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Three Houses by Angela Thirkell

Posted by Sherry on 4/27/2007 in Nonfiction |

Angela Thirkell wrote approximately one novel per year beginning in 1933 when she was over forty years old. However, her first published book was a memoir of her own childhood entitled Three Houses. It’s not a bad way to start a writing career, especially if you have famous friends and relatives who can “drop into” the narrative. Ms. Thirkell did have that advantage. Her grandfather was the celebrated pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones, and the pre-Raphaelites figure prominently in her childhood story, especially William Morris and his fabrics and furniture. As if that set of famous literati weren’t enough, Rudyard Kipling was Ms. Thirkell’s cousin, and she played Cavaliers and Roundheads with Kipling’s children. Little Angela and Kipling’s daughter, Josephine, who died young, were great friends and playmates.

“The Just So Stories are a poor thing in print compared with the fun of having them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice. There was a ritual about them, each phrase having its special intonation which had to be exactly the same each time and without which the stories are dried husks. There was an inimitable cadence, an emphasis of certain words, an exaggeration of certain phrases, a kind of intoning here and there which made his telling unforgettable.

Can’t you just imagine listening to Kipling read, “On the sea, once upon a time, O my Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel. All the fishes he could find in all the sea he ate with his mouth–so!”
Or “In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk. He had only a blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot, that he could wriggle about from side to side; but he couldn’t pick up things with it. But there was one Elephant–a new Elephant–an Elephant’s Child–who was full of ‘satiable curtiosity’, and that means he asked ever so many questions.”

Ms. Thirkell also gives her adult opinion of Pre-Raphaelite design:

“As for pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in. It is true that the spring mattress was then in an embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking trough after a few weeks use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber. Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind.”

The stories in this memoir depict a delightfully sheltered and rich childhood. No exciting revelations or even adventures take place, but Ms. Thirkell’s world, the late nineteenth century, is a nice place to spend an afternoon.

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