Tuesday, November 29, 2016

STELLA GIBBONS, Pure Juliet (circa 1980)

This was one of my happy Oxfam finds on our recent trip to the U.K., though I do have to ask: How much of a bargain was it to buy one Stella Gibbons book for two pounds, only to finish reading it and immediately order every single other in-print Gibbons title? I'm beginning to think that the only true book bargain is a book you dislike and are content to know you didn’t waste much money on…

At any rate, I've long been a Gibbons fan, but Pure Juliet has cemented my devotion to her. In fact, it's a bit difficult to figure out how to write about a novel I loved so much. For me, this was one of those reading experiences—I'm sure we’ve all had them, even if we had them with different books—where it seemed that the world around me had stopped (fortunate indeed, at this point in American history!) and I had stepped into an astonishing, unpredictable, but endlessly fascinating dream world. But, somehow, a dream world that felt so personal and powerful to me from my own experiences that it was uneasily like my own dream and perhaps brought about some uncomfortable realizations about myself. It's not easy to share such a literary encounter, but I'll give it a shot.

First, a bit of background.

Pure Juliet was one of two "lost" novels by Gibbons that were only finally published by Vintage UK this year. The final novel published by Gibbons in her lifetime was The Woods in Winter, which appeared in 1970, after which she reportedly decided she was finished with submitting her work for editorial control and critical reception. She wrote two final novels, but made no attempt to publish them, only circulating them among family and friends. The Yellow Houses (one of the books I've now ordered) was written in the early 1970s, while Pure Juliet, originally titled An Alpha, was probably finished around 1980 (there are references to Star Wars and Kojak, so we have some idea when Gibbons must have been writing it). Although there was a much hyped news story in 2014 about the "rediscovery" of these two novels, they were never in fact lost at all, having been mentioned by Gibbons' biographer in the 1990s. But if the manufactured hype about lost novels led, at long last, to their publication, then I am all for a bit of fictionalizing of the novels' history.

Gibbons, as many of you may already know, tends to divide readers into two factions—those who adore her debut novel, Cold Comfort Farm, written when she was in her late 20s, and find that her other twenty-five or so novels suffer by comparison, and those who believe Cold Comfort Farm is amusing but somewhat overrated, and was rapidly surpassed by more subtle and profound work to come.

Can you guess which faction I fall into?

Now, I do think Cold Comfort Farm is entertaining and funny. But I can also quite see why Gibbons herself, late in life, compared her debut to "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." The book cast a long shadow, and with every subsequent novel she published, it seems that the public kept hoping that this time, surely, she would give them another version of the debut they loved so much. Indeed, Gibbons even tried to give them what they craved, with a short story, "Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm" (1940), and a later sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949), but neither were crowd pleasers. It's obviously a difficult task for a mature writer, who has moved on to more subtle and complex portrayals, to recreate the vibrant silliness of her youthful self, and neither attempt worked very well.

Gibbons' later work, though always retaining her quick wit, satirical eye, and brutal honesty, is less riotous than Cold Comfort Farm. She's an uncompromising author, so even with such an entertaining novel as The Matchmaker (1949), set at the very end of World War II, which masquerades as a light-hearted romp with a young mother, husband away at the war, attempting to stoke new romance among her friends, there are always darker undercurrents beneath, and those undercurrents seem to delight some readers and disturb and alienate others. Gibbons has been called a 20th century Jane Austen (then again, who hasn’t?), but it’s a terribly misleading comparison, since there’s at least as much of the Bront√ęs mixed in.

If that's true even of other, more light-hearted Gibbons novels, then it's certainly the case with Pure Juliet, which I found to be brilliant and tragic and poetic and funny and heartbreaking all at once—not to mention simply addictive reading. It also makes use of a kind of dark fairy tale quality, something Gibbons had an interest in and used in other novels—Cinderella in Nightingale Wood, for example, the Snow Queen in My American, and Beauty and the Beast in White Sand and Grey Sand, and a general fairy tale atmosphere in several of her other works. But Pure Juliet also has quite serious concerns, focused around the relationship between intellect and emotion, obsession and happiness, social customs and constraints and the dangers and pleasures of eluding them.

It’s also an eloquent and original portrayal of a central character who surely falls somewhere on the autism spectrum, perhaps combined with some other unusual alignment of her psyche. At the very least, Juliet is, to use an eloquently expressive term I came across somewhere a while back, “intellectually divergent.” And the originality of Gibbons’ approach to such a character is that she takes it as a given and accepts her heroine’s idiosyncrasies with obvious affection and sensitivity. At the same time, she is sensitive to the damage that Juliet can do to those unable to understand her limitations and possibilities, and Gibbons approaches those characters, too, with compassion.

The story opens with two of Juliet’s schoolteachers expressing their relief that she has left school and won’t be returning, despite her apparent brilliance and the five A-levels she has scored.

