It 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.
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.