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.


  1. This sounds wonderful and I would really like to read it. I have rather neglected the 1950s as a period and have concentrated rather more on the 30s and the war years etc. I think that I would probably find the socially conservative tone a tiny bit of a shame but it sounds like a splendid book and an interesting take on such themes.

    Thanks indeed for sharing and what a pleasure to discover your blog.


  2. Thanks Hannah. I suspect the literature of the fifties is full of undiscovered gems. Like you, I know more of the interwar period - it's nice to know there is more out there.

    I look forward to exploring your own blog. Thanks for commenting.