I like nothing better than to spend an afternoon reading a solid, well-crafted middlebrow novel.
Stella Gibbons won the Prix Femina Étranger for her masterpiece, Cold Comfort Farm, an extremely funny portrait of rural life that satirizes the “loam-and-lovechild” books of Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, Mary Webb, and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Her 1941 novel, The Rich House, takes a different tack: this delightful comedy centers on the love and work of an ensemble cast of characters in a seaside town in England. I especially like the brief sketches of their jobs in the theater, shops, a bank, a library, and a hotel.
This hugely enjoyable, character-driven novel begins with Mrs. Pask, a 70-year-old woman, looking out her window on a winter night into the lighted shops across the street.
She knows that Reenie Voles, the fat cashier at the fish shop, is impatient to leave work because she must shop every night for food. Reenie lives with her mother, and food is the main object of their lives. The descriptions of their eating, eating, eating every evening, all evening, is grotesque and comical, but Reenie proves to be one of the kindest and most adventurous characters.
Mrs. Pask is also interested in Pauline Williams, who lives with her mother and rather chilly actress sister, Marjorie. That night Pauline is on her way to change her mother’s library book.
Here is a sample of Gibbons’s humor, a priceless description of Pauline’s mother’s divergence from the standard taste in library books.
Pauline’s mother always said that she liked a nice story with plenty of descriptions and nothing disgusting and a happy ending, only not too ridiculous; nevertheless, Pauline had almost insensitively observed that her mother seemed to read a good many books that were described by The North Essex Advertiser (if it ever got around to reviewing them) as Outspoken.
Gibbons in The Rich House portrays characters of all classes. Working at the library desk is Mavis, the Pretty Fair Girl, as Pauline thinks of her, a quiet working-class woman who rents a room from Reenie Voles’ mother. She sings in the church choir and daydreams about a fellow singer, and perhaps the daydreams are sparked by the fact that she has so little money she can barely afford to eat. When she loses her job, her panic and terror are harrowing. In fact, I have never read such a nightmarish description of unemployment. (Even if we’re not working-class, we women in liberal arts know what it is to totter on the brink of poverty.)
There are also men in the novel. Ted has been raised by his grandfather, the famous actor Archibald Early, and lives in what Pauline and her sister used to call “the Rich House,” a big, cozy nest of clutter, fading furniture, and visiting eccentric retired actors and their dogs. Ted naively wants to be a professional cricketer, but after studying acting in Paris returns a changed, charming man.
Dutiful Eric lives with his parents, works in a bank, and sings in the church choir with Mavis. But he has a secret life: he is recovering from a miserable five-year affair with a sadistic woman, and soon falls in love with the actress Marjorie, Pauline’s cold sister, who intends to use him and then drop him. It never occurs to him that Mavis in love with him.
The novel is rather theatrical, as befits a novel with several characters in the theater.. It reminds me very slightly of my favorite Dodie Smith novel, The New Moon with the Old. (Indeed, Dodie Smith’s play, Dear Octopus, is mentioned in The Rich House.)
The Rich House is a fast, very good read, one of my favorites of the year so far (not that the year has progressed very far).
Mary Webb’s witty, moving novel, Precious Bane, narrated by a smart young woman who believes herself incapable of winning love because she is disfigured by a harelip, is a classic. But I may be going too far when I contend that Webb’s third novel,The House in Dormer Forest, is well-worth reading. It is intriguing, if desperately uneven.
It may be just for Webb’s fans.
Precious Bane is beautifully written. In The House in Dormer Forest, there are many overwritten poetic descriptions. On page 3 we have:
The upper wood had never known the shuddering horror of the axe, the bitter and incurable destruction of the day when gnomes of ugly aspect are let loose with flashing wepons. among the haughty sons and daughters of the gods, hacking and tearing at the steadfast forms of beauty, until beautiy itself seemed to have crashed earthwards.
Michelle Barale, In the introduction to the Virago edition, declares that Webb is not only a rural writer but also a writer who focuses on women’s lives.
Mary Webb is, I would suggest, a most bleak feminist for she seems to find no possible solution for the process of victimization, by society or self, within social institutions. A relationship of love and equality is possible only beyond social boundaries: within there is either worship or rape, use or abuse
Webb relates the story of three generations of the Darke Family. (Yes, that truly is their name.) The older generations at Dormer Old House are decidedly gloomy and demoic: the witchy, religious hag, Grandmother, her insensitive son, Solomon Darke and his silent, disapproving wife, Rachel. But Solomon and Rachel’s grown children are genial: Peter is a womanizer but not a seducer; Jasper, the idealistic atheist, returned from school because he refused to study to be a minister: Ruby, a pretty girl, is luckily engaged so has distractions from the bleakness of the society at Dormer Old House; and Amber, the only one with a sense of humor, has no qualms about going after love when she finally meets a man she likes.
At the center is a gorgeous, if rather stick-figure-ish villainess, Cousin Catherine, who is determined to win the desire of men just to make as much mischief as she can. Ruining lives is her hobby.
I love Webb’s witty dialogue. Before Amber’s simple wedding, Mrs. Gosling, the cook, has this to say:
Ah Sarah!…a wedding, when it is a wedding, takes the eye! With the half-dozen bridesmaids giggling, the mothers fighting each the other like wild cats, the bridegroom champing to be off (ours champed terrible when I was wed. A meek manner had ours, but a great sperrit). There’s bridegroom hollering for a coachman; and coachman lashing up, very fresh; and even parson a bit fresh–leastways in the old days. But this! No champing, no maids and men, no coachman, and nobody fresh! Give me a funeral!
If I lived in England, I undoubtedly would walk on Lyth Hill in Shropshire.
One of these days I plan to bask in a big Mary Webb reread.