Mrs. Belton is worried. And she has a lot to worry about. With three children serving in England’s wartime forces, plus a move from their country estate to the village (due to financial strictures), Mrs. Belton has a lot of adjusting to do.
“But gentleman-farming is no inheritance and by the time the war settled down upon the world the Beltons were living on overdrafts to an extent that even they found alarming, and two years later were unhappily making up their minds to sell a house and estate for which there would probably be no demand, when Providence kindly intervened, in the shape of the Hosiers’ Girls’ Foundation School.”
“The Headmistress” centers upon life in the small village of Harefield. At times lighthearted, don’t let the author’s well-earned reputation for blithe, carefree prose deceive you. Taking us through the wartime years and giving us snippets of life in a small countryside village, we experience along with the Beltons, the changes brought about not only through food and clothing coupons and rationing, but within social mores and status.
Mrs. Belton, to all intents and purposes seemingly unflustered and stable, inwardly quakes at the fears and anxieties the war brings, not only for her children serving in the military but for her husband who must weather the straits his finances have brought him to and adjust to village life, leaving his estate to be rented out by a girls school.
“All three children ought to have married years ago, but they never seemed to want to. Nor did they want a jolly elder sister. All they wanted was a purveyor of beds, fires, food, such drink as there was, cigarettes; someone who could take all telephone messages accurately, never ask where they were going or had been tireless, self-effacing. All of which she had tried to be and she knew that her husband had too, but at the end of each leave, whether it was Freddy from his ship, Elsa from her hush-hush job, or Charles from the army, she felt she had not given satisfaction….
What she would really like, she thought, would be to throw every single thing in her wardrobe out of the window and have everything new and to stop feeling tired and looking her age and go somewhere warm, if there was any warm place left in this horrible world now...”
There are the ever-present cast of quirky characters. Mrs. Updike, who though lovable is constantly accident-prone, stabbing or burning herself while doing the most simple of household tasks. Mr. Carton who despises his christened name (Sydney after the Dickens’ character. Like Anne of Green Gables he distinguishes the spelling of his name), and who manages to keep it private from most of his acquaintances but unexpectedly finds himself revealing it to Miss Sparling. The headmistress, Miss Sparling herself, who always seems to know the right things to say or do. And Elsa, the spoiled daughter of the Beltons who cannot seem to see that her attempts to interfere in her father’s finances are unwelcome.
Then there is poor Heather Adams, the regrettably plain and undistinguished student who develops a schoolgirl crush, daydreaming constantly when rescued from her wallflower status at a dance. Heather surprises everyone when she demonstrates her skating prowess and brings notoriety and attention upon herself when she experiences a mishap. And as always, there is romance and the reader must discover whether Miss Sparling will find happiness with the vicar, Mr. Oriel, or with Mr. Carton.
I have read and enjoyed several of Thirkells’ novels now and enjoyed this one (although it was not one of my favorites). I look forward to reading many more.