Stella Gibbons’s Westwood

gibbons Westwood2-279x430It is easy to lose yourself in almost-classics.  You can become so absorbed in the engaging novels of Dodie Smith and Rumer Godden that you absent-mindedly forget to take a cake out of the oven, or. break a date to see Cake (an underrated movie with a very good performance by Jennifer Aniston).

Stella Gibbons is an equally compelling writer.

Best known for her satire Cold Comfort Farm, she wrote several other books that were reissued by Vintage Classics in 2011.  I recently read Gibbons’s The Rich House, a  warm, witty novel in which she describes the loves and losses of an ensemble cast of characters in a seaside town:  a pretty young bank clerk who is overshadowed by her actress sister, a fish shop clerk with a zest for geography, a library clerk who loses her job, a retired famous actor, a vain hotelier, and more.

Stella Gibbons

I have just finished Gibbons’s 1946 novel Westwood., and can scarcely express how much fun it was!  The narrative flows smoothly, there are some surprisingly poetic descriptions of London, and the characters are so odd and charming that one can’t wait to see what they will do next.

Set during World War II in a London beset by bombs and air raids, this engaging novel follows the fortunes of Margaret Steggles, a plain, earnest, talented if uninspired teacher who has found a new job in a school in London.  Teaching is not her vocation, though she is an expert at conveying knowledge to the young. She is thrilled to be moving from Lukeborough, but longs to do something more glamorous, perhaps get involved in the art scene.

Her adventures begin when she finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath that belongs to Hebe Niland.  Margaret wonders if Helbe is related to the famous artist, Alexander Niland, and when she returns the ration book, she learns that  Hebe is indeed his wife. Hebe immediately takes advantage of the awed Margaret by asking her to babysit for her two children until Grantey, Hebe’s old nurse, shows up.

Good-bye, Margaret Steggles, and don’t murder my children.  Good-bye, honeybunch,” said Mrs. Niland, addressing the baby.  Margaret smiled and tried to sound gay as she said, “Good-bye!” A second later she heard the door slam.  At the same instant the baby burst into tears.

Throughout the novel, Hebe takes advantage of Margaret by coercing her to do free child care.

Margaret is willing to be Hebe’s slave, because it turns out that she is the daughter of Gerard Challis, a famous playwright.  And the Challises live in a big house called Westwood, very near the house where Margaret lives (she can see it from her bedroom). She  meets the Challises, and befriends Zita, an excitable Jewish refugee maid who teaches Margaret about classical music.  The two young women spend many evenings in a sewing room listening to music on the radio.

Much of the attraction of Westwood has to do with glimpsing the handsome Mr. Challis from a distance or having brief encounters with him.  His wife is much more charming than he is.

And unbeknownst to Margaret Mr. Challis has “spiritual affairs” with beautiful young women, and is currently flirting with her best friend Hilda, who thinks it’s a scream that a man in his fifties has a crush on her and pays him very little attention.  Mr. Challis darkly wishes to run off to South America with her, but she is more interested in her soldier boyfriends.

Gibbons has a good time satirizing Mr. Challis’s new play, Kätte, a tragedy based on his conception that warm, affectionate Hilda is a man-eating monster:  Hilda doesn’t know Mr. Challis’s real name, but she declines to go to the play with him, telling him it sounds awful

And awful it is.  Gibbons writes:

For another two hours the tragedy of Kätte unfolded, marching towards its inevitable end over the souls and bodies of her friends and relations.  Her father shot her mother, for having borne him such a daughter, then jumped into the Danube.  Her crippled brother’s character was corrupted by the young officers who bribed him to carry notes to his sister for them and plead their cause, and he became a pimp.  Her younger sister went insane with jealousy when she believed that her own lover had deserted her for Kätte and the final blow was struck when the old nurse, with whom Kätte had lived since the break-up of her own home, was forced to sell her pet goldfinch to buy a little goulash for their supper…

Margaret is good with children but is getting a little tired of child care:  It seems to be her fate.   Coincidentally, there is a shadow house  of Westwood:    her father’s friend keeps his mentally handicapped daughter, Linda, in a sugary-looking Hans and Gretyl house called Westwood.  When the housekeeper is hurt in an air raid, he begs Margaret to take care of Linda. Margaret becomes fond of her, because she is an absolutely dear child.  (N.B.  I wondered if Margaret Drabble might have read this.  In The Pure Gold Child, she writes of a child like Linda.)  At one point Margaret thinks Linda’s father wants to marry her, but it is a false alarm:  he only wants to kiss her

Margaret hopes for romance, but she only gets kisses. At a wild party at the Challises, she ends up on the roof kissing two men.  And after learning about manners and dress at Westwood, she has become not only prettier but easier in her manner and a better teacher.

