Monday 3 October 2011

Westwood - Stella Gibbons

Why, dear reader, why does it sometimes take me so long to review books?  I read Westwood (1946) by Stella Gibbons whilst on holiday with Colin, thought it was very good, have promised you reviews a dozen times... and only now do I get around to writing about it.

Firstly, many thanks to lovely Vintage books for sending me this copy, and super praise to Pep Montserrat who did the beautiful cover illustration.  Like everyone who has read it, I love Cold Comfort Farm and was excited when I heard that Vintage were hot on Virago's heels, in publishing more of Gibbons' work.  Then I read Lynne Truss' excellent introduction, published in the Guardian (but now not available online) and simply had to read the novel.

In her introduction, Truss writes that 'If Cold Comfort Farm is Stella Gibbons's Pride and Prejudice, then Westwood is her Persuasion.'  Those of you who know my thoughts about the relative merits of Austen's novels may be surprised to learn that this actually encouraged me to read Westwood(!)  Obviously Truss' analogy can only be taken so far, but she has a point - Westwood is not a comic novel (although it has funny moments), rather it is slightly melancholic and very contemplative.

The heroine of the piece is Margaret Steggles, a plain and uncertain type with a thirst for learning and an appetite for adventure which she keeps sensibly subdued.  She is only 23, unhappy with her job as a teacher and with her home life - her father is prone to affairs, and her mother is disappointed that Margaret is not more like her feisty good-time-gal friend Hilda.  But naturally things do not remain thus.  Margaret finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath and, when returning it, becomes embroiled in the lives of self-important playwright Gerald Challis, his spoilt, snobbish daughter Hebe, and her husband, the painter Alexander Niland.  They are an eminently fashionable set, full of ideas of Art and Beauty, and Margaret wants in.  The nearest she can get, to start off with, is the somewhat hysterical Jewish refugee Zita, who lives with the family and is not quite a housekeeper but definitely not one of the family.
"I like you, Miss Steggles."

"Thank you.  I like you too," sais Margaret, who in her present mood would have liked anyone.

"Good.  Den we are friends," announced Zita, putting out her hand while her eyes overflowed.  Margaret took it and they exchanged a solemn clasp.  "Oh, Miss Steggles - what iss your name?" she demanded, interrupting herself.


"Zo.  I shall call you Margaret.  You will call me Zita?"

"I'd love to, Zita."

"Margaret, I haf a many sadness.  I tell you about it."

Margaret was so inexperienced as a confidante that no feeling of dismay overcame her on hearing this threat; indeed she hardly heard what Zita said, so overjoyed was she at the prospect of frequent visits to Westwood as Zita's friend.
As you can see from the 'iss' and 'Zo' used so liberally, Zita does border a little on stereotype - but she is the liveliest inclusion to the novel, and that which most demonstrates Gibbons' comic touch.  I am guilty of that which Truss does in the introduction, presumably as inadvertently as I am, of quoting the sections which amused me most.  For, as I said, this isn't, broadly, a comic novel.  At its heart is Margaret's awkward attempts to become part of a society which only tolerates her.  There is a desperately sad moment where Margaret overhears Hebe's opinion of her - it's in the same area as 'consciously naive' and 'you will be limited as to number - only three at once.'  (Ten points if you recognise those references!)

She especially wants to be involved in Challis' life, and falls rather in love with him - although from the reader's perspective it is a trifle difficult to see why.  He is pompous, with high-blown ideas about Beauty which would make Keats seem like a materialist.

"A landscape without hills," he suddenly pronounced, "is like a woman without mystery."

There simply was not any answer to this, especially as his unhappy audience realized that whatever she said would be wrong, so she replied feebly:

"Oh - do you think so?"

"The monotony of an endless plain," continued Mr. Challis disparagingly surveying the mild meadows on every side, "drives men mad."
But Challis' Achilles' heel (and one of the other funny threads through the novel - although funniness laced with tragedy) is his belief in the Beauty of the common innocent girl, provided she be physically attractive, of course.  And the one he sets his eye on is Hilda - remember her?  Margaret's feisty friend who would, in contemporary soap parlance, undoubtedly be described as a tart with a heart.  Challis bumps into her walking home from the train ("I have been sent by Providence especially to escort you") and he decides to call himself Marcus Antonius, and she Daphne.  Hilda's good-natured willingness to put up with him until she is bored, and his slavish (would-be adulterous) devotion to a girl whose nature he has so completely misunderstood, is both farcical and saddening.

Indeed (sweeping generalisation alert) that is how Gibbons treats a lot of the material in Westwood.  It is the kind of plot and the (large) cast of characters which could easily be tragic or comic, and Gibbons treads a path between the two - lingering, perhaps, on the tragic, but never fully abandoning the comic.  Being asked to empathise with Margaret, rather than laugh at or with her, takes Westwood away from the hilarious tour de force of Cold Comfort Farm, but also creates a more thoughtful, thought-provoking work.  Both novels introduce a whirlwind of characters, but while Cold Comfort Farm can rely upon the witty epithet to describe someone, Westwood delves deeper - which does, at times, make the novel feel a bit overcrowded and perhaps overlong - but is also ultimately perhaps more satisfying.  If I were one of these novels to reread next, I must admit it would be Cold Comfort Farm - for an uproarious escapade - but I doubt I would gain as much, and I certainly wouldn't think as much.  The novels are so different that it is nigh on impossible to say one is better than the other, but what is obvious is that Westwood should never have gone out of print, and Vintage are to be commended for rectifying whosever oversight that was.

