Sunday, April 15, 2018

A slew of Stella Gibbons novels

I already mentioned, back in December in my Furrowed Middlebrow Dozen, that I'd been obsessively tracking down, by hook or by crook, the Stella Gibbons novels that haven't yet been reprinted by Vintage. I'm not the most patient of people, and it's beginning to look like Vintage is going to leave her other books "on the shelf", as it were—meaning, not on our shelves, at least for any remotely affordable price. Which I basically take as a personal challenge…


At that time, I reported briefly on having read The Yellow Houses (meh) as well as three novels that were among my favorites of the year—The Swiss Summer (1951), A Pink Front Door (1959), and The Snow-Woman (1969). It seems that Vintage has taken the approach of reprinting only what might be viewed as the most serious or "literary" of Gibbons' works, which sadly led them to miss some of her coziest and most light-heartedly readable novels. I suspect a lot of readers of this blog would enjoy a rainy day spent curled up with any of the three above, particularly if you've enjoyed titles like The Rich House and The Matchmaker.

In the months since I mentioned those three, I've read four more Gibbons novels—somewhat astonishingly, really, considering how I generally flit from one author to another like a fruit fly.


White Sand and Grey Sand (1958) was actually among the Vintage reprints, and was merely plucked from my TBR shelves while waiting for a new interlibrary loan request to arrive. This one had an intriguing setting in postwar Bruges, and some intriguingly complex characters, but somehow it felt a bit too bleak to me—missing Gibbons' usual wit and charm. It features a classic Gibbons waif, in the form of a girl found wandering during the Nazi invasion of Belgium, who is raised by the owners of a small grocery store. But somehow, Ydette didn't awaken my interest as much as other Gibbons heroines. Fans of earlier Gibbons novels that are loose retellings of fairy tales may find it of interest, however, as it's clearly Gibbons' twist on "Beauty and the Beast." Have any of you read it?

From there, I proceeded to The Woods in Winter (1970), the last of Gibbons' novels, apparently, to have been written for publication. (The Yellow Houses and Pure Juliet were written later, but she seems to have had no intention of publishing them, which freed her up to explore their more difficult themes without fear of commercial failure.) Woods rather intriguingly deals with Ivy Gover, a curmudgeonly charwoman who inherits a rural cottage and has surprising effects on her new neighbors. There's even a slight hint of witchiness about her, which you know appealed to me. It's certainly a rather cozy scenario, but Ivy has enough of a dark edginess about her to give it a typically Gibbons-esque depth.


The Weather at Tregulla (1962), meanwhile, set evocatively in Cornwall, is a bit like a lighter, more romantic version of Gibbons' earlier Here Be Dragons—young girl falls in love with hopelessly inappropriate "artist", surrounded by other entertaining characters, and grows and matures as a result. I have to admit, it may not be as literary as Dragons, but I found it more entertaining. Though that could have come from my enjoyment of the tantalizing armchair travel to Cornwall that the novel offered...


And finally, I've just finished reading what is surely Gibbons' most extraordinarily odd novel, 1953's Fort of the Bear, primarily set—of all places—in the Northwest Canadian wilderness (to which Gibbons had never been) in the 1920s. The novel is subtitled "A Romance" and presumably Gibbons meant to evoke the earlier literary meaning the term, à la Nathaniel Hawthorne's fantasies of colonial America. The plot—a rather daft one about the eccentric and anti-social Earl of Vernay, who takes his wife, young daughter, and several of his tenant farmers from rural England to the wilds of Canada to escape the degeneration of urban life—is more than a little hard to swallow. In places I even found it downright tedious. But having persevered, due to my faith that any work by Gibbons is going to have redeeming qualities, I have to say it was ultimately hard to put down, if for no other reason because I was curious where on earth she was going with it all. And indeed, the bleakness of the terrain, the growing madness of the Earl, the wife, child, and servants held prisoner by his refusal to return them to civilization, succeeded in making me think more than once of Hawthorne, though that may or may not be a comparison individual readers would find appealing.

Gibbons' biographer and nephew, Reggie Oliver, believed that some germ of Fort may have originated in the early days of World War II, and he quoted from a piece she wrote in the St Martin's Review: "One of the deepest reliefs for the mind in these days is to think of those lovely places in Canada, New Zealand, Tasmania, where people are safe and happy and our friends. I try to send myself off to sleep at night by imagining a lake in Canada; clear and blue and lonely, echoing only to the cry of water birds, reflecting the snows of mighty mountains, silent with the heavenly sounds of nature."


I don't know if Oliver is correct, but I rather like the idea that Gibbons' fatigued wartime fantasy of an escape to the wilds led to Fort, because it shows Gibbons always challenging herself. Even what began as an understandable dream of getting away from the stresses of war had to be carefully worked through, and came to reflect, in the novel, the dark and destructive extremes to which such anti-social impulses could extend. She couldn't even imagine herself peacefully relaxing next to a lake without exploring the social and ethical issues involved!