This is not the kind of comedy that ends in marriage.  Of course she would like to marry, but she has friends, kisses, and a career.

This is a very satisfying, entertaining novel.  I can’t wait to read more Gibbons.

Why We Can’t Talk Like a Nancy Mitford Novel

Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate
Megan Dodds and Rosamund Pike in the 2001 BBC adaptation of Love In A Cold Climate

Be a love and take them to see a Roman ruin or something…”–Linda Radlett in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate

Do  Amecian Angophiles wonder why they cannot converse in the flippant style of the charming characters of Nancy Mitford, Angela Thirkell, Stella Gibbons, and Evelyn Waugh?

We Americans of the 21st century simply could not keep up the level of discourse.

Perhaps the British couldn’t keep up these days, either.

I have been reading a lot of what my cousin calls Brideshead Revisited.  And she doesn’t necessarily mean Waugh.

gibbons Westwood2-279x430Take  Stella Gibbons’s charming novels.  Her books are  very readable and witty, if not quite classics, and  I have been admiring the dialogue.

In Westwood,  Serena, the vague and charming wife of a pompous playwright, rebukes her husband for calling their beloved nanny, Grantey, a slave.  She says he should be nicer, and that before their marriage, he was “such a pet, always wanting to improve my mind.”

“Well, you must remember all those alarming books you unloaded on me…I did try… only somehow there was never any time for anything, there never has been, has there?–ever since we got married.  It’s years since we really let our back hair down and had a good long talk like this, isn’t it?  Look here…I’m supposed to be dining with the Massinghams tonight, and it’s after six now…”

I love the way she goes on her merry way to dinner, after trying gently to mitigate his callousness.

Nancy Mitford love.cold.climateIn Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, the heroine, Linda Radlett, is hilarious when she marries a Communist. She works in the Red bookshop on weekends so Comrade Boris, the manager, can get drunk, and she substitutes favorite books like The Making of a Marchioness for Karl Marx:  The Formative Years.  But it is not the most comfortable life, she admits

You know, being a Conservative is much more restful,” Linda said to me  once in a moment  of confidence, when she was being unusually frank about her life, “though one must remember that it is bad, not good.  But it does take place within certain hours, and then finish, whereas Communism seems to take up all one’s life.”

If only  Linda had been with us in our left-wing days in the ’70s, she would  have voiced witty insights on the discomfort of consciousness-raising groups and  bulgur-and-spinach takeout from the food co-op.

cheerfulness breaks in angela thirkell H10620_f0a45a96979920fc54bb6af21cb18a1dAngela Thirkell, whose charming novels are back in print, is ceaselessly funny.  Her long passages of absurd indirect statement are more comical than her dialogue, but she does banter very well.

In Cheerfulness Breaks In, Lydia is exasperated at her ditzy sister Rose’s wedding and hands her  her bag at the reception.

You can stick on some more powder and lipstick if you like, but I think you’ve quite enough, don’t you, John?”

“Don’t be so dispiriting,” said Rose, “and this lipstick doesn’t come off anyway.”

“I should think not,” said her husband.  “I wouldn’t let you put it on if it did.  That’s enough, Lydia.  Take it away.”

Brideshead revisited waugh 9780241951613Evelyn Waugh’s satires are hilarious, but we know him best for Brideshead Revisited.  It started, of course, with the BBC series starring Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, and Diana Quick in 1981.   I have read the book several times.

In Waugh’s great Catholic novel, the narrator, Charles Ryder, becomes friends with the Catholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte at Oxford; later he falls in love with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. At Oxford, the charming Sebastian carries his teddy bear, Aloysius, everywhere.  Aristocrats are always so eccentric, aren’t they?

At first Charles thinks Catholicism is very silly.  He asks if Sebastian believes in prayer, and Sebastian assures him that he does.

Don’t you remember last term when took Aloysius and left him behind I didn’t know where?  I prayed like mad to St. Anthony of Padua that morning, and immediately after lunch there was Mr. Nichols at Canterbury Gate with Aloysius in his arms, saying I’d left him in his cab.”

It’s no wonder that we Americans can’t talk like a character in an English novel.  Nancy Mitford was one of the Bright Young People, Angela Thirkell was the granddaughter of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, Evelyn Waugh was a Bright Young Person and a very good friend of Nancy Mitford’s, Aldous Huxley was the grandson of the zoologist Thomas Huxley, and only Stella Gibbons, the daughter of a London doctor, seems to have had an ordinary family.