‘We did write to the father, of course, pointing out how bright she is and so on—blah blah blah. And the Head got a letter back, quite well written and spelled, I heard, just saying Julie was going out to work like any other girl and no thank you.'

'What did she say?'

'I never asked her. Come on, we'll miss our train.'

Juliet, clearly, is not a girl who inspires affection easily, and her relations with her parents are similarly chilly. She returns home from school, assures her lonely mother she’ll have tea with her, then while her mother prepares it she takes a few belongings and leaves the house. She hitchhikes to the home of a rich, elderly woman who has befriended her in a park. Miss Pennecuick, yearning irrationally to see in Juliet the daughter she never had, has offered to “adopt” her for a year, and Juliet, completely incapable of appreciating (or even perceiving) such an emotional need, has accepted the offer in order to have time for solitary thought instead of office work or whatever other bland job her father has in mind for her.

This is not a promising situation, and it has predictable and distinctly uncomfortable results. Juliet is bewildered by the expectation that she should care for (or even be nice to) Miss Pennecuick, though the older woman showers her with affection and kindness. When Miss Pennecuick dies suddenly, following a wrenching scene of conflict between Miss Pennecuick’s vulnerability and Juliet’s incomprehension, Juliet is unable to perceive the death as a sad thing, something she should mourn or regret (despite the fact that, as it turns out, Miss Pennecuick has left her a substantial sum of money which will allow her to attend Cambridge after all).

She heard the door open.

'I think she's dead,' she said, not lowering her voice and without turning round. She continued to stare at the unrecognizable face.

Behind her there was a soft exclamation, and the sound of a tray being set down. Then Nurse Judson was at her side and bending over the bed, and taking certain actions with the body. The nurse stood up with the faintest of sighs.

'Yes, she's gone ... what happened?' she asked in a subdued voice.

'Nothing much.'

Juliet softened her own voice in imitation; apparently one did this when someone died.

Miss Pennecuick’s servants, like Juliet’s former teachers (and perhaps like many readers, at this stage of the tale), think her cold and cruel, and imagine that she has manipulated their employer for financial gain. In reality, though, Juliet has as little concept of her financial future as she has of personal relationships, and it is Frank, Miss Pennecuick’s nephew, who becomes Juliet’s protector, assists her in getting to Cambridge, and sets himself on a mission to gradually awaken in Juliet a sense of affection and the importance of human interactions.

Juliet excels at Cambridge, but makes no friends apart from one professor who is able to comprehend the brilliance of her project—a mathematical law of coincidence, which continues to obsess her long after her school years are over and eventually leads her to fame in the narrow circle of people interested in such things. (I love, by the way, that Gibbons shows so clearly that others have as much difficulty understanding Juliet’s thoughts as she has understanding theirs. It’s not a one-sided “disability” but a brilliant difference that the novel portrays.)

Surely one of Gibbons’ themes in this extraordinarily strange novel is to highlight the seemingly simple point that some people require, and indeed are capable of, quite different things in life than others, and to suggest that the generic norms and accepted standards are not always the best way to achieve or understand those things. That sounds a simplistic notion, but then, don't a pretty large proportion of the world’s problems seem to result from our inability to accept it?

Juliet isn’t even the only character in the novel illustrative of this theme. Frank himself has an approach to life that most of those around them consider freakish. He cheerfully gives over Miss Pennecuick’s estate to an organization for the promotion of alternative food sources (Gibbons was right in her time period here and well informed about the growing environmental concerns of the 1970s). Instead of living in the mansion he’s inherited, he chooses to live in a shed in the middle of a meadow. The estate would surely have ended by bankrupting him, while in the meadow he can live free and easy, with plenty of money and plenty of freedom, and provide the same freedom to his wife and to Juliet, the latter of whom he sets up—both before and after her time at Cambridge—in another shed at the other end of the meadow.

And his wife—well, here’s another character indeed. He and Clemence have been close friends for years, and she yearns for a large family more than anything. But her opportunity to marry him (indeed, to take matters into her own hands and propose to him) only comes as a result of his desire to protect Juliet without causing scandal. Most writers would present this as a thoroughly humiliating experience for Clemence, and indeed Gibbons has her ponder the humiliation of the situation as well. But ultimately, Clemence's decision, though undoubtedly hard for most people to swallow, proves a wise one, giving her exactly what she wants from life.

“Abnormal” people and unusual life choices, ending up in peculiarly happy lives. Such are the characters of Pure Juliet.

I can’t pretend that I’ve fully digested everything about this novel, and it's undoubtedly not a perfect novel. Its ending, which I won’t spoil here, is a cheerfully odd one, involving a fairy tale Middle Eastern country which Gibbons makes no effort at all to present in a realistic way, and I really have no idea what to make of it. But the novel's closing paragraph is one of the most perfect, lovely, poignant conclusions of any novel I’ve ever read.