I wonder, too, if Gibbons was doing some theological soul searching during the writing of Fort, as its Christian content is stronger here than in most of her other work. Her daughter noted that Gibbons was raised an atheist, but converted to Christianity when she married. In any case, there are here some intriguing explorations of mythology in general, including Greek and American Indian beliefs as well as Christianity, not to mention the personal mythologies we build around us.

I also noted a certain similarity between the Earl and Gibbons' final heroine in Pure Juliet. Both are, in their own way, damaged or limited characters who cause pain to those around them and yet for whom Gibbons has a touching compassion and concern. I prefer the latter novel, but in Fort too the Earl, despite his self-absorption and the pain it causes those around them, is ultimately a poignant character.

I was very curious what other readers have made of this oddity, but Goodreads has no reviews (though two users say they've read it at least) and I didn't see any blog reviews, only a photo of a strikingly inappropriate cover image that made it look like a Louis L'Amour novel. If you've come across it and have thoughts to share, please do!

Now, what's next in my Gibbons orgy? By my count I've now read 18 of her 26 novels, which isn't bad for a reader who tends to be unfocused in his reading. Three of those remaining are novels that have never been reprinted—Miss Linsey and Pa (1935), The Shadow of a Sorcerer (1955), and The Wolves Were in the Sledge (1964). (The last of those is, according to her biographer, an experiment, written when Gibbons was in her 60s, in first person narration from the point of view of an 18-year-old heroine, which I have to admit is quite intriguing me.) Then there are two of her more popular books, Nightingale Wood (1938) and My American (1939), which I have thus far shunted aside in favor of less well-known works, and the distinctly unpopular Ticky (1943), reportedly Gibbons' own personal favorite of all her works (which therefore also intrigues me), as well as the autobiographical Enbury Heath (1935) and finally Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949), the one I seem to have the most resistance to, owing to my lukewarm feelings about CCF in the first place.

(And of course, then there's her one, vanishingly rare children's book, The Untidy Gnome, from 1935, which may well be altogether unprocurable…)

Which do you think should come next?

13 comments:

  1. Are you able to identify th artist of that lovely lady on the cover of "White Sand and Grey Sand"?

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    1. Regrettably, Norman, the photo is just snatched from the internet, it's not the copy I own. So I can't look any more closely to check for artist credit. It's definitely a nice cover though, isn't it?

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  2. How interesting. I'm really CROSS with Vintage, because as well as doing this with Gibbons, they've republished all but TWO of Iris Murdoch's novels, and I was collecting the edition for my readalong so as to access the interesting introductions. Why oh why etc. And these sound like really good reads in the main!

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    1. How strange! Which are the two they skipped? In my younger years, I spent a couple of years reading, if I recall, 23 of Murdoch's 26 novels. It's a wonderful world to immerse yourself in.

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  3. Of course there is also the problem of Virago republishing only some of Angela Thirkell's novels; while they picked some of the best ones it still leaves a lot more of her twenty nine novels difficult to get hold of easily. They have also produced two as ebooks only - not the way to read her in my opinion!
    I loved this post about Gibbons. I am a long term fan of Cold Comfort Farm, and have been collecting and trying to read her other novels. Obviously I still have many treasures yet to enjoy!

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    1. Yes, the Thirkell situation is even stranger, and rather odd as I believe Virago has been dabbling in print-on-demand as well as e-books, so even if some titles are more popular than others, they could still make them all available. By the way, I can understand your resistance to e-books, but for readers in Canada, fadedpage.com has a good number of Thirkell's available for free downloading, as she is now public domain in Canada...

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  4. Since I was really only familiar with Cold Comfort Farm, and the Christmas one, this is quite the education. Hey, almost better than going back to college! Tom

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    1. There's a whole world of Gibbonses to explore, Tom!

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  5. It's so good to have more info about her more obscure books! I've read a few of hers, and none of them have lived up to CCF in my mind (as I *do* love it) - Bassett came close, as I really loved the first half, but found the love triangle so tedious.

    The only non-Vintage one I have is Miss Linsey and Pa, but it's not one of the ones I've read, so I can tell you nothing about it...

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    1. I wonder, Simon, if it wouldn't be helpful to imagine that the other books are by a totally different author. In some ways, they are, because I don't think Gibbons ever attempted to write in the style of CCF again (not even, really, in its sequels).

      I agree with you re Bassett. I thought the two women running the guesthouse were delightful, and then we're derailed onto the boring young lovers. But if you haven't tried Westwood or The Matchmaker yet, I would recommend those. Just imagine they're by a brand new writer you've never read before!

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  6. Enbury Heath, My American, Miss Linsey and Pa, & Nightingale Wood are all absolutely wonderful IMO. The first has delightful versions of her family members, the second has American gangsters, the third inverts CCF as a charlady organizes Bloomsburyites, and the fourth mixes Shakespeare and fairytale. Wolves Are in the Sledge is good in its own way. Somewhere along the line, though, you should read (and review for us) The Untidy Gnome - of which I will be happy to lend you my copy.
    - Grant Hurlock

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    1. Well, then, Grant, it looks like my decision may be made! Thank you for the generous offer. Can't wait to see how Gibbons wrote for children!

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  7. My American and Ticky are 2 of my favorites! Also The Bachelor

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