Three Houses, by Angela Thirkell, Moyer Bell, Kymbolde Way, Wakefield, Rhode Island 02879, (401)789-0074, $19.95, 1998, hardback.
‘Yes, a very happy childhood–I haven’t a single complaint or criticism to make of my early years,’ wrote British author Angela Thirkell, as she lived out her last, sad days in a nursing home in Surrey.
Indeed, she did have a glorious childhood. The cherished granddaughter of British painter Edward Burne-Jones, Thirkell was a beautiful, precocious child, her grandfather’s pride and joy. His devotion (and her sulky indifference) is captured in a series of photographs taken by the family’s Kensington photographer when Thirkell was two-and-a-half years old.
Thirkell spent much of her early years with her maternal grandparents, Burne-Jones and his wife, Georgiana, in the houses they called home. Three Houses, recently re-released by American publisher Moyer Bell, is Angela Thirkell’s reminiscence of her idyllic childhood.
In this, her only autobiographical work, Thirkell describes the three English houses she grew up in: The Grange, Burne-Jones’ now-demolished Kensington home; her parents’ first home, ‘next to the Greyhound’; and North End House, Burne-Jones’ seaside retreat at Rottingdean. She lovingly depicts each detail as she remembers it, pointing out each hiding place and climbing tree. Readers follow Thirkell on this nostalgic tour, viewing the three houses through her childlike eyes.
She also describes the numerous visitors to her grandfather’s houses, including the ‘aggressive mop of white hair’ who turned out to be none other than William Morris. One of the other famous characters who floated in and out of her childhood was her cousin, Rudyard Kipling, who gave Thirkell copies of his signature to take to the village to trade for stamps or chocolate.
For lovers of Thirkell’s novels, Three Houses offers a rare insight into the author’s fascinating childhood. For those unfamiliar with her work, it provides the perfect introduction to the charming, cultivated world she endeavoured to preserve in her fiction.