The Headmistress

I WONDER if Mass Observation has survived the war years in England. I hope so. The Mass Observers’ idea has highly romantic charms and is no doubt entirely useless in the stem gaze of scientific historians. The theory, quite simply, is that only by considering one part at a time can you understand any whole. Individual Alass Observers all over England kept, observing diaries, sent them into headquarters, where, duly assembled, the separate fragments made a complete mosaic of any given day. (I shudder to think of the filing problems.)
Several years ago I saw one Alass Observation book. As I remember it, the record covered the day of the Coronation. We had the observer in the remote country to whom the country man said, “Eee be a fine maan, yon Jarge,” and the observer who overheard what the earl said to the duke in Westminster — eavesdropping made noble, literature without the pangs of composition. I had a wistful desire to join the club.
Angela Thirkell and The Headmistress have reminded me of Mass Observation. People who do not admire Miss Thirkell’s books point with withering scorn to her unique absorption in one part of England, one sort, of people, one set of ideas — and all snobbish ones at that. With the world what it is, they sneer, how can she! This, I think, is ungrateful. She can because she knows how, and brings the considerable force of her neat acid talent to bear on her particular observation point. It is no more objectionable for her to limit herself to Barsetshire than for another author to limit himself to the control compartment of a submarine. Each has its own reality. What is more, the production trend is toward more control compartments and fewer Barsctshires, as Miss I hirkell well knows.
This knowledge, perhaps, is what makes The Headmistress not quite so funny as some of the earlier books, and a good bit more wistful, the characters seem less considerable than the setting. The lovely land, the lovely houses, the frail and beautiful minutiae are nostalgically catalogued. Ladies in Utility dresses eat war emergency bread from Spode plates in seventeenth-century drawing rooms, and death in battle takes the young. But Miss Thirkell has the ear and eye for it. Unless she irritates you to Anglophobia, she amuses you in a way entirely her own.
The wartime format by Knopf is an especially nice one. But where was the proofreader? Especially on page 87. Knopf, $2.50.