Vintage reading: Stella Gibbons and Nightingale Wood

I’m on vacation in roadless country and spend a fair bit of time reading. Light reading, for preference. Right now I’m alternating between Heinrich Böll’s wonderful short stories in Murke’s Collected Silences and Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood, published in 1938.

Stella Gibbons is practically only known for her first novel Cold Comfort Farm today, and I hunted down this one and a few other novels by Gibbons mainly because Cold Comfort Farm is the most comforting book I know, a favourite novel that holds the distinction of being the book I have bought the most copies of by far. I’ve worn it out, given it as a gift and given my own worn copy away to someone who needed it twice. Last year I finally bought myself a nice, illustrated folio edition, brought my worn-out Penguin Classics paperback up here and left it in the communal cabin library, stocked with fly fishing literature, books on arctic flora and fauna, Kar de Mumma, Fritiof Nilsson Piraten, Georges Simenon, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie and Aunt Mame.

Stella Gibbons’ other novels are different, though. She described Cold Comfort Farm as

…some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but is often an embarrassment and a bore.

Which is understandable, as the success of that first novel completely eclipsed the 20-odd novels she published later in life. But I still love it the most. I’m sorry, Stella Gibbons.

Her later novels are much subtler in their satire, and often have a wistful quality that I like, but don’t always feel up to. I’ve heard Westwood described as depressing, and in a way it is, perhaps. Her female protagonists are sometimes hard to like. Not because they are horrible, Flora Poste is rather horrible but also likable, after all, unlike Westwood’s Margaret Steggles, who is not horrible, but at least initially hard to like. The beauty of that is that I think I find her hard to like because I see so much of the most awkward, boring and unsympathetic sides of my own younger self in Margaret Steggles. That’s deeply uncomfortable, but also makes the character’s development throughout the novel emotional and ultimately rather satisfying.

But now I’m reading Nightingale Wood, which is a Cinderella story, an unsentimental and slightly uncomfortable one, since it is Gibbons, after all. Cinderella is a former shopgirl, no lady and no Mary Sue, the prince isn’t all that, the role of the stepmother is filled by a mean father-in-law making everyone miserable, and the stepsisters are quietly tragic figures. Spinsters, stuck in an unhappy home with their highly respectable parents, who invite their recently widowed daughter-in-law to live with them, even though she is not quite quite.

‘Shirley Davis? I think I have heard you mention her before, have I not?’
‘Oh, hundreds of times, I sh’d think. She’s my best friend, you know. She was at my wedding.’
‘I remember her perfectly. A very striking-looking girl.’
With dyed hair, thought Mrs Wither, for that shade of red could never be real.

People did dye their hair in the 1930’s, of course, far more frequently than before WWI, but it was not uncontroversial. My grandmother once told this story about dyeing her hair around the same time, when she went to school in Stockholm in her late teens and lived in a rented room. She had her brown hair dyed darker with two bleached streaks on either side of the face at the temples. It’s visible in a short 8mm clip, I’ll upload it when I get home. She wasn’t allowed to do that, of course, and worried about what her parents would say when she went back home to Sundsvall. But it wasn’t even mentioned until they were having coffee on the veranda and great-grandmother calmly said ‘I understand that you think you look very fancy now,’ barely even looking up. Having seen great-grandmother in those films and read her entries in the guestbook here, I don’t think she found it particularly shocking. She had an odd sense of humour, too.

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