There has been a revival in recent years of the work of Stella Gibbons.
Best-known for her satiric first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, the winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1933, Gibbons also wrote over 30 other novels and collections of short stories. Vintage and Virago have reissued several of her charming books. I very much enjoyed The Rich House and Westwood.
I recently read The Charmers, first published in 1965, a small gem reminiscent of the comedies of Barbara Pym. This gently humorous novel has a middle-aged spinster heroine, Christine Smith, who has lost her office job of 30 years during a “reorganization” of the firm. While her parents were alive, she lived at home and was a slave of their electric appliances, spending her leisure buying new toasters or taking them in for repairs. Finally free to live on her own, Christine finds a job as a housekeeper for a group of middle-aged artists.
Christine’s married sister tries to persuade her to give her live-in flat to her son and his wife, who, she says, need the flat more than Christine. This is typical of her family’s treatment of Christine.
[Christine] did not miss her family. She had always felt herself to be odd-woman-out in the family circle, the one who was unlikely to marry, and could be relied on to look after Mother and Father and keep them supplied with electric kettles and toasters until they subsided into their graves…
Christine is fascinated by her charming new employers, who have divided the house into five flats and are sharing expenses: Mrs. Fabia Traill, who has had four husbands, illustrates stories for women’s magazines; Clive Lennox, a famous actor, is relieved at his age to land the “second lead” in a new Noel Coward play; glamorous, single Antonia Marriott is a top fashion designer; and Diana Meredith is a dilettante potter who spends most of her time shopping, while her charming husband James potters about.
Christine blooms in the atmosphere of Pemberton Hall. She enjoys the artists’ gossip at meals and the contrasting peace of own her little flat at the top of the house. She is horrified when Mrs. Traill offers her a TV. Christine’s parents had cared more for characters on TV than they had for real people.
Christine meets people of other classes, ages, and races.. She is nervous when she hires a “black” cleaner, Mr. Johnson. She chats with him over tea on his breaks and likes him very much, but he is always late, complains about doing “women’s work,” and admits he likes his other employers better. (His other employers give him a flat with a TV .)
Then there is Clive’s sloppy 17-year-old daughter, an aspiring actress who dresses in jeans and boots. The adults cannot understand her appalling boho dress sense. Gradually she is transformed by a dress designed by Antonia’s boss.
The changes of the 1960s are gently touched upon. The economy is uncertain, the young are rebelling, and there are political and social changes. But Gibbons concentrates on the changes in Christine. Her confidence makes her more attractive. She meets her former manager, Mr. Richards, on the bus, and learns that he, too, has been let go from the firm. He asks her to tea and dinner, and their dates inspire her with little enthusiasm, but she very much likes his sister, Moira, and her husband, Frank. Now if only she wanted to marry Mr Richards…
Through charming descriptions, pitch-perfect dialogue, and scenes that highlight the relationships among these very different people, Gibbons has written a small perfect book.