Showing posts with label Stella Gibbons. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Stella Gibbons. Show all posts

Friday, 8 June 2012

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

I've been put off opening this, even though I read it before years ago, by my experience with Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, but really I needn't have worried.  This is a short novel-length return to Cold Comfort Farm, converted, in post-WW2 austerity, into a conference centre managed by a trust.  All the Starkadders except Reuben have disappeared, mostly to South Africa, and Reuben himself has been moved out of the farmhouse and into a rude hut on Ticklepenny's Field, the last bit of land remaining to him.  Flora, summoned by Mr Mybug to help run a conference at Cold Comfort, including modernists, advanced thinkers and high-ranking examples of the new managerial aristocracy, immediately sets about putting things right.

Like the original novel, the narrative is slightly speculative, with some sort of managerialist government in power and everyone conscripted into useful work. Flora is now the mother of five, so has a government-assigned spiv to act as au pair; Reuben has been soundly ripped off by a combination of the Ministry of Agriculture and a body analagous to the National Trust. Gibbons has lots of fun with the modernist artists and their output, the managers and their machinations, a set of dipsomaniac scientists, and the enduringly ridiculous Mr Mybug, still married to Rennett and with three sons, who have "fixations" on their parents which take the form of "liking to be with us, wanting to be kissed goodnight, and that sort of thing.  We've tried everything - it only gets worse".  Adam Lambsbreath reappears, apparently immortal and still longing for his little mop, and there is a moving reunion between Urk and the water-voles.

Flora has lost none of her capability or her charm but is perhaps slightly more assertive.  One of my favourite moments in Cold Comfort Farm is when Mr Mybug eats the little cake that Flora had wanted for herself, and it chokes him.  This time, he is firmly prevented from stealing her hot milk.  I cannot help thinking that Stella Gibbons' own experience informs Flora's thoughts on receiving confidences: "years and years of listening to people had taught her that if she just kept quiet and sipped or sewed and never looked shocked, there was literally no limit - no limit at all - to what people would tell her".  I suspect many of us can endorse that.

Conference at Cold Comfort Farm is short, sharp and funny, and highly recommended to cheer up a damp cold Bank Holiday or other dreary circumstances.  Also recommended is I Prefer Reading's review.

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.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Miss Linsey and Pa by Stella Gibbons

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. 

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons

In this 1950 novel Stella Gibbons explores the little comedies and dramas of life in rural Sussex immediately after the second world war.  Alda Lucie-Brown comes to live at dreary, isolated Pine Cottage with her three daughters, Jenny, Louise and little Meg.  Alda's husband Ronald, a university lecturer, is still on military service abroad, helping with reconstruction work in Germany, and the family has lived a peripatetic life since their home in Ironborough, a prosperous provincial city where both Alda and Ronald have deep roots, was destroyed in the war.  Alda and the girls make friends with their immediate neighbours, the Hoadleys at the nearby farm, and Mr Waite, who keeps battery chickens and is fond of transcendent literature.

Alda is the matchmaker of the title, interfering first in the love life of her old friend Jean.  Jean has reached her early thirties without marrying, although there has been a procession of unsuitable men in her life; her father has recently died, leaving her his profitable kitchenware business.  Alda thinks that Mr Waite, for all that he is gloomy and old-fashioned, will do well for Jean, and develops their acquaintance.  Alda goes on to encourage Sylvia, a would-be actress with dyed hair working as a land girl for the Hoadleys, to consider Fabrio, an Italian prisoner of war also working on the farm, as a potential suitor.  All this is played out against a background of rural life, farm work, riding lessons and a convent school for the girls, with Ronald's occasional visits when on leave.

The underlying theme of the novel seems to be getting people into their rightful place.   Alda, displaced from her native Ironborough, takes a fairly superficial attitude to life at Pine Cottage; she will not be there for long and will not see at close hand the consequences of her matchmaking.  Fabrio is exiled from his impoverished Italian home and sufficiently disconcerted to consider Sylvia as a potential wife, rather than Maria, the girl at home who writes to him every week.  Mr Waite has been somehow deprived of the managerial business position that he grew up expecting to have; marriage to Jean would restore this to him.  The novel valorises people like the Hoadleys, who are in the appropriate setting and making it work for them; and Mr Hoadley's parents, who live, as Mrs Hoadley says, "very rough".  Sylvia and Fabrio's visit to the elder Hoadleys in their patchwork house brings out fastidious disdain in Sylvia, but the narrative is quite approving of their way of life.  Perhaps the strongest condemnation of the effect on place of the wrong sort of person is the description of the decline of the Linga-Longa cafe, once the clean and respectable Blue Plate, now infiltrated by gipsies, lorry-drivers and dirt, and unsuitable for Alda and her daughters.  The novel flirts with the possibility that people may move between cultures through the relationship between Sylvia and Fabrio, but ultimately takes a conservative view of such mobility: people, whatever their background, are better off where their roots are.

In order to fit in the right, appointed place, people must be of the right type; the novel therefore inevitably deals in stereotypes.  The Italian prisoners of war are portrayed as dirty, untrustworthy and over-emotional; Sylvia's semi-bohemian, theatrical and Communist family are described as dirty (again), vulgar and unintelligent; the London friends of Jean's original suitor are hard, fashionable and superficial.  There is a good deal about the grubbiness of Italian peasant life, and the novel sentimentalises their poverty as perfectly appropriate for peasants, indeed much the best thing for them.  This, alongside the general snobbishness which also permeates Nightingale Wood, can make the novel an uneasy read.  Alda, with her golden hair and sparkling hazel eyes, is probably intended to be as attractive a meddler in others' affairs as Flora Poste; although she is probably as interfering as Flora, she lacks Flora's ability to divine what people really want from life, and to give it to them while, serendipitously, getting her own way.
The novel's attractive qualities lie in its contingent, happenstance approach to plot; things happen that have no particular bearing on the twin love stories.  Jenny and Louise go to school for the first time, and find it difficult, but no crisis ensues; a storm threatens the harvest, but the neighbours and farmworkers all pull together to get the wheat in before the storm can break - which it never actually does.  Stella Gibbons seems fond of this type of anticlimax and uses it to tease the reader.  There are also lyrical descriptions of the charms of country life in the summer, with picnics and bicycle rides featuring prominently.  Criticising Sylvia's taste in films, the narrator praises films like This Happy Breed and I Know Where I'm Going! which "took a story from everyday life and touched it with poetry"; I suspect this was also the ambition of this novel.

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.