This novel, the fourth that Stella Gibbons published, is a sort of reverse Cold Comfort Farm. Miss Bertie Linsey and her Pa have been living in a village just outside London and running a greengrocer's shop for years. But the shop has failed, due to competition from more modern retailers and the departure of Bertie's brother Sam - the business brain of the family - to South Africa. They have to leave their little house and move to London. Bertie appeals to her uncle, Mr Petley, and his son Len, who have a tobacconist's shop near the Caledonian Road, for help in finding lodgings. Mr Petley - who has a generally low opinion of women - considers Bertie to be the interfering sort, and tells Len to take rooms for them with the Fells along the road. Mr Fell is a half-mad giant who cares only for caged birds; Mrs Fell is no better than she ought to be. Miss Linsey and Pa find themselves established in two dirty basement rooms which they must share with a variety of insects. But Bertie Linsey is strong and energetic and determined to make the best of things. At first, things go well; she finds a job as a cook-housekeeper for two Bloomsbury literary ladies, and Pa enjoys the urban delights of cinemas and museums and begins to make friends with the Fells. Like Flora Poste, Bertie cannot keep from interfering, and when she begins to scheme to break up her employers' household by fostering the romance of pretty Miss Lassiter with her handsome doctor, much against the wishes of possessive Miss Hoad, things begin to go awry. Bertie is resilient, however, and will go on to interfere with modern notions of child-rearing and in the affairs of cousin Len, who still nurses an affection for a French girl he met at the end of the first World War, who disappeared without trace. Bertie's resilience is tested not only by her frequently unemployed status but also by Pa, who spends rather a lot of money cheering up Mrs Fell, and by the unexpected dangers of urban life.
Gibbons has her satirical eye on Bloomsbury this time, making fun of the household of Miss Hoad and Miss Lassiter and their sophisticated metropolitan friends. Dorothy Hoad is a literary relative of Radclyffe Hall's Stephen Gordon, given a boy's upbringing, independently wealthy, and fond of collars and ties. Her passion for Edna Lassiter is unrequited; Miss Lassiter, a novelist, has accepted her financial support, but is now chafing under the control exerted by Miss Hoad in return. Miss Hoad's portrait is a decidedly hostile one and she is made to behave extraordinarily badly by her creator, although I'm bound to say that it is all highly entertaining. Miss Linsey's second job, as a nurse to a child being brought up according to avant-garde principles, allows Gibbons to take a few well-aimed shots at modern parenting and modern marriage. The chapter in which two couples, on the brink of reciprocal adultery, go away to a damp Essex cottage to "talk things out", is particularly amusing - although shamefully Gibbons allows the best row to happen off-stage, and tells us about it afterwards. This is Mr Mybug's world, one of strenuous sexual freedom and cultural experimentation, and - as with Mr Mybug - Gibbons squeezes a great deal of humour from it, and from Bertie's efforts to restore simple, straightforward values to a modern urban world.
This novel is fairly unusual in its context, both putting working-class characters at its centre and making them fully-rounded and interesting. One of the (many) faults of Miss Hoad is to consider Len and Bertie to be "automata", unreceptive to their environment and to the finer things in life. However, both are well-developed characters with a full range of emotional responses - and not necessarily those stereotype might suggest - to their circumstances. Bertie's bravery, her fear of "going down", of financial ruin, are very real and very affecting, as are her responses to loss and to tragedy. Len's slow progress towards finding his lost love is engaging. Pa himself - although there are faint echoes of Adam Lambsbreath in his fey, vague qualities - is open-minded and capable of the unexpected. Gibbons also includes a black character, another lodger at the Fells; the portrayal of Mr Robertson is fairly racist, and the characters react to him with (probably entirely realistic) hostility or, in Mrs Fell's case, by eroticising his exotic difference. There are points, however, when the narrative empathises with his position and draws out the connections between him and Bertie, both strangers in an unwelcoming place. Gibbons makes good use of her affinity with the fairy tale in this book, resolving the plot through miraculous reappearances and discoveries, and restoring Miss Linsey, like a ransomed princess, to her rightful place.
This book is still funny and entertaining, although it shares with other Stella Gibbons works the problem of making the modern reader wince at its casually expressed prejudices. There is a lot in the text to interest enthusiasts for interwar writing. Unfortunately, it's also very hard to get hold of. It's not among the Gibbons titles recently re-issued by Vintage, and secondhand copies are few and expensive. I believe Vintage bought the rights to her whole back catalogue, so perhaps it will appear in due course.