Shopping with My Husband & Stella Gibbons’s “Bassett”

A photo from the ’60s.

Do you feel overwhelmed?  And stiff!

Here’s my latest exercise challenge:  shopping with my husband.

Although I bicycle, nothing prepared me for this shopping trip.  Usually I make the list and he shops (because I distract him with my extravagant love of name-brand canned tomatoes).  But now he has his arm in a sling, so I went with him.

He picked the fruit, I the vegetables.  He made me put them back because they were organic.  Too expensive.


This is why we seldom go grocery shopping together.

The most taxing part:  pushing the full shopping cart up the hill to the top of the parking lot.  He tried to pull it from the front, but I would not allow this.

P.S.  He is healing, and that’s what I care about!


Stella Gibbons, best-known for her satiric first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, the winner of the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1933, wrote over 30 novels and collections of short stories.

And I have enjoyed her realistic novels thoroughly–even more than Cold Comfort Farm, if truth be told.  (See my posts on The Charmers and Westwood.)

Over the summer I read Bassett, a charming novel published in 1934.  Time flies–I meant to post on it earlier–but I’m just getting around to it (and am a little vague on it by now.)  In this delightful novel, Gibbons cleverly explores the worlds of two loosely-connected sets of characters: a couple of middle-aged women who go into business together, and a mismatched young couple down the road who fall in love–but will it last?

This witty novel begins with Gibbons’s description of the eccentric Miss Hilda Baker, a Londoner who works in a pattern-cutting office. “Museums and galleries, dens and historic haunts of peace lay all around Miss Baker, yet she lived as narrowly as a mouse in its hole; and went backwards and forwards between her lodgings and the offices in Reubens Place, for 21 years without  much change being made in her dark ordinary house.”

In the opening scene, Miss Baker is speculating on how she should invest her savings of 300 pounds.  She doesn’t want a car, or to travel. She doesn’t want to fritter away the money.  And so she is intrigued by an ad in Town and Country:  Miss Padsoe, a spinster in a country town, needs a partner in the conversion of her house into a rooming house.  Miss Baker checks it out:  she has a long, uncomfortable trip to the country and is not at all crazy about it. But when her boss sacks her (he is downsizing), she accepts Miss Padsoe’s offer.  And the adventures of Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe–which begin with Miss Padsoe being locked out by the bullying servants–are great fun to read.

Less amusing are the adventures of the aristocratic Shelling family down the road. Queenie Catton, a naive young woman with no job skills, takes a job as  Mrs. Shelling’s companion.  George, the sophisticated son of the house, falls in love with Queenie, though his sister Bell warns him Queenie is not their kind and that it would be wrong to seduce her.  If only Queenie had realized that he was a little too close to his sister Bell–but Queenie doesn’t understand their near-incestuous relationship.

I loved the parts about Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe. A lively novel–so much fun!  even though it is uneven.

Stella Gibbons’s The Charmers

Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons

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…

Stella Gibbons The Charmers 31-9co6Bo+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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.