A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I love reading ‘vintage’ fiction (perhaps you’d worked that out by now). I’ve spent my reading life looking for unknown titles by authors who have disappeared into that limbo that sometimes begins while they are still alive, and can last decades after they die. Accordingly, I loved this book, while being conscious that other readers might not be quite so predisposed to enjoy it. So I’m going to do my best and step back to tell you what is good about this novel on any terms.
Stella Gibbons, of course, didn’t sink entirely into obscurity – after all, she gave the world Cold Comfort Farm, one of the finest short novels of the 20th century, and certainly the funniest. As a writer, this has been a blessing and a curse, gaining her immortality, while tempting readers to dismiss her other novels as ‘Not Cold Comfort Farm‘. I’ve been guilty of that – I’ve got two of her titles on my shelves, Ticky, and The Matchmaker that I bought years ago and shamefully have not read since for that reason. The Matchmaker I have a vague recollection as being distinctly odd – looks like I need to read it again. She wrote well over 20 novels, the latest in 1964, and I gave up on her – because I loved Cold Comfort Farm, and she never wrote like that again.
Now her novels are being re-published by Vintage Classics, and in her introduction Lynne Truss seeks to persuade us that this novel, Westwood, of 1946, bears comparison in quality with Cold Comfort Farm, and should mark a revival of interest in her other novels.
Let’s deal with the Cold Comfort Farm issue, then not mention it again (if I can manage it – some of the passages are wonderfully reminiscent of why this is such a great novel). Cold Comfort Farm (1932) was her first novel, and written for a reason – Stella Gibbons had the over-the-top rural tragedies of Sheila Kaye-Smith in her sights, and she satirised them mercilessly (there’s a strong belief that she was going for Mary Webb, but her novels were too good – it was her pale imitators that Stella Gibbons savaged). Westwood has similar attributes of skewering pretension and satirising hypocrisy – however, the book is not a work of satire, but a tremendous read of a novel of relationships, class, growing up, and living through horrible times (particularly poignant right now – the novel is set in wartime London, written while the destruction was still visible and the memories still vivid). The author has it in for some of the characters (one in particular), but not for a genre. CCF is short and sharp; Westwood is a long, leisurely read. So – try and forget what you know about Stella Gibbons, and enjoy the slower unfolding and twists and turns of this novel.
At the heart of the novel is an emotional triangle – almost an English, faintly ridiculous mini-Arthur Schnitzler ‘La Ronde’ but without the sex. Serious Margaret Steggles moves with her family to London, where she has a teaching job that is a great opportunity for her. She lives in Highgate, close to her best friend Hilda. Margaret worships the work of the playwright Gerard Challis, and when she finds out that he lives in a mansion close to her home, she dreams of falling in his path. By a great coincidence, she has the opportunity to enter the house ‘below stairs’, and through friendships with Grantey, the old family nurse, housekeeper and cook, and Zita, the Jewish refugee who is I suppose the closest thing to an au pair, she has access to the house and transfers her worship to the oblivious Challis. Gerard Challis, meanwhile, civil servant, playwright, son, husband, father and grandfather, pursues Hilda, who (her words) ‘picks him up’ in the blackout when her torch gives out. Hilda, who works in the Food Office, is beautiful, cheerful, no-nonsense, ready to make any chap happy by allowing herself to be taken out by him, and completely immune to Challis’s charm. She thinks he is an elderly batchelor, and he does nothing to put her right (naturally). This triangle is allowed to unfold at a leisurely pace, with a denouement that is flagged at around the half way mark in the book (but I won’t spoil, except to say that this is not a love story as such, and its unravelling is high comedy). Margaret is at the centre of the book, and we are invited to watch her go through a cycle of worship, abasement, and finally learning and growing – but only to a certain extent, and in the end we are left doubting if her habit of looking for attachment is really cured. The circle she meets through the Challis household patronises and exploits her horribly, yet broadens her horizons. She risks her future through her discontent with her lot, but saves herself in the end. She is a serial doormat, and I really mean serial – this may be the sticking point at which some readers will give up on her, but I can tell you that I persevered and felt rewarded for doing so.
I think I’ll do a little balance sheet on this book, to help you make your mind up whether to try it.
It’s a book from 1946, so it has fascinating sociological insights. It has to be read as a book of its time, so the reader must be prepared for:
– In Zita, a Jewish refugee bordering on stereotype (but written with affection).
– A character with a Downs child, and the (to me) really interesting way in which the treatment both illustrates the mindset of the time, while making it a positive element in the book.
– Descriptions of ‘being bombed out’ of home, the sense of loss, chaos and resilience that has to be first-hand – so close to the event.
– Class-driven attitudes of the time, where they count, and where they are being broken down.
– Today, we would be shocked by the casual way in which people hand over their children to near strangers to look after – evidence of a completely different compact between people than we know now.
On the plus side:
– Stella Gibbons’ wonderful prose and brilliant humour.
– A clever construction, part plot-driven, part picaresque – a lot going on, and all managed with ease and finesse.
– A wonderful Monster in Gerard Challis, and the delight of seeing the women in his life managing him. His tragic, nihilistic play Kattë, damned with faint praise by the critics, adored by the West End crowds, and too curate’s egg-like for straightforward Margaret to lie about, is a marvellous piece of comedy.
– Upstairs/Downstairs? You’ve got it, and with (again) what has to be an authentic twist.
– Wartime London – how it looked, felt, smelled, how horrible it was, how beautiful and how people survived in it.
– Hampstead and Highgate – a great sense of place.
– Hilda: lovely good-time girl of impeccable morals (if we can assume with the period that that means not sleeping with any let alone all of the boys she goes out with) and a great line in set-downs.
On the slightly less plus side:
– Some longueurs.
– Some situations that could survive with less repetition – SG really loves and lingers over the situation she sets up with Margaret and Linda, the Downs child.
– Lots of irritating children (but then, the irritation they cause is intentional to the novel; I get the feeling that SG loves children, and likes to eat them with a little mustard on the side).
– Margaret: you will either be prepared to be patient with her; or I could fully understand a reader who can’t find the energy to care how things turn out for her. She’s in that class (which I love, apart from Lily Dale) of irritating, rebarbative heroines who really need to get some sense knocked into them to match their good qualities.
So, do read this if you love a warm, witty, beautifully written and leisurely novel, which is a comedy of manners and a remarkable insight into an age that is so different, yet still in living memory. I am delighted to have rediscovered it, and shall be going back to the two other novels I’ve owned for years, to see if they are a similar revelation. If they are, Vintage Classics is republishing quite a few of Stella Gibbons’s forgotten titles.
Stella Gibbons: Westwood. Vintage Classics. London: Vintage Books, 2011. 448pp.