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?