I regret to say that i never knew anyone with a teddy bear at my lovely Big Ten Schools.

What are your favorite witty English novels?

The Crush in Literature: Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & Charlotte Bronte’s Villette

woman yawning at typewriter 1551_2

What would we have done without our crushes when we were young women? (And may those days never come again.)

In our thirties when we were freelance writers, we worked in our pajamas at home and did phone interviews between loads of laundry.  Charming editors persuaded us to write  stories that involved long bus rides, multiple interviews, and long days of writing. The fee probably worked out to $3 an hour:  less with typewriter ribbons.  Crush away: it motivated us, though it would not be profitable.

The crush is also significant in literature.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLIn Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines, a crush lifts the heroine, Gwen, an unhappy housewife, above the tedium of life in Branley (a kind of anti-Cranford) with her boyish banker husband, Clifford, his gloomy invalid mother, and irritable unmarried sister, Evelyn. Clifford  is a beefy, jovial conformist, proud of his “intellectual” wife.   During World War II when Clifford is away,  Gwen works at a hospital and flirts with Paul, a doctor. Her crush is so intense that she sends her son to boarding school so she will have time to have an affair.  The affair, of course, never happens.

But Gwen needs her crush.

One of their first conversations is about reading. The smug, domineering Paul

…interrogated her swiftly, searching, probing, and unsmiling.  “Villette?  Better than Jane Eyre?  But why?”

“She knew more, then.”

Gwen is right:   Charlotte Bronte did know more then. In Jane Eyre, she gives Jane the husband she wants, albeit he is crippled first.   In Villette, Charlotte Bronte’s masterpiece, the heroine, Lucy Snowe, does not get the man she wants:  she falls in love with Doctor Graham, who doesn’t really notice her and loves someone else. Paul, an unattractive,  misogynistic Belgian teacher falls in love with Lucy.

In The Philistines, Paul is a blend of Graham and Paul: like Bronte’s Graham,  he likes Gwen but doesn’t love her; and, like Bronte’s Paul, he interrogates her.

Branley is a cruel, gossipy town. Branley disapproves of Gwen’s best friend fortysomething Pamela’s engagement to a younger man, Gerry.  At the club, Clifford plays a prank that ruins Pamela’s life.   In a game of Blind Man’s Bluff, he leads a nubile 22-year-oldwoman, Phoebe, to the blindfolded Gerry Fenner, Pamela’s fiance, whose hands are all over Phoebe.  When the blindfold is removed, Gerry is stunned by her beauty. Shortly thereafter he breaks off his engagement to Pamela and marries Phoebe.  Pamela commits suicide.

Here is what you do not want to hear when you tell someone you’re in love with him.  Paul’s response to Gwen is:

My dear,” he said at last, in a tentative, kindly voice, “you and I are different people.  You;re a romantic:  I’m not. I can’t help feeling that all this, to you, hasn’t been much more than a peg on which to hang the idea of love.”

Gwen creates a new life for herself and her son with courage, intelligence, and grace.  Love has not been kind, but it might come again.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Philistines & The Book-Buying Habits of Bloggers

Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading "Emma" in "The Jane Austen Book Club"
Bernadette (Kathy Baker) reading “Emma” in “The Jane Austen Book Club”

Book bloggers are an intense bunch.  Think of all that writing with no reward except to share our avidity for reading.

I was thinking about the act of book-blogging because it is  National Readathon Day, a pro-literacy event sponsored by The National Book Foundation, Penguin Random House, Goodreads, and Mashable

I was busy during official readathon hours, but  I made up for it later.  I finished Pamela Hansford Johnson’s remarkable novel, The Philistines, an exploration of the psychology of an unhappy woman who marries a suburban banker after she realizes she has no talent for writing.  Her mother, an artistic widow, is appalled.

What else should I do?  I have no future.”

“There’ll be something…something.”

“Oh, something!” Gwen cried, with a bitterness that made her instantly ashamed.

the philistines pamela hansford johnson 51Nrm0P8kwLFrom the beginning, we understand that unconventional Gwen is headed for disaster.  She and Clifford live with his  mother and sister, and never move into their own place.. Motherhood does not fulfill her, and the social life at the club is monotonous.  She develops a crush on a doctor, and it is not returned. She fantasizes about him for years.. I was struck by the intensity of the crush, an emoition so common among women in their thirties, yet largely unwritten about in novels. Perhaps romance is more exciting, but how many women actually sustain themselves by fantasies ? More on this next week.

