Written in the genes

First published in Nostalgia The Argus: Photograph of the Author by

Few people in Edwardian England were better connected than a young girl who was well-known in Rottingdean.

Angela Mackail’s father was Oxford professor of poetry and her grandfather, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, was one of the most eminent artists of the era.

One of her cousins was the leading novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling, while another was the Tory politician destined to become Prime Minister several times between the wars – Stanley Baldwin.

For good measure, her godfather was Sir James Barrie, who achieved worldwide fame by writing Peter Pan.

Angela was herself to become a well-known writer under the surname Thirkell from her second marriage.

But she initially came to notice through her tumultuous love life, which caused a scandal in a staid age.

In 1911 she married the bisexual singer James McInnes and they had three children, one of whom died in infancy.

But he proved unfaithful and she divorced him on the grounds of adultery in a case which attracted national headlines.

Angela then married an engineer from Tasmania called George Thirkell and they emigrated to his native Australia soon after the First World War.

But Angela, accustomed to a life of servants and wealth, could not stand lower middle-class life far away from home.

They had a son, Lancelot, but in 1929 she suddenly snapped and returned to England, successfully begging Barrie to give her cash for the fare.

She never married again and was widely quoted as saying, “It’s very peaceful with no husbands.”

Angela Thirkell embarked on her own writing career in the 1930s and continued to produce a book each year until her death aged 71 in 1961.

Many of her books were based in Barsetshire, the fictitious county first created by Anthony Trollope.

She attracted a devoted following even though she was not averse to borrowing from great writers of the past such as Dickens and Thackeray.

Even today, when her rather archaic writing style is out of fashion, there is an Angela Thirkell Society both in the UK and the USA.

Perhaps her best known book was Three Houses, written in 1931 and harking back to a sunlit age in which “every day was Sunday”.

One of the houses was North End House in Rottingdean, owned by Burne-Jones.

Across The Green in a house called The Elms lived Kipling, whom she referred to affectionately as Cousin Ruddy.

Angela loved her gentle grandfather and admired the spirit of her grandmother, even though she grew more eccentric when she became a widow.

After the Boer War she hung a provocative banner out of the window saying, “We have killed and also taken possession.”

It caused consternation in the village and Kipling had to pacify the people. Thirkell wrote: “We children had a nervous feeling that we never knew where our grandmother might break out next.”

Much the same could have been said about the unpredictable Angela Thirkell.

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