Published in "Divagations, 2010"
Copyright Jill Mellick, 2010
That the cadence of my mother’s and my speech and references echoed Angela Thirkell I was not aware until decades after my mother handed me my first green, cloth-coated Barsetshire tale.
We came by our addiction with sedate, devoted, colonial gusto--undoubtedly one of the qualities that propelled Thirkell from Australia back to England.Before I was old enough to go to town alone, my mother, Letty Mellick, nee Katts, and I would take the bus from our hilltop Brisbane home looking out to Australia’s Great Dividing Range into the city. (Few families had second cars.) We would walk past the Brisbane City Hall, whose tall, elegant clock hands my grandfather had made, along Ann Street past the stone church where my parents married on Pearl Harbor Day, and climb the wide steps of the School of Arts Library (should I say “libery”?). Risking Thirkell’s scorn, we would borrow books. Given my mother’s arcane, deep, and lifelong interests--from Diaghilev to T.E. Lawrence to mysticism to the Raj--and an economy struggling after prolonged participation in the war, borrowing was first port of call.
The building was an elegant, colonial affair. Built in 1873 for a purpose Thirkell might have invented, it was established by Lady Bowen, wife of the Governor, as a “Servants’ Hall” to house single women, newly emigrated from Britain and awaiting employment in domestic service.
With readers for parents, I soon exhausted the Children’s Room, a forlorn verandah with low, determinedly cheerful blue bookshelves, and followed my petite, pretty mother, armed for the hunt with a neatly penned list of reading prey, into the main library. The spacious, dark room was filled and the sides had elegant, carved wooden staircases to galleries. The odor of subtropical mold gently permeated all except the wood, which hinted of recent O’Cedar polish. I knew which books were unread because the mold made my nose tickle. Thirkell never smelled of mold. She lived in the gallery on the right.
Although past the age of being read to, I loved my mother’s idea that I could visit Barsetshire the first time with her. I don’t remember which novel she read me as I lay under the mosquito net on sultry nights. I just remember our delight as she enunciated clearly with skillful phrasing and varied accents. By then a well known and respected Australian composer, my mother combined a musical ear with ease in public speaking; so she read well and never let personality mask message. I never fell asleep while she was reading; she would have to firmly, despite protestations, place a leather bookmark (that some distant relative had brought back from Oxford or London) in the book before lifting the mosquito net to kiss me.
I was hooked.
The first Thirkell I read alone was The Headmistress. I’d just started at Somerville House, a girls’ school like Barsetshire High (but with a better looking uniform). My mother, too, had gone there. I found the plot, if one can use “plot” in the same breath as “Thirkell,” enlightening: I began to entertain the possibility that my maiden (it had not occurred to me they were other than maiden) Form and Subject Mistresses and Headmistress might have contemplated or might contemplate marriage. As they inched us through Latin, French, Ancient History, and much of the poetry Thirkell smuggled into her novels, I surveyed each with renewed interest and an eye no longer naive.
I did not, however, buy that women could (after a page-turning flurry of minimal misunderstandings) decide to marry with a chaste rub of a cheek on a sports coat. This sounded like my dog. Of course, such a wild embrace was beneath the dignity of Miss Sparling with her bit of lace at the neckline (my headmistress had just such dresses) and sardonic Mr. Carton. And given they were ancient in my eyes, their oblique Understanding was, in fact (akcherly), more credible.
I considered, before falling asleep, whether I preferred Charles or Freddie (Freddie). I knew I’d fall through the ice and recuperate with more elegant frailty than had Heather. However, the subtropics are short on ice and I was short on mathematical aptitude so I didn’t prolong this hypothesis. I did, however, glean two Life Lessons from Heather’s cold: One: being entrusted with a secret can have more lasting import than entertaining a passing passion. Two: some doctors are interested in psychology, no matter how pigeon-toed and misapplied (it was fortunate that Heather was immune to such Freudian machinations). Looking back on it, despite my sharing with Heather a justifiable dislike of the instigator of the briefest, least successful psychoanalysis on fictional record, I think I blame Thirkell for my first inkling that people earned a living this way. I hasten to add I am neither pigeon toed nor a Freudian--and I never practice on people in bed. But I am a psychologist and confess to several decades in academia. So you should know that Thirkell’s distaste for and warnings about the fate of women professionals had no salutary effect on me.
Also of lasting influence on my professional and personal character was Mr. Carton’s observation--despite his resolute dislike and distrust of women university types--that Miss Sparling had a pleasing way of talking not about how she had got into a pickle but about how she had got herself out.
I resolved do likewise (along with other resolves derived from fiction (including becoming, despite my Presbyterianism, the Mother Superior of a French convent (The Nun’s Story), or an underground worker like Violette Szabo (Carve Her Name with Pride). But I didn’t know any nuns and there wasn’t another war--yet--so Miss Sparling’s career path seemed the most viable. Of course, I wouldn’t confine myself to just teaching as Miss Sparling had; I also would be a rebellious, spoilt but tameable beauty like Elsa and marry a rich naval man, and as I aged, I would be gracious and forbearing like Mrs. Belton.
Life, as it should have, took me away from Thirkell for a long time. Until the day I discovered Moyer Bell reprints in my local bookstore in Palo Alto, Northern California. From then on, gifts to my mother were set for years.