Others who got Stuck into this...

I'm going to copy Jackie's lovely idea of quoting other bloggers who have reviewed the book, and point you in the direction of their reviews.  I think it's a great addition to Jackie's blogposts - I'm all about the blogging community.  I'll just pick two or three each time, so as to feel more like I'm including people in a selective list rather than accidentally excluding people from an exhaustive list!

"[...Margaret] is a masterpiece and definitely earns Gibbons the right to be compared with Austen.[...]" - Hayley, Desperate Reader

"[...] do read this if you love a warm, witty, beautifully written and leisurely novel [...]" - Hilary, Vulpes Libris


  1. This was one of the new titles I brought back with me from London so I just skimmed your review, Simon. Hampstead was on my itinerary and features in the book so I considered it as a sort of souvenir. Any excuse really.

  2. Okay, I shall definitely have to track this down. And can I claim the points by answering I Capture the Castle and Emma? Both quotes still make me cringe at their harshness. Alone, 'consciously naive' seems the worst kind of insult, though the entire scene from Emma has me blushing with embarassment and shame for our heroine whenever I read it.

  3. I borrowed this via ILL and only managed to read half before I had to return it. Then I broke down and bought it when it was reissued but sadly have not had a chance to get back to it. I also was perplexed as to why she fell for Challis--I can understand being attracted by the lifestyle perhaps, but him? I was hoping it would all make sense when I read the latter half. Maybe I should just start from the beginning rather than pick up where I left off now that I've left it so long! This is my first Gibbons--do you think its her best?

  4. Thank you for the review and the links are a lovely idea.

  5. I claim my ten points: I capture the castle & Emma - may I borrow the book at some points? Please?

  6. What a great review. I might even read this although when you say you love Cold Comfort Farm "Like everyone who has read it", you are wrong because I won it recently in a draw and simply could not get on with it at all. Maybe I wasn't in the mood, or maybe I just knew too much about it so the famous lines were too familiar. I was a bit sad, in fact, as I'd been looking forward to it so much.

  7. Nothing to do with this post *at all* except to tell everybody what you know already, & that is what a lovely human Simon is. Knowing my yearning to possess all of Elizabeth Taylor's lovely VMC floral covers, & having beaten me to a copy in Notting Hill Book & Comic Exchange by 3 days; Simon has generously donated the "Devastating Boys" VMC ed. with the lovely cover illustration "Love in the Mist" by Nancy Sharp. *Gorgeous* & has made my day. Thank you *so* much.

  8. Have to read this one but I have not read any Gibbons yet - so now I have to decide if this one or Cold Comfort Farm should be my first meeting with Gibbons.

  9. I enjoyed reading your review. My copy of Westwood is languishing in a rather large pile...After reading this, looks like I'm going to have to bump it up on the list and get to it!

  10. I'm probably the last person on earth who hasn't read Cold Comfort Farm (I know, I know, I will get to it as I already own a copy!) but I've been dying to get my hands on these Gibbons re-issues just because the covers are so gorgeous! Will aim to read this after CCF!

  11. Currently awaiting my copy of Westwood (due to arrive today) and the publication of Here be Dragons, which is the one I really want to read. (Here Be Dragons sounds rather as though it may have inspired The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets - a more recent publication, by Eva Rice, which I enjoyed hugely but may be regarded by others as a pastiche.)

    Westwood was recently dramatised on Radio 4 - but no longer seems to be available on i-player. However, Nightingale Wood is being broadcast currently, so IS available online for a few more days.

  12. It took me a while to warm up to this one but when I did I really liked it, especially the way that Margaret developed through the book. I've just found some more Gibbons and am very excited.

  13. I'm so glad you enjoyed 'Westwood', Simon! As you may remember, I turned up at the 'Possibly Persephone' evening a while back all ready to sing its praises, only to hear the news from Nicola that Vintage were reissuing it! I'm a real Gibbons fan (although I've yet to read 'Ticky', 'The Swiss Summer' and 'The Snow Woman'), and I do hope you'll track down some more Gibbons---I'm particularly fond of 'Enbury Heath' and 'The Matchmaker'.

  14. I have yet to read Gibbons, although Cold Comfort Farm has been on a mental get-around-to-reading list for quite some time. Like a few other commenters, I would ask, which Gibbons would you recommend as a starting place? Thanks for the review, btw!

  15. I adore Cold Comfort Farm AND Persuasion, so I think this book is going on my TBR list. Why didn't I know that Stella Gibbons wrote other books?

  16. Thanks for the recommendation. Have just finished this and found it very absorbing. Apparently the Challis character in the novel is based on the author Charles Morgan, who was big pals with CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien etc. CS Lewis wrote about him as though he were almost a god. Stella Gibbons and I suspect other less circumstantial witnesses than Lewis were much more shrewd in their evaluation of him!


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