A few years ago, when I was in the first throes of my obsession with World War II "home front" reading, I came across Stella Gibbons' lovely novel Westwood (1946), set during the later years of the war and making haunting use of London's bombed out ruins and a general mood of exhaustion in its tale of a young woman's infatuation with the lightly bohemian world of a famous painter and his family.
I've since learned that practically everyone else in the universe seems to love Stella Gibbons mainly because of her debut novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932), and many readers are more lukewarm about her other work. But at the time I was ambivalent about Westwood for the opposite reason. I had been lukewarm on Cold Comfort Farm when I read it several years earlier (is this more or less shocking than my passionate dislike of Rebecca, I wonder???), and I was afraid Westwood might be too much like it. As it turned out, I could almost have believed Westwood was by a completely different author. The humor is understated, the character development stronger, and its themes of change and growth and disillusionment are handled with far more subtlety and depth. (BTW, I finally re-read CCF last year and enjoyed it much more than my first go-round, though it's still far from my favorite Gibbons.)
After Westwood, I moved on to The Bachelor (1943), the only other of Gibbons' wartime novels I could track down. Mind you, I read both of these in beat-up, grungy, highly allergy-inducing wartime editions that hailed from dusty library storage vaults.
Happily, in the last few years, Vintage Classics UK has reprinted a dozen or more of Gibbons' best novels, including the afore-mentioned and both of her other wartime novels, The Rich House (1941) and The Matchmaker (1949), which I also really love. Some of these were made available from the likes of Awesome Books and Book Depository, but not all of them are, so when Andy and I were in London a couple of years ago, I scurried into Hatchard's (surely what heaven would look like for me) and stocked up. Amazingly, it was my only real book splurge in London—apart from a quick and costly trip to the lovely Persephone Books shop, of course—but that (like most of this post so far) is beside the point. At any rate, though, it's embarrassing to admit that it has taken me this long to get around to reading one of the books acquired in that splurge.
|Original cover, Hodder & Stoughton edition|
We learn early on that, until the fairly recent death of her parents, Christine has lived at home in the role—like that of so many other unmarried daughters—of unpaid servant. We also learn that she is attempting to break free from the restrictiveness and superficiality of "Mortimer Road" (which she repeatedly describes as being obsessed with the latest electrical gadgets, as if toasters and blenders are their religious idols), but remains haunted by its conservative, bourgeois voice:
Alone under the benevolent glow of the lamps, the rather sturdy figure opened her bad and took out a new-looking cigarette-case and a mildly expensive lighter. The smoke went down into her lungs with the sensation of mingled discomfort and satisfaction that was becoming familiar. She coughed.
Christine doesn't smoke. It's such a relief to us, when all the girls do nowadays.
The inward voice was old and contented. It had made that remark for more than a quarter of a century, following it with remarks about expense and, as time went on, about horrors which might result from the pernicious habit.
And behind the voice of Mortimer Road seems to lurk a more primal figure, represented for Christine by Mrs. Benson, who was her working class landlady at the boarding house she moved to after her parents death. Gibbons is often concerned with class relations, and the mutual loathing of Christine and Mrs. Benson comes to mean more than just a humorous interlude:
Hadn't every action of the Smiths, ever since she could remember, been taken with the object of leaving Mrs. Benson as far behind as possible? Hadn't they scrambled up and away from her as fast and as far as they could scram, taking her position down there for granted, never mentioning her but with contempt and hatred and fear?
Christine gets the job as housekeeper, and is indeed "charmed" by her employers' laid-back, lightly bohemian lifestyle—though it's made clear that they are in fact only somewhat less bourgeois than Christine herself. ("Real artists don’t get themselves up in special clothes," one of them tells another who fancies herself a potter and has purchased special, colorful and highly fashionable smocks for the purpose.) Still, their attitudes are liberating to her, and she can think gratefully of her escape from Mrs. Benson when looking out over a garden-party the group is throwing:
Lovely, thought Christine, leaning against the frame of the open window, really lovely. Oh, I am glad she can't see it; she'd say something about being glad she hadn't to wash all that lot up. I can never be thankful enough for living with nice people.
And yet, the novel is also about how difficult it is to break away from one's past, from the worldview and sensibility from which one has come, and that's what made the novel particularly interesting for me—perhaps especially since I can relate somewhat to Christine's situation. Gibbons refuses to oversimplify the process, or to imply that one can ever escape completely, and the result is complex and powerful. But this might also render Christine a less sympathetic or likeable character for some readers. For example, she innocently hires a young Anglo-African cleaner and then, when the others react to his presence by trotting out both degrading and idealizing stereotypes, she rather too readily seems to accept their views (even while, it is suggested, she may be physically attracted to him). She is a flawed, conflicted character, trying to free herself but not always successful.
