Denis Mackail at Christmas

Angela Thirkell’s younger brother, Denis Mackail, was an established novelist by the time his sister returned from Australia. 

Denis George Mackail author and novelist
Denis George Mackail

In 2022 the Angela Thirkell Society of North America printed the diary of Angela McInnes/Thirkell for the years 1918 and 1919, and this year (2023) published the diary of Margaret Mackail, Angela and Denis’s mother, for the years July 1918 – February 1920. Denis appears to have kept some sort of account as, in 1942, he published the delightful “Life With Topsy”, a record of 10 years of his Pekingese dogs, his family, and his career (in that order of importance) and is the nearest we have to a diary.

What a puzzle the man is. Devoted to his family, fun and rather dashing, yet he makes no secret of his bouts of depression and his anxiety in crowds and social situations. It’s frustrating that we know so little about him, other than the fallings out and tensions between himself and Angela in later life. 

(Also published in 1942 was Angela Thirkell’s “Marling Hall”, in which she states “…for nothing is so boring as other people’s dogs.” Coincidence?)

However, “Life With Topsy” begins in 1927, and in his chapter for Christmas of that year Denis’s personality is very much in evidence. Diana is his wife, Rufus is a Pekingese dog, the spelling and punctuation are Denis’s own.

Denis Mackail's Pekingese dogs, from Life with Topsy
Victoria and Topsy Mackail, a photograph from the book “Life With Topsy”

“Yet here, once more, Diana spoilt me. “Have you bought any presents yet?” she had asked, time and again. I had always explained that I was going to, as soon as I had a moment to spare; and indeed before I was married I certainly never left it too late. But Diana didn’t trust me, she hadn’t anything like my distaste for crowded shops herself, and so, as the years went by, she had gradually taken over the whole job. I paid, of course. I wasn’t as shabby as all that. But I confess I didn’t always remember what I had given to whom, and there were some awkward moments when I was thanked, face to face, for gifts that weren’t distinctly specified. “I’m so glad you liked it,” I would say, with my old-world charm. Did the recipient penetrate my secret? Oh, well; everyone knows about husbands and fathers by this time.

“On Christmas Eve, however, the seasonable spirit was apt to sweep over me, and I would suddenly rush into the shops and upset the whole of Diana’s schedule by choosing presents for people whose parcels had been tied’ up two months ago. Or I came tearing in with extra decorations, for which there was now no room. Or I started sending out Christmas-cards which couldn’t possibly arrive anywhere for days. In fact, I was now Scrooge in his pleasanter manifestation; and it was this year, I think, that I suddenly sat down and drew a coloured Christmas-card which was supposed to be from Rufus to Diana. It represented him standing wretchedly in the snow, in the garb of Santa Claus, trailing a heavily-laden sack with which, as you could tell from his expression, he hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. It wouldn’t have been kind, if Rufus could have recognized himself. But he couldn’t, of course, and Diana laughed, and had it framed. It hung in the dining-room, and puzzled some of our visitors — though it was an excellent likeness — for years.

“Was I an artist, then, as well as an author? In a sense. I used to draw incessantly until I began writing so hard. I was always drawing for the children, until they grew too large to sit on my lap at the same time. And I had certainly developed a particular gift for portraits of Rufus. Two years earlier was possibly the high-water mark, when I executed a more than life-size version of him in the form of what Michael Angelo would call a cartoon, and then transferred it to a wool rug. You know; with a hook, and hundreds of different-coloured little lengths of wool. It was a masterpiece when it was finished, and would be still, if moth hadn’t got into it.“

If only we could track down that cartoon of Rufus.

Later in the same book, December 1929, Denis recalls children’s parties and his daughters’ parts in school entertainments. It will be familiar to most parents.

“No children’s party of our own this Christmas, for which omission there was no doubt some excellent reason at the time. But plenty of other parties for our two little girls; and for their parents, as usual, an end-of-term entertainment at the Tite Street school. I can’t say I remember the programme, but there was an earlier one that I am never likely to forget. Part One took the form of dramatic excerpts from Hiawatha, with some of the children — including Mary, in the most alarming eyebrows — as Red Indians. Part Two, after screens had been unfolded and then removed, was an extremely innocent Nativity Play. But carols were to be sung, the full strength of the company was needed, so that there, at the back of the tiny stage, was a row of Red Indians. No Old Master had ever thought of this, and it put a considerable strain on one’s reason.”






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