Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thirkell, Angela Margaret (1890–1961)

by Michael Roe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Angela Margaret Thirkell (1890-1961), author, was born on 30 January 1890 at Kensington, London, daughter of John William Mackail, civil servant and later professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, and his wife Margaret, née Burne-Jones. Angela's grandfather was the artist Edward Burne-Jones and her kin included Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin. As a child she gave evidence of a strong and wilful personality; her many cousins regarded her as bossy. She was educated at the Froebel Institute, Kensington, and St Paul's School, Hammersmith, then spent some months in Paris and Gotha, Germany. Five ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with 'a small, shapely head', fine features, blue eyes and a 'swan-neck', she was an acknowledged beauty. On 5 May 1911 at the parish church of St Philip, Kensington, London, she married James Campbell McInnes, a Lancashire-born professional singer. Bi-sexual and alcoholic, McInnes fathered two sons (Graham and Colin), but in 1917 Angela won a divorce.

In September 1917 she met Captain George Lancelot Allnutt Thirkell. Born in 1891 to a Tasmanian landed family, 'Thirk' was a graduate in engineering who had joined the Australian Imperial Force in August 1914 and served in Egypt, Gallipoli and France. On leave he mixed with high society; while convalescing at Glamis Castle he was befriended by Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future consort of King George VI). A good, brave and kind man, Thirkell had little of Angela's culture. Her marriage to him at the Register Office, Kensington, on 13 December 1918 further bespoke her passion-fed defiance of common sense, altogether contrary to her later image.

Early in 1920 the Thirkells returned to Australia aboard the Friedrichsruh, a horrendous voyage when rank-and-file diggers became increasingly assertive. After a sojourn at Hobart, the family settled in suburban Melbourne. In January 1921 a son, Lancelot George, was born. Thirkell's business activities as a director of a small engineering firm won only modest rewards. Although she mixed with Melbourne's cultured élites, Angela always felt homesick. Prompted by financial need, as Graham McInnes has told, 'she began the satirical essays and short stories which ultimately led to the great flow of novels that poured out in the last thirty years of her life'. Her radio broadcasts for children also enjoyed success.

Angela's alienation from husband and Australia increased. She returned to England for over a year from mid-1927 and permanently in November 1930. Before 1935 she published six books, including Trooper to the Southern Cross 'by Leslie Parker'. It told of the Friedrichsruh voyage through the eyes of Major Bowen, in effect George Thirkell. It is witty and shrewd.

Angela's thirty subsequent 'middle-brow' novels presented English 'county' society in sympathetic and often penetrating style. They sold well, notably in the United States of America. Angela became ever narrower in her sympathies, being especially caustic about post-1945 Labour governments. She kept little or no contact with George, yet always insisted on being Mrs Thirkell; at his death in 1959 she claimed an Australian widow's pension. She died at Bramley, Surrey, on 29 January 1961, leaving an estate estimated at £74,656. The National Gallery of Victoria holds her portrait by John Collier.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1961-1970
  • M. Strickland, Angela Thirkell (Lond, 1977)
  • G. McInnes, The Road to Gundagai (Lond, 1965)
  • M. Roe, ‘Thirk’, Meanjin Quarterly, 28 (1969)
  • Times (London), 18 Mar 1961
  • L. Thirkell, Assassination of an Authoress (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Roe, 'Thirkell, Angela Margaret (1890–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thirkell-angela-margaret-8777/text15387, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • McInnes, Angela
  • Mackail, Angela
Birth

30 January 1890
London, England

Death

29 January 1961
Bramley, Surrey, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation