Recently, I have made a wonderful discovery, comparable only to the apple falling on Newton’s head- I came across (more accurately, was introduced to) the ‘good bad’ novels of Angela Thirkell. Thirkell wrote delightfully staid novels through the 1930s-50s, in which very little happened, but a good time was had by all. A cross between P.G. Wodehouse and Nancy Mitford, they are being republished by Virago. The first book of hers I read was Wild Strawberries. I was thrilled, not only to discover such a lovely book, but also such an eminently suitable one for this blog.
‘A hillside where a copse had been cut down the year before was thick with wild strawberries. They stopped to eat them. “You get no satisfaction out of them though,” said David. “One or two at a time are nothing and one hasn't the self-restraint to gather quite a lot before one eats them, besides which I haven’t anything to put them in.” “Heroes always have a hat,” said Mary. “They gather a few berries in it, or fill it with water at the rushing torrent.”…. “No, the only way to eat wild strawberries is to live somewhere like Switzerland where there is a poor but venal peasantry which picks enormous bowlfuls for your tea.”’
This frivolous chit-chat is Thirkell’s speciality, she is fond of her characters, but is quite happy for them to be very foolish for the entertainment of her readers. The plot itself is fairly immaterial, it takes place in summer in a country house, matches are made, tennis played and walks taken. Wild strawberries play a small but important part in the non-plot: the heroine Mary Preston is promised of a basket of them by the glamourous yet unreliable David Leslie, who forgets them; muddles, and eventually marriages follow. I did say it wasn't really about the plot.
‘John looked startled. The whole situation was becoming alarmingly melodramatic. Surely the girl was not quarrelling with David because the young ass had forgotten to give her wild strawberries. One didn't quarrel with a cousin by marriage on such meagre grounds.’
Thirkell’s stories are brought to life by their characters, the petty feuds between Cook and Nanny, the Butler Gudgeon’s deep and abiding love of ringing the gong for lunch. Forgetful dowagers and ‘heavenly fools’ abound, and all are happily married off by the end of each story. Like her lady novelist character Laura Morland, Thirkell specialised in ‘good bad novels.’
Another author of ‘good bad novels’ is Eva Ibbotson, one of my absolute favourite authors. Ibbotson also writes about wild strawberries, and obviously, Ibbotson being Ibbotson, in a far more romanticised way than Thirkell. In fact wild strawberries make cameos in several of her novels. However, they play their most important role in her book Magic Flutes:
‘Carefully, absorbed like a child, she picked the small, flecked barely scarlet berries and held them out to him. Wild strawberries- the most prized, most fragrant and heart-stirring fruit in the world.
‘In Sweden’, she said, speaking very seriously, ‘they have a word for a place like this. It’s called a “smultronstalle. A ‘wild strawberry place.’ A place like that is special, it’s the most special place there is…..’ Only it isn't just literally a wild strawberry place. A smultronstalle is any place that’s absolutely private and special and your own. A place where life is… an epiphany.’
It always a little thrilling to come across a patch of strawberries, their pin pricks of white flowers accompanied by the red drop of strawberries. You can understand why dukes chose their leaves to adorn their coronets.
|illustration from scientificillustration.tumblr.com|
Despite all this romanticism, I think that wild strawberries are in fact, best when you are very small yourself. A few weeks ago I spent an hour or so carefully weeding a bed of wild strawberries for Christabelle, a lady I garden for in the village. Pulling out the brambles and sticky weed wasn't the best fun, but the occasional wild strawberry eaten in the sunshine improved it no end. I think a wild strawberries are a very important thing for a grandmother to have. Christabelle has a bed of them for her grandchildren to rummage through. My Granny also had a bed of them, which I would pick for doll-house teas, as they fitted perfectly onto the tiny china plates.
Thirkell and Ibbotson’s books, are, in a way, rather like wild strawberries; insubstantial and sweet, but thrilling and evocative nonetheless. Both entirely nostalgic, they are not a balanced diet, but perfect for a summer picnic, and you can never have quite enough of them.