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Book Review: Peace Breaks Out (Angela Thirkell) : BH

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Peace Breaks Out, by Angela Thirkell, published by Moyer Bell, Kymbolde Way, Wakefield, RI 02879, tel: 401-789-0074. $12.95 paperback, 1997.

In the closing years of the 20th century, we seem to be drawn to reflect on the 'good old days' when life, if not better, was simpler, less confused by the complexities of modern society. Nostalgia has become a big business. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the arts, where the entertainment industry has capitalized on the public's longing to reminisce by re-releasing classic films, musicals, plays, and books.

This trend has had an unintended fringe benefit: works that may have been only moderately popular when first issued have now been granted a second chance at success. Previously unheard of artists, particularly authors, are being re-discovered and finding an eager audience in late-20th-century readers. A prime example is British novelist Angela Thirkell whose novels–nearly 40 in all–were published in England between 1931 and 1961. For a long while, they remained out-of-print both in England and North America, until publisher Moyer Bell launched a re-release of a series of Thirkell's books in the autumn of 1995.

The response was overwhelming. The first two books released, Growing Up and The Headmistress were met with both critical and popular delight. The New York Times raved, 'More than a corner of Trollope's mantle has descended upon [Angela Thirkell].' A devoted contingent of fans came forward to express their unmitigated joy and gratitude. One reader from Ohio wrote Moyer Bell, 'Thank you so much. It is incredible that other people share my passion of a lifetime.'

What is it about these novels that inspires such an ardent reaction in both critics and readers? Mainly, perhaps, it is the nostalgic escapism they offer. Nothing could be further removed from contemporary reality than the lives of Thirkell's characters, most of whom reside in a fictional English county called Barsetshire. But it is Thirkell's expertise at painting a detailed picture of rural English gentry life that keeps readers enthralled. She communicates the charming eccentricities of this life with such skill that we are drawn into her fictional microcosm, gradually acquiring background on its customs and characters until we soon feel as if we've known them for years.

One of the most recent Moyer Bell releases, Peace Breaks Out, first published in 1946, continues the saga of the Barsetshire crowd as they adjust to the long-anticipated end of the Second World War. As with all of the Barsetshire novels, Thirkell focuses on a selected few members of the community–in this case, the Halliday family and their young friend Anne Fielding. As soldiers and sailors return home, Anne and all the other eligible young women across England are finally able to resume the almost-forgotten social life (read husband-searching) they enjoyed before the War. The plot follows the ups and downs of these war-weary youth and their families as they make the difficult readjustment to peacetime.

For readers who wish to begin a relationship with Angela Thirkell, Peace Breaks Out provides a fine starting point. A prior knowledge of the Barsetshire circle is helpful, but certainly not required. But for those who dislike the idea of reading backwards in a series, perhaps this later novel should be saved for the near future. Growing Up (1943), The Headmistress (1944) The Demon in the House (1934), and Miss Bunting (1945) are four of the Barsetshire chronicles that precede Peace Breaks Out.

In all, Moyer Bell plans to release 22 of Thirkell's novels by the year 2000. But with the overwhelmingly enthusiastic response so far, readers (perhaps yourself among them) may demand to see the rest.

Leigh Ann Berry

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