Friday, August 1, 2014

Victoriana, Early and Late: Coronation Summer and Drawn from Memory

Angela Thirkell, Coronation Summer (Oxford University Press, 1937)

Ernest Shepard, Drawn from Memory (Methuen, 1957)


Angela Thirkell comedy
By chance, I recently picked up two books that happened to be set at the beginning and near the end of Victoria's reign. One was fiction, one non, but both were entertaining glimpses of that endlessly fascinating era.

It all started because my library didn't have any of the Barsetshire novels by Angela Thirkell that I wanted, but they did have Coronation Summer, her early novel of the weeks surrounding Victoria's coronation, which sounded delicious. The somewhat elaborate conceit is that when the pseudonymous Ingoldsby Legends come out, a young woman who thinks they are by a real acquaintance of hers reads a satirical poem about the coronation, and takes it at face value. This inspires her to remember how she and her best friend went to London for the event, which had proved to be a turning point in their personal lives as well as that of the nation.


The period pastiche was well done and often very amusing. I was impressed by Thirkell's ability to imitate Victorian diction, while smiling at her sly references to other authors (and I'm sure there are many others that I missed). This is a very literate book, unlike many of the neo-Victorian and Regency novels that are being churned out today. However, I had a hard time warming up to the narrator, who is an empty-headed girl, thoughtlessly cruel to her servants, with nothing on her mind but suitors and the social whirl. As a side character to poke fun at she would have been perfect, but as the main character she was lacking in sympathetic qualities. Her romance was dull, not only because it was a foregone conclusion -- the main story is told as a reminiscence after her marriage -- but because the young man in question had almost no personality; his rival, a ridiculous dandy, was more interesting though no more likeable. One could perhaps detect some subtle social commentary in there, but mainly the book seemed a waste of good writing on such (to me) unworthy characters.

(By the way, if you pick up Coronation Summer hoping to have a ringside view of the actual coronation itself, you'll be disappointed -- only the men of the story attend and our female narrator is just waiting outside while the event takes place.)
Shepard drawing sketch
A sketch by Shepard

I then turned to a book from the other end of Victoria's reign, Drawn from Memory, which I was pleased to discover was in my library after I read a highly laudatory post over at The Captive Reader. This is a memoir by the artist most famous for his illustrations of Winnie-the-Pooh and The Wind in the Willows, though his main work was as a political cartoonist for Punch. Here are his amazingly detailed reminiscences, from seventy years later, of an upper-middle-class London boyhood. Shepard was seven years old in the year of Victoria's Golden Jubilee, and gives a memorable account of the festivities from the point of view of a small boy. Other episodes include a holiday at a farm, family theatrics, and a first visit to a pantomime. Scenes involving a household of eminently Victorian aunts provide comic highlights.
The drawings plentifully scattered throughout are of course delightful, and a few samples of work done at this early age are astoundingly accomplished, fully justifying Shepard's father's opinion that his son should be an artist (although he himself wanted to be something a bit more exciting). There's no need to tie the episodes together with any kind of unified plot, as the reader is happily led along from picture to picture.

Knowledge of the sorrow and death to come later in life does not overshadow the childish joys recorded in these pages, but a few indications of what is to come give Shepard's sunny memories increased poignancy. For anyone interested in the period, or simply in revisiting the lost world of childhood, Drawn from Memory is an unqualified pleasure.

Links
Review of Drawn from Memory at The Captive Reader 

Review copy source: Print books from library

4 comments:

  1. I read Coronation Summer a few years ago and remember it being deliciously full of detail, but that I couldn't stand the characters. I must read more Angela Thirkell. My library is sadly lacking in books by her, but I feel that it might be a good book investment to buy some of her books for my personal library.

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    Replies
    1. Likewise, since my library is also lacking in this department. I'm just trying to decide what to start with.

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  2. Wonderful review of both books! It's a pity the characters in Coronation Summer aren't more attractive, since the writing itself sounds good. Drawn from Memory sounds charming, and I've always loved Shepard's Pooh drawings. I think I'll look for a copy!

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    Replies
    1. It's a wonderful book. Now I need to track down the second volume, Drawn from Life -- alas, not available from my library. I wish someone would reprint these.

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