And after such a rave review, I’ll mention that a quick Google search finds a surprising proliferation of snarky and dismissive reviews of this book by bloggers and critics alike. (I waited until I’d written mine before I checked.) Desperate Reader, though, found thoughtful things to say about it, even if she wasn’t as delighted as I was. She doesn’t think autism was what Gibbons was going for with Juliet, but it seems to me that even if she didn't know the term, she seems to have created an autistic character—or at the very least, as I put it above, someone with a quite unusual alignment of the psyche. But if other readers didn’t interpret Juliet in this light, then perhaps some of the dislike for her and the book might be comprehensible.

Though even so I'm a bit surprised by how negative some of the reviews are, particularly in regard to Juliet herself. After all, if one encountered someone like Juliet in real life, wouldn’t one’s best approach be—as Frank and some other characters do within the novel—to take her as she is, accept her limitations, and either move on or have patience in helping her if possible? Regardless of diagnostics, denying the reality of her obvious limitations, trying to force the square pegs of her condition (whatever condition it is) into the round holes of our assumptions about proper civilized behavior, seems to me to be just asking for stress and heartache, and perhaps causing it as well. The novel repeatedly shows Juliet (as in the death scene quoted above) trying to navigate situations she obviously genuinely does not understand, which is rather different from a character who is simply selfish and indifferent to the pain of others. Juliet is not indifferent, she simply doesn't grasp emotions and their causes and so keeps inadvertently causing pain to others.

I used to have a colleague who would, quite discernibly, have a panic attack if someone dropped something in his in-box just before 5:00. It was not simply annoyance or exasperation, but a genuinely distressing situation for him. Regardless of assurances that the item need not be read or even glanced at until the following day, he simply could not tolerate leaving the office with anything in that box. Irrational? Yes. Neurotic? Probably. But the solution seemed perfectly simple—recognize his need, respect it, and keep your item until the next morning, when he could cheerfully greet it as a new project, stress-free.

And if one can have such a philosophical and compassionate approach to the oddities and irrationalities of people in real life, why not to characters in novels?

Then again, I have wondered about my own identifications with Juliet. Perhaps I see a bit of myself—especially my younger, "intellectual" self, in herin sometimes uncomfortable ways. I've never been as extreme as Juliet, but my time in graduate school was definitely a similarly manifestation of obsessive, anti-social behavior for me. I'm happy that my obsessiveness is now largely contained by my work on this blog, and is limited in a fairly healthy way to a certain number of hours per week, but the tendency is still there, and I can see in Juliet where it might have led me.

At any rate, for mPure Juliet was one of those rare magical books. If this is an example of where Gibbons went in her work once she stopped worrying about editors and critics, I can’t wait to get my hands on The Yellow Houses. And if I can't easily recommend it to everyone, because it’s inspired such negative reactions elsewhere (consider it more of a "proceed at your own risk" type of recommendation), I can certainly urge you to give one or more of Gibbons’ other novels, at least, a try (The Matchmaker, mentioned above, or Westwood are both great places to start). And with 6 more of her books currently winging their way across the Atlantic to my TBR shelves, you’ll probably be hearing more about her here anyway…


  1. This is so much more than a book review - thank you for the points you make about understanding and making things better for people who have difficulties or who are simply different ...

    1. Thank you, Tanya! I was a little afraid it was too preachy, so I'm glad you liked it.

  2. Really interesting post. I haven't read Cold Comfort Farm, but I've recently borrowed Gibbon's Here Be Dragons from the library and I can't wait to read it.

    1. Thanks, Miggsy. As it happens, I just finished reading Here Be Dragons this week. Hope you've been enjoying it.

  3. I've kind of nurtured a grudge against Stella Gibbons for a long time - Cold Comfort Farm killed off by sheer ridicule the English country-dialect novel, like Precious Bane, which I love. These types of books have made a comeback, but I growl when I think of all the lost novels that should have been, nearly a half-century's worth, rich with the inflections of Sussex and Somerset and other rustic corners of Britain ...

    1. Well, at least you have an unusual reason for disliking Gibbons! :-)

  4. What lovely points you make about caring for the diversity in populations alongside your book review. I've read Cold Comfort Farm, the short stories that make up Christmas at CCF and Nightingale Wood. Unlike the previous commenter, I've managed to love CCF while also being a big Mary Webb and Thomas Hardy fan, but I really liked Nightingale Wood, too, and keep her on my radar.

  5. Thank you! Just finished this and I'm so glad yours was the first review I've read and that it is positive. I've enjoyed a number of Gibbons' books, this one included. I agree that our hero must have been on the spectrum - and read the book with this in mind. The desert section - did she visit? I thought she described (reality? fantasy?) vividly. I am just about to read the biography written by her nephew - perhaps I'll find out why she is so snarky about feminism.

    1. Thanks, Andrea, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book too! I still think of it often, but no idea at all what to make of the desert ending. Gibbons deserves better than her nephew's bio, but in the meantime it has some interesting tidbits.


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