And Gibbons also shows us another reason total escape may be difficult:
[S]he sometimes had a sensation as if every tradition she had ever held was being swept away in a great flood of novelty, that, though it usually carried her along willingly and even pleasurably, must sometimes be resisted if she were not to feel entirely without roots.
Now, while I found Christine's efforts to escape her stultifying past to be the most thought-provoking part of the novel, I don't want to imply that The Charmers is not, first and foremost, a very sharp, funny novel. Nearly every page is loaded with Gibbons' sly wit, such as this description, from early in the novel, of a contractor doing renovations on the house:
Mr. Ryan, who was comely and carried no transistor set, began a rigmarole in an unintelligible Irish accent which gradually, for lack of hearers who could understand what he was saying, died away. He walked off, looking sarcastically at a slide-rule.
While I'm not sure exactly how one looks sarcastically at a slide-rule, I couldn't help but laugh at the thought. (I have been attempting to gaze snidely at the television and peer mordantly at the dishwasher ever since.)
And here is Gibbons' description of the mood in the house after the dress designer, Miss Marriott, arrives home with the psychosomatic cold she always gets after each new collection is released:
There now settled over the kitchen an atmosphere suggesting that someone desperately ill had arrived at a log-cabin in the middle of a blizzard.
Even some of the book's most serious topics are handled with frequent humor. For instance, there is an ongoing theme in the novel about the conflict between those who take an interest in world events and those who are indifferent. The pseudo-intellectual "charmers" pride themselves on their concern for "The Problems," even when it is clearly completely superficial, as in the following conversation about Christine:
"Do you see any signs of her mind getting wider?"
"From time to time. But only a very little. She is quite shockingly indifferent to what's going on in the rest of the world. The whole of India could starve to death this week-end, for all she cares."
"I don't care much myself."
"I know you don't but at least you do feel guilty…"
Surely a very "middlebrow" perspective, that guilt somehow makes one a superior person! And there's also this passage about trendy critics who demand social concern in popular culture—which Gibbons seems to feel is every bit as superficial as the lip service the charmers pay to it:
And even Agatha Christie, Mr. Meredith said, had come in for a slating from them over the past few years; presumably because she had made a fortune out of not writing plays about The Problems. The sight of a tennis-racquet on the stage, said James with an unaccustomed flight of fancy, threw those chaps into the sort of state other chaps got into about blood sports or hanging.
All of these themes and concerns work together in surprisingly complex ways, and I feel—as I always do when I really am challenged and intrigued by a book—that a re-reading would bring to light new depths and discords. For example, I haven't even mentioned Christine's (sort of) love interest, who plays a crucial role, or the ghost of a singer who was part of the charmers' circle of friends but was killed in the war, or "That Day," a crucial experience Christine has had a few months before the novel begins:
And then she had mislaid, rather than lost, her way for perhaps five or seven minutes, and during that time she had come upon a church, an old church, shadowed by the sweeping branches of a cedar burdened in dazzling snow. The sight of it, and the long curve of a snow-covered wall bordering the graveyard in which it stood, filled her with an unfamiliar, exquisite emotion.
Perhaps it is impossible for people who have often experienced this feeling to conceive the effect it had upon a mind stunned and dimmed for more than half a century by ugly sounds and commonplace sights, and it is true that Christine's visitor had to find its way, and afterwards, for more than a year now, she had thought of the moment as "That Day", and had wanted to have the feeling again.
This spiritual experience seems to inform Christine's growth away from "Mortimer Road," and when the sensation does return, it may signal Christine's outgrowing of the charmers themselves, so that we are left with a sense that her efforts to push against her own biases and limitations will continue.
Gibbons only published three more novels after The Charmers—though she wrote two more after that which she never attempted to publish (and which were the subject of a rather bogus news release last year which treated them as if they were newly discovered—presumably an effort by her heirs to stir up interest in finally publishing them—here's hoping the effort paid off!). Written 33 years after Cold Comfort Farm, this is the work of a far more mature writer, who portrays the irony and sadness of life with subtlety and depth, and also with the growing spiritual concerns that were characteristic of her late work. If you only know the earlier novel, I can't urge you enough to try out some of her later work. While I might recommend starting with The Rich House or Westwood, The Charmers has become a favorite of mine as well, and provides a good sampling of Gibbons', er, charms.