In recent weeks I have mentioned how easy it is to feel thrilled at discovering something ‘new’ and yet utterly uneducated in the same instant. So it feels with Stella Gibbons, an author I have only ever been vaguely aware of as the author of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, a book that always felt outside of the orbit of my interests, although quite why that ought to be so I am not sure. Part of the dismissal would likely be simply to do with the fact that it was deemed to be A Classic, which might translate as Too Mainstream and/or A Bit Uncool. Ridiculous of course, but there we are. There may also have been something to do with it being somehow Very English, of somehow being entangled with The Establishment and hence to be sniffed at. I’m not even certain that I was aware of it being a comic novel and a parody of the whole D.H. Lawrence thing (having been forced to read a wearisome D.H. Lawrence novel in school I feel sure that knowing ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ was taking the piss would surely have piqued my interest). These days though, almost all of the things that would once have turned my nose are now guaranteed to tickle the hairs delightedly. Not that I actually have picked up ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, you understand. It has joined the ‘to be read’ list, naturally, but shaking off the baggage of Trying To Be Cool is difficult. It’s that desperately sad need to be able to respond to someone asking if you have read/heard/seen (insert title of acknowledged ‘classic’) with ‘oh yes, it’s marvellous of course, but have you read/heard/seen (insert titles of obscurities by the same artist)?’ Not that I have anyone to ask such questions, and the only person I may be trying to impress would be myself, blogs being the equivalent of mumbling to oneself when the cats have gone to sleep and the rain and wind keep one indoors. It fills the days.
All of which is by way of saying that the first Stella Gibbons book that I have read has been her 1946 novel ‘Westwood’. Republished by the Vintage imprint (didn’t it used to be called Virago and have those lovely green covers?) alongside a number of other Gibbons’ titles, ‘Westwood’ is an assured glance back at the war years as lived in London and a rather pointed critique of, well, any number of things really. At its core the book is a neat assault on the nature of the male artistic gaze, but the book also necessarily connects this theme to those of class, nationality (the default intrinsic racism of the English psyche is laid bare), gender and fidelity. It’s a heady mix, but Gibbons balances them all with ease, expertly interweaving the themes to show their interconnectedness.
Like Margaret Kennedy’s ‘The Feast’, ‘Westwood’ draws lines in the sand between the pre-WW2 world and the one that will follow, although there is a sense in this case that things are not viewed quite as optimistically, with Gibbons pointing more to a settling back into a status-quo rather than breaking new ground and overturning systems and structures. Given the nature of history’s unravelling, one might argue that Gibbons was more accurate in the long term, but that’s an argument for another time. The difference in viewpoints might simply be down to the gap between the novels. Four years may not seem like a long time, but in the immediate aftermath of the war, the space between 1946 and 1950 might as well be generational.
This closeness to the war experience actually lends ‘Westwood’ a few moments of awkwardness, mostly caused by Gibbons making reference to ’the Second World War’. This feels clumsy and I’m not at all certain that anyone not explicitly involved in journalism or historical academia would have said anything more than simply ‘the war’. It’s a minor detail, but it does jar. Perhaps it was added by an over-zealous editor in a later edition, eager to make the historical context clear. There is too, though, a strange dissonance in some of the period detail which makes it difficult to position the novel. It’s obviously post-1941, for whilst an occasional bomb lands (one of which takes out the front of a painter’s cottage in Highgate) we are clearly no longer in the midst of the Blitz, nor yet into the realm of the Baby Blitz or the V weapons. Americans are also in town (cue English upper-class disdain: “what an unpleasant language American was; at once low, confusing and illogical”) so we’re likely between 1942 and 1944, but it’s summer and there is no mention of great activity, so perhaps 1943… In many ways of course pinning the book down to a specific time is irrelevant and most likely evidence of my male infatuation with detail. Much more pertinent is the fact that Gibbons makes the war a tertiary element in the narrative. The war is something that may always be there and might indeed (as with the aforementioned bomb in Highgate) explicitly determine actions, but it is also curiously an aside, a temporary irritation in the timeless storyline of love, passion, rejection, deceit, illumination, whatever. There is a notion posited here too that whilst artists might be unpleasant as people, their work can transcend those limitations and mean something immeasurably more than the sum of the individual’s traits and foibles and/or the specificity of their creation in time and space. Then again, this does not mean those same artists cannot make the most appalling doggerel and utterly fail to see their missteps, and it does not mean that the value of the work does not diminish in light of their failings as human beings. Naturally this happens with philandering playwright Gerard Challis and Margaret: “Margaret no longer felt a strong interest in him or his plays. When her respect for him as a human being had been destroyed, her admiration for him as an artist had been destroyed also.”
Margaret is the key character in the book, as is her prolonged infatuation with Challis, but Gibbons is marvellously brutal in describing her as “unlovely and heavy in manner, and craving for beauty both earthly and divine that could never be hers.” Margaret’s own mother is equally pragmatic, saying “I’m afraid you aren’t the type that attracts men, so we’d better face it.” So much for poor old Margaret. She might end the novel experimenting with a bit of lipstick, a black dress and calling herself ‘Maggie’ but any transformation is clearly never really going to stick.
Then there is Hilda, who “would always have that place in her affections which is reserved for the oldest friend; the friend with whom there is often no link surviving save the twenty-five or so years which have elapsed since a mutual youth”. In many ways Hilda is one of the most enjoyable characters of the whole book, most of the time coming over as a kind of prototype ‘liberated’ woman, quite determined to enjoy the company of young men and to live for the moment. Her ultimate response to the duplicitous attentions of the middle-aged Gerald Challis is sharp and perfectly aimed. Hilda may be utterly knowing (when Challis first meets Hilda he remarks that she “look(s) like a painting by Signorelli”. To which Hilda says – aside – “There we go again,”) but she is also naturally open and, until the denouement, shows him a degree of kindness and friendly affection he assuredly does not deserve. It’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that her final appearance in the book is something of a let down, though, as she wanders off in the bliss of engagement with the eager flirtations of youth left behind.
This vague sense of disappointment in Hilda being ultimately subsumed by the mainstream expectations of society is reflective of a cloaked gloominess under which the entire novel concludes. Margaret, in her red lipstick and black dress, may ultimately emerge as a more self-confident character strengthened by her varied disillusions, but there is too something rather sad about it. In her conversation with Gerald Challis’ mother, Lady Challis, Margaret is told that “the only “thing” that a human being can go on wanting all their life, and be satisfied with just wanting, is God”. To someone like Margaret who disclaims religion, this is surely a thoroughly depressing thought, particularly since it is couched within the expectation that the “things” which they might find themselves wanting will invariably (and perhaps by design) be forever out of their reach. Lady Challis also suggests that Margaret is “not one of the people who need tragedy.” Instead, she needs “the Gentle Powers…. Beauty, and Time, and the Past and Pity (their names sound like a band of angels, don’t they?) Laughter, too”; needs “calming and lifting into the light, not plunging into darkness and struggle.”
It may be an odd note on which to end an otherwise deliciously catty and humorously insightful novel, but it works very well in letting us know how Gibbons sees the role of (her) art in the aftermath of war. Reminds us too that Gibbons’ humour has its edge.