I bought three copies at a time: one for my mother, one for me, and one for a beloved colleague of my mother’s vintage who, I had discovered, shared our odd passion. She told me she had spent a sunburnt summer forty years earlier--with her three young children tied to her waist and playing at the water’s edge--devouring all Thirkell. After a while, my colleague put in a standing order at our bookstore for the new releases. I missed the pleasure of giving them to her but still shared my copy of “Divagations.” She told me her adult daughter, too, was hooked. We still address each other in Thirkellspeak and set aside our serious reading for Barsetshire when the chips are down.
My mother preferred waiting for her copies, which I sent or brought, sometimes two at a time. Along with them came “Divagations.” She wasn’t keen on surprises, preferring to look forward to certainties. I wrapped each book so it was immediately recognizable and watched the gleam of literary greed light up her still pretty face as she recognized the contents. Then she would pretend it might not be what she thought but hoped it was.
Steadily, across the Pacific, my mother and I shared each volume and critiqued characters. The only thing that annoyed her about Thirkell was the overuse of “that woman.” My mother couldn’t believe that I, a literature major before turning Jungian psychologist, hadn’t noticed. To her, the repetition was a hairline crack in a flawless performance. Having high aesthetic standards, she had consigned fine fiction and performances to the scrap heap for lesser iniquities. So it is testament to Thirkell and to my mother’s devotion that she didn’t set the whole series aside.
My mother had a fine sense of order so, when she grew inexorably frailer, she enlisted me on visits to bring even higher order to her already orderly collections. My father, protective of our mother-daughter time and himself, dissolved into his latest writing project or went online to check the stock market. I say “joined forces.” I am strong headed. My mother was more so. When it came to her projects, it was her brain and my brawn. I would cut and thrust but she had unwavering convictions about the order she wanted to bring. So I would cave in and label everything according to her (superior) filing system--her music published and un-, tight filing drawers of classical music she had played and was still playing, painting supplies, her writings, early letters. She (and therefore I ) ordered her books by category and genre: film; biography; poetry; Raj; astronomy; astrology; dance, classical; dance, modern; novels in German; philosophy; favorite, early; complete works of several authors; and so on. Between bouts of organization, she would rest on her bed usually with a special order library book due back soon and therefore demanding completion. She loved her books; the thought of giving even one away, which she might not be able to obtain easily again, made her feel as though she were tearing skin. With the Thirkell collection, I placed yellow tags in each novel marking the year of publication, put faded orange Penguin originals next to their Moyer Bell counterparts, and placed them in date order with spines lined up. Thirkell had pride of place on the one bookshelf still easy for her to reach as her body, once lithe and graceful, betrayed her more and more. Seeing those yellow date tags gave her satisfaction--and relief that surprised me. I’d forgotten she belonged to the school of Thirkell devotees who reads from first to last and starts all over. I belong to the other school; I pick up what appeals.
As we grew older together, we discussed more of the irony, the wide-eyed layers of wickedness, the puns, the satire--less in the fore of our earlier cross-Pacific discussions. Each being of philosophical bent, we noticed many quotable quotes about Life in General (Dr Ford’s “old people should be allowed to kill themselves in their own way” being one). The further we grew away from that charmed if xenophobic era between wars in England and the ensuing torn yet united wartime my parents and Barsetshire survived and into an era where everything was politically incorrect, the more we marvelled at Thirkell’s unapologetic biases. We also developed speedy shorthand; if, for example, one of us had gone to a dubious crafts show, it was described as “Mixolydian.” Similar unfortunate events were “foully dispiriting.”
Not only did my mother get me hooked on reading Thirkell. She got me hooked on reading her at night. During my family’s and my medical crises, I have used the realm of Barsetshire to bridge the liminal space between late night hospital vigils and sleep. Heaven knows what Thirkell has done to my dream life. Even when even sleep fails me, Barsetshire is a safe companion in restless hours of loss or fear. No mistake that my doctoral dissertation focused on the use of fiction for healing.
I don’t know why I didn’t read Thirkell to my mother as my father and I sat with her in her hospital room overlooking the Great Dividing Range while she slept those last days away. I really don’t. However, my mother brought, in her few waking moments, her own unique dry wit married eternally to manners even under duress. After she first fell and we all thought she only needed two weeks of hospital bedrest, she said dryly to me in private, “Oh hell.”
“Now I have to keep my pecker up for the next two weeks.” She smiled a falsely bright, plucky smile, emulating what she knew would be expected if she were to be released sooner rather than later by her efficient, upbeat nurses. (Australian hospitals, unlike beleagered U.S. ones, do not yet need to turf one onto the street as soon as one shows signs of surviving.)
A deep introvert, who found the the arts more pleasant in which to dwell than the mess of daily life, my mother dreaded volunteer Hospital Visitors, whom she never knew how to politely turn away. One she described in a style that gave Thirkell a run for her money: “Good pearls, tailored linen, dulcet tones--used ‘we’ the royal plural. Asked me solicitously which tired magazine I wanted. I didn’t want any. I took the “Women’s Weekly” so I wouldn’t hurt her feelings and so I could go back to sleep.”
I asked one morning if she would like to listen to some music. She took a full minute to summon energy she didn’t have then replied with perfect enunciation and unbruised judgement, “Depends...what...it…is.”
When my father and I left the hospital the last time and returned to the house, to the piano, so recently played well by her and piled with music, to the rooms empty of her fine mind and aesthetic pursuits, my eye fell on the orderly row of Thirkells on the shelf she could reach with her walker. They were mine now. And I wished the hell they weren’t.