The Demon in the House is the third book of Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire novels, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel about a story centered on a force of nature like the cheerfully self-involved, hyper-talkative, 12 or 13 year-old Tony Morland–the “demon” of the title–but for the most part I loved it. Many of the characters from High Risings, the first of Thirkell’s Barsetshire books, are back and it was a pleasure to catch up with old friends.
Several sections of the story evoke with breath-taking clarity the mostly unruly but sometimes sublime passions of childhood–especially chapter 5, which is titled Paradise Pool because Tony discovers a particularly lovely view of the lake where a group of grown-ups and children have gathered to picnic and swim. The youngsters are full of high spirits, playing, squabbling loudly, and running off with each other’s toys, but then Tony and his mostly silent friend Donk climb down to muck around in a stream that’s below the level of the main body of water, and from that lower angle the lake looms like a magic pool suspended in midair, a vision that awes and moves them both and temporarily silences the almost pathologically loquacious Tony–it’s a lovely piece of writing.
Thirkell apparently didn’t think much of her own books. Like Tony’s mother she wrote because she needed to earn a living and didn’t expect or want her well educated friends to read her novels, but but for “fluff” her stories are witty and socially aware. Because they were written during the time when they’re set, in this case the 1930’s, the stories also offer interesting and often unexpected (to me) insights about the daily life and attitudes of the era, including a few eyebrow-raising off-hand comments by characters that are offensive today.
Virago is re-releasing many of Thirkell’s novels, but so far not not this one, which means that most or all of the available copies are the Moyer Bell editions which do have some editing errors.