Monday, 9 January 2012

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

This collection, aside from the title story which takes us back to Howling before Flora Poste tidied up the unruly Starkadders, is rooted in the middle-class world of 1930s England.  Spinsters retire to country cottages, bohemian types are satirised, fey girls find suitable husbands, and intergenerational tensions simmer in suburbia.  This might be to do with the magazines that first carried these stories; The Lady, Good Housekeeping and Bystander were not - and are not in the case of the first two - known for their social radicalism.  Although the volume first appeared in 1940 there is no reference to the war, nor any intimation of it; I wonder if the book had a nostalgic appeal for those readers who opened it on publication.

There are two Christmas stories here: as well as the hilarious return to Cold Comfort, in "The Little Christmas Tree" novelist Rhoda Harting's first Christmas in her country cottage is interrupted and then taken over by some children who spin her a yarn about their wicked stepmother.  Stella Gibbons is rather good at awful but somehow charming children. I also enjoyed "Golden Vanity", in which a dreamy library assistant discovers that her favourite author, handsome Geoffrey Whithorne, is really a middle-aged woman called Alice Little, not least for its echoes of Secret Lives.  The stories have excellent shape and structure, and if the narrative voice is sometimes a little archly superior, it is never without humour.

However, I was slightly disturbed by the story called "Cake", in which modern career girl Jenny meets ageing militant suffragette Maud Allworton, and is inspired by her to take back her slightly drunk and adulterous husband so that they can have children.  I've read it twice now to try to work out what is going on.  The narrative point of view switches between Jenny's own, which shifts from complacently judgemental through utter self-doubt into hectic resolution through the story, and the omniscient narrator who is wearing an audible frown.   The narrator disapproves of Jenny, who initially cares only for money and self-advancement; Jenny and the narrator both disapprove of Miss Allworton, who gave up the chance of marriage for the suffragette cause.  Jenny is sarcastic about the gains made for women by the suffragettes, thinking them "such fools", but the suffragette's life story precipitates her rush to Victoria Station to take back her husband before it is too late.  She gets him back, but he rewards her change of heart by slapping her face - which she acknowledges she deserves.  This seems to me to be more than the small c-conservatism that Nicolas Lezard noted in his review of the book.  However, Jenny's nascent friendship with Miss Allworton, a mutual liking that transcends the prejudices of both women, warms what could be a chilly, depressing tale.  The ironic tone and ironic evolution of the characters make this story puzzling even when I find elements of it distasteful.  The title comes from Jenny's belief that 1930s women can have their cake and eat it too; unhappiness like Miss Allworton's comes from inefficient cake-management.

This seems to be a general problem I'm having with Stella Gibbons - the writing might be beautiful, the story well-crafted, and the jokes good, but there always seem to be things that make me wince studded through her work, like finding a bit of nutshell in a mouthful of well-managed cake.  For some alternative views, here are Desperate Reader and I Prefer Reading on the same book.


  1. I read this book in fits and starts and out of order - I thought I'd read all of it but had missed this story which I'll read tonight. I've just read another Gibbons - Here Be Dragons which was excellent apart from uncomfortable references to race - another bit of nutshell which I guess is why Gibbons isn't a great writer (but I still think she's a good one).

  2. I agree with you & DR about the odd moment that can be disconcerting. I've only read a few of SG's novels & have Westwood & Starlight on the tbr shelves. I'll keep reading her but look out for the nutshells!

  3. Thanks for commenting, both of you. I suppose most interwar novels will have some content that is uncomfortable for the modern reader, particularly around race and class, but the way that Gibbons co-opts a feminist character to prop up a failing and ultimately abusive marriage seems particularly cynical to me. I also have Westwood to read, but am cleansing my palate with May Sinclair first!