Sunday, 21 June 2009

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood uses the conventions and structures of the fairy story to narrate the lives of three women, each chafing in her own way against the restrictions of her circumstances. Romantic, superficial Viola is Cinderella, hoping that the local Prince Charming will rescue her from her excruciatingly dull life with her late husband’s family, the Withers. Tina, her sister-in-law, might be Sleeping Beauty, hoping that Saxon the handsome chauffeur will be able to cut through the thickets of social convention and be her friend and lover. Hetty could be a bookish Rapunzel, waiting to be twenty-one so she can escape the prison of middle-class social life and devote herself to literature.

If the metaphors in that paragraph seem strained, imagine them extended over the length of a novel, and you’ll get a sense of the problems with Nightingale Wood. In Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons demonstrated a mastery of the pithy character study, a light and economical touch, that is mostly absent from the later book. Instead, we get pages of exposition, of psychological explanations of characters, and very obvious setting and springing of plot traps and twists. For example, there is the local hermit. He is lavishly introduced and described, we learn of his previous married life, his current relationship with Saxon’s mother, his tendency to arrive unexpectedly at the Withers, drunk and ranting. His sole plot function is to give away the subversive lovers, Tina and Saxon, which would have happened anyway since they have secretly married by the time he bellows the news at the Withers. This would not be a problem if he were amusing, or interesting, but unfortunately he comes across only as a dull, self-indulgent bit of local rural colour.

The plot takes a good while to resolve itself, with many digressions into the little ways of other minor characters, before our three heroines get their heart's desires, or something very similar. The author even has recourse to a house fire near the end of the novel to move the plot along, always a sign of desperation. The good are, eventually, rewarded: Tina and Saxon get a handsome legacy to help their transgressive marriage along; Hetty is rescued from debutante hell by a previously undiscovered uncle who has a second-hand bookshop and a stern Communist wife; and superficial Viola, through an act of charity on behalf of an elderly friend, touches the heart of her Prince Charming at exactly the right moment - when his shrewish fiancée is throwing an impressive tantrum - leading to their eventual marriage.

Some of these happy endings are quite satisfying. Tina is an attractive character and it is pleasing to see her work her way through the difficulties of her feelings for the chauffeur, naming and owning her desire, and for the success of an inter-class marriage to be recognised and articulated. Hetty, mature beyond her twenty years in the Flora Poste manner, gets to lead the literary life she idolises. To an extent, these are women of some agency, with the courage and ability to make their own lives, although each is dependent on a male deus ex machina. Viola is more problematic. She has always dreamed of marrying Victor Spring, and eventually does. She shows plenty of spirit along the way, returning Victor's kisses ardently, rejecting Victor firmly when she realises his intentions are not honourable, but still pines after him. We are told so many times that Viola is superficial, that her dreams and affections are shallow, that perhaps we are not supposed to worry that Victor is quite dim and boorish; Viola seems unworried by his baser qualities. But the happy endings are a little bit pat, and the three of them suggest an attempt to provide a vicarious happy ending for any reader, whether she yearns for companionate marriage, intellectual stimulus or social success.

There is still good, witty writing here: I particularly liked the description of Victor's endlessly scolding fiancée as "keeping up a continual splutter like a catherine-wheel", and the description of the same person, dressed in black and yellow, as resembling a "slim, ill-tempered, handsome wasp". If it wasn't for Cold Comfort Farm, this book would seem a lot better. But then, if it wasn't for Cold Comfort Farm, it would never have been revived at all.

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