Johnson always breaks taboos by delving into forbidden psychological territory.


There is a new trend among book bloggers:  we say at the beginning of every year we are going to read only from our shelves.

We are going to be like Susan Hill in Howards End Is on the Landing, a wonderful book about her reading  from her home bookshelves for a year.

That’s what I say I’ll do, and I do read from my shelves, but book-buying is where my materialism comes in.  And I recently made a very interesting discovery :   I can get very cheap used books if I settle for “good” instead of “very good” or “like new” condition.

At our house it is very like a ’60s sitcom when books arrive in the mail on weekends.  I wish I were like Samantha in “Bewitched” and could twitch my nose and make the books disappear.   Today my husband intercepted four packages.  “Is it your birthday?”

I have very good reasons for buying these books, as he  shortly learned.  I had to replace my copy of A Dance to the Music of Time, Second Movement, because it fell apart while I was addictively rereading  Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant.

I swore I couldn’t get it at the library.

And so now I am done buying books.  For the year.

We’ll see!

Giveaway of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado & Cornelias Otis Skinner’s The Ape in Me

It is time for a giveaway!  Would anyone like Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado (Virago) or Cornelia Otis Skinner’s The Ape in Me?

Here’s a little information about both.

The following description of The Dud Avocado is from Goodreads.  And, by the way, my copy is one of the green Viragos, not the Virago pictured below.

The Dud Avocado virago 41-U745zRZL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Dud Avocado follows the romantic and comedic adventures of a young American who heads overseas to conquer Paris in the late 1950s. Edith Wharton and Henry James wrote about the American girl abroad, but it was Elaine Dundy’s Sally Jay Gorce who told us what she was really thinking. Charming, sexy, and hilarious, The Dud Avocado gained instant cult status when it was first published and it remains a timeless portrait of a woman hell-bent on living.

And here am I on The Ape in Me:

Ape in Me Cornelia Otis Skinner 6340252The Ape in Me  (1959) is a collection of humor pieces by Cornelia Otis Skinner, the well-known humorist, actress, and playwright of the 1940s and ’50s.  Some of you may know her hilarious book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, a memoir of her trip to Europe, co-written with her friend Emily Kimbrough. There is much to enjoy in The Ape in Me, though I admit it is not her best humor collection.   But I’m sure you will delight in  “From Here to Open,” an essay about her inability to open packages.  The following quote describes book packages.

For generations a book used to be sent by shop or publisher simply and properly done up in a piece of heavy paper, twine and at the most a layer of corrugated carton.  It never failed to arrive intact, looking tidy and inviting.  What has got into the brains of bookdealers lately that they now send out books in encasings which would be just the ticket for the shipping of venetian glass?  even a paperback comes in a hideous envelope so heavily padded it might in an emergency serve as a tea cozy.”

If you would like either or both of these book, leave a comment below.

Nancy Drew & the Mystery of the LRB

I recently received a copy of the London Review of Books.

London Review of Books cov3701It must be a sample copy, I thought.  Only there were no subscription cards inside.

I scanned the Table of Contents and turned to Jenni Diski’s “Doris and Me,” an engrossing essay about her life as a teenager at Doris Lessing’s house.

And then I forgot all about it.

Yesterday a second issue  arrived.

The label on the plastic wrapper says I have a three-year subscription.

Very mysterious.

Oddly, it is addressed to me under my nickname, not my formal “subscription” name.

“Does it have anything to do with your blog?”  my husband teased me.

I burst out laughing.

The situation reminds me of the plot of the Nancy Drew book, Nancy’s Mysterious Letter, which I read when I was nine.

Nancy's Mysterious Letter old drew8blue4On the opening page the postman brings a letter.

Hello, Nancy,” he said. “…Lots of letters today. There’s one in the bottom of my bag for you. It was sent air mail from London, England.”

The  letter says Nancy is an heiress, only it turns out another Nancy Drew is the heiress.  So maybe I’m getting an LRB that is supposed to go to another me?

Since it first arrived a few weeks ago, I have been bombarded with offers of subscriptions to book review publications.

The TLS wants me to subscribe. I already do.

Poets & Writers offered me a deal and enclosed a gift of the tinest notepad in existence.

The New York Review of Books would like to pile up unread on our porch.

What would Nancy Drew do?

I’m sure there would be phone calls, letters, interviews, instagrams (whatever instagrams are).

I’ll just read the LRB instead.