinating. Written without any foreknowledge of how the war was to end, Thirkell gives us a snapshot of life in London (and High Rising) during what we now know was the middle of rationing. Tony is in artillery officer school, while Laura is regretting giving away all her saucepans, a colander and a three-tiered steamer to the cause. This very English stoicism, and their ability to be comforted by a strong cup of tea and to count one’s blessings, is rather heartening and inspirational during our own trying times.

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15 thoughts on “Christmas at High Rising | Angela Thirkell #ALiteraryChristmas

  1. Hey Brona, This post is notified to me as coming from WordPress.com, rather than from Brona’s Books. Below it and above it the senders are Reading Matters and Whispering Gums. Just something else for you to sort out (ask Karen!).
    I’m not surprised that Thirkell was racist in that offhand upper class English way – she was in Trooper to the Southern Cross. But I am very surprised by Ernestine Hill. I hope you give some page no.s when you do your review. I have reported her as holding very anti-racist views (Particularly in relation to slavery in the Broome pearling inductry).

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    1. Thanks Bill I’ll look into that.

      Hill’s racism is mostly of the paternalistic type. I will check back for page numbers & whether they are comments attributed to Flinders, rather than Hill’s own descriptions. She does use a lot of racial profiling statements though to do with eyes, brows, lips & noses though.

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  2. Hey, you’ve moved house! Congratulations! I think I’m too cowardly.

    I’ve never read this collection of Christmas bits, and some of it sounds pretty skippable. Tony Morland is fine in small doses…I was reading one of the wartime volumes a few weeks ago and was quite shocked to find Lucy Marling carelessly spouting racial epithets — while at the same time, governesses correct sloppy slang and nobody ever says a word worse than ‘damn.’ It was very jarring, but of course it was completely realistic too.

    Over here in the US, the impetus to erase history by never reading any old books (with their poisonous attitudes) has been rising steadily. This means that only books written in the last few years are suitable, since former popular favorites lose their places quickly.

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    1. Thank you for finding my new home Jean. I will be putting together a post soon about what I learnt during the changeover, in case it might help anyone else wondering if they could/should.

      I don’t have a problem with being challenged or jarred by older ways of thinking. In fact, I think it can be instructive to chart the changes in the way we think, talk, act. It doesn’t mean we agree with the old ideas or comments, but we can learn from them. Ignoring our history is a perilous road I fear.

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  3. I went on a Thirkell binge during a particularly stressful time a month or so ago. She was exactly what I needed. I don’t think I have every read this volume of short stories though. I thoroughly enjoyed your rant. I agree with it completely. Yes, older books contain problematic writing but that is the way many people thought and spoke. We can’t rewrite history and not reading it is doing just that. I like how you wondered what moral high ground we have today will be questioned by future generations. So true. We are not the end result of progress, we are simply part of the process.

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    1. I often hear B20 going on about how could people possibly think and write what they did back then. He keeps asking how they didn’t know it was wrong and he certainly doesn’t think anyone should have to read something that might offend them. Obviously, people should avoid their known trigger issues, but avoiding things that cause discomfort or discord is like burying your head in the sand.

      We all need some dissonance to help us grow and mature. And it doesn’t end here. We try to tell him that when he is a father of a 20-something, they will question him on the way he is living his life right now and call him old-fashioned! But he cannot see that far ahead just yet.

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  4. I love Tony Morland but am in the minority. I also enjoy best Thirkell’s books and stories written during WW2. I have been working my way through her novels but am stopping at the end of the war as her casual racism and snobbery are Too Much. It’s very difficult sometimes, isn’t it. I thought this volume was a bit of a swizz as not many Christmas stories and not all at High Rising!

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    1. Precisely! And reading a Christmas story with snow & skating gives me a seasonal brain seizure as well! I need hot Christmas’ with swimming & backyard cricket.

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  5. “Being offended by their racist commentary is a sign of the progress we have made since then. It reminds us of our history and why our governments and institutions still struggle to stamp out the systemic racism embedded into their very beings.” That is the smartest thing I’ve read on this whole thorny topic, and I agree 100%.

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