Monday, 3 February 2014

Here Be Dragons - Stella Gibbons

I've been very excited about Vintage Books reprinting Stella Gibbons' lesser-known novels (perhaps following the lead Virago started with Nightingale Wood, which I still haven't read) and I have been impressed, in part or in whole, by Westwood and Bassett.  (Clicking on those titles will take you to my reviews.)  I have to admit, part of my joy at the series is the beautiful covers, and I asked Vintage if they'd send me a copy of Here Be Dragons (1956), partly because Sue recommended it at a Possibly Persephone? meeting, and partly because of that beautiful cover.

Well, that'll teach me to judge a book by its cover, because when I asked Vintage for a copy of Here Be Dragons, they (quite rightly) sent me one of their print on demand copies, which doesn't have a picture on its cover at all.  (Maybe this is Kindle only?)  It was also very hard to hold open for long periods of time - being very tightly bound - which is one of the reasons it took me about six months to finish it.  The other reasons, I will come to...

I am a sucker for a novel where someone opens a tearoom, which sounds quite niche but is stumbled across quite often in the 30s-50s.  Nell, the heroine of Here Be Dragons, doesn't actually get around to opening a tearoom - but she works at one, and she intends to open one soon, and that'll do me.  She is the daughter of a slightly eccentric upper-class family, and as the novel opens her clergyman father has decided to leave the church - and they are all bundled into a flat (which is really most of a sizeable house).  Nell - bravely catching up with the past two decades - decides to enter the world of work.

First she is a typist in an office, where a constant battle is waged over whether a window is, or is not, left open.  The work is dull, the old men are patronising, and she is tempted away with the promise of £16 a week (including tips) should she become a waitress.  This she does, at the Primula, and I loved the scenes where she finds her feet in the café, learns to get along with the curious staff, and starts to plan her independent tearoom career (even if she can't imagine being beyond 25 without this.)

Sadly, that's pretty much all I liked in this novel.  I think it's called Here Be Dragons because Nell enters a world which had previously been unfamiliar and alarming - as with maps which used to use those three words to delineate scary foreign lands.  And Nell's scary foreign land is the world of bohemian layabouts, to which she is introduced by her monstrously selfish cousin John. This is the sort of thing he does/says:
Sometimes he would lecture her about being a waitress, saying that she never had a moment to spare for him; that she was necessary to him, like the sights and sounds and smells of London; and that her 'so-called work' took up too much of her time; that she was hardly ever there when he wanted her.
This was sweet to hear, but like most of John's statements it bore only a tenuous relationship to the facts, which were that often saved him an evening or a Monday afternoon and never heard a word from him throughout the whole of it.
"Of course.  I didn't want you then," was his usual petulant comment when asked casually (Nell's own temperament, as well as a kind of deer-stalking instinct, prevented her from asking in any other tone) what he kept him or prevented his telephoning?  And he would add, "You see, you must be there when I want you, Nello."
Nell is not blind to his faults, but she is still in love with him, despite him having no discernible good qualities.  I can't work out whether we are meant to find John intellectually charming, or if he really is supposed to be as ghastly as he comes across.  (That 'this was sweet to hear' worries me.)  Whenever I think that a character is self-evidently dreadful, I remind myself that some people, somehow, come away from Wuthering Heights thinking that Heathcliff is a romantic hero, so...

But I could just about forgive Here Be Dragons having the world's most awful character - and unashamed selfishness is the vice which irritates me most in fiction - if he had been interesting.  I'm afraid I found huge swathes of the novel just quite boring.  There is a subplot about a fey young thing called Nerina which didn't grab me at all; Nell's father losing his faith is mentioned occasionally, but quite half-heartedly.  The whole thing, in fact, felt a little half-hearted.  Enjoyable enough to pass the time, but uninspired - particularly when it could have been so much better.

So, I am still excited about the reprints, and I will keep trying Stella Gibbons to see what gems lie in the rough - but I don't think, on the whole, that Here Be Dragons is one of them.

24 comments:

  1. It's always a shame when a favourite disappoints - especially if you're hoping for something good. Though I *have* heard that not all of her books live up to Cold Comfort Farm! And yes, it *does* make a difference if the covers are lovely, though I'm not sure it should!

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    1. It probably shouldn't, but it definitely does! And, more to the point, it really was a struggle to hold this book open - I got aching wrists whenever I read it.

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  2. I thought Nightingale Wood was a good read - the level of individual characterisation was really involved (almost to eccentricity, which is what I think I might have wanted in a Gibbons). Also it played a bit with semi-socialist themes to (mostly) humorous effect.

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    1. And of course I have it sitting on my shelves, along with quite a few other unread Gibbons novels! Glad to hear positive things about it.

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  3. I had identified Here be Dragons as a book of interest but also found it slightly disappointing. And I agree - what on earth was the point of cousin John? Was there some need to balance out Nell's growing independence with a belittling force? Is this an attitude of the time? You'd know better than me.

    Still there were some curious contemporary details. Not all jeans are denim clearly - and some of them are striped! But not enough to balance out the pot-boiler, lack of story-arc feel to the whole thing.

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    1. I think it might be a Stella Gibbons thing... Westwood and Bassett also had terribly irritating men that women kept falling for. And I was never sure in those quite how much Gibbons realised the men were awful...

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  4. What a shame that they didn't send you a copy with that lovely cover Simon! I agree about not liking the book, and I didn't get as far as you in actually reading it through. I borrowed a library copy of this last year and browsed through it and decided it just didn't appeal. The title does makes it sound fascinating, just a shame it didn't quite live up to it! I liked her selection of short stories, the one called Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm. I hope the next one you pick turns out better!

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    1. I have the Christmas at CCF collection waiting for me, so very glad to hear good things about that one! This one didn't live up to its intriguing title, did it? A shame - but still very grateful that they're being reprinted, so at least we can find out.

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  5. I know it's skipped over a bit but I thought the sections where Nell's father considers his faith were really good. I also love the way that Gibbons describes places - but I'm guessing after your last post that that doesn't do much for you. It's probably also safe to say that otherwise sensible girls will fall for total idiots from time to time so I assumed that Gibbons didn't mean us to much take to John but it's so long since I read this that I can't be sure now.

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    1. Hmm... were those sections mostly towards the beginning, because I might just have forgotten about them!

      I hope you're right about John - but the awful men in Westwood and Bassett give me pause for thought...

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  6. I couldn't get through Nightingale Wood, so abandoned hope of Gibbons at that time. I do appreciate your honesty about the book. I bought Nightingale Wood years ago because a favorite blogger mentioned it and the cover was so pretty. If this showed up in a bookstore I, too, would want it on the basis of the cover.

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    1. Sorry to hear bad things about Nightingale Wood - especially after it is glowingly reviewed further up the comment thread! I'll just have to try it myself, of course.

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  7. The cover is pretty but, having now flipped through it, I'm not sure I have much hope for the book. As nice as it is that they've been reissuing Gibbons' other works recently, I begin to suspect there was a reason only Cold Comfort Farm remained popular and in print...

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    1. I've tried a few but no more, I think. Cold Comfort Farm was brilliant but the others have been fairly banal.

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    2. My conclusion is that CCF is definitely in a different league, and has a very different feel, but that Gibbons was also a competent novelist in another field. Not as noteworthy, but still... Westwood certainly bears reprinting. And the first half of Bassett was brilliant!

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  8. I read your note that you love comments so thought I might attempt one. I have been following your blog for a while, though haven't read as many of them as I would like to.
    My life is awash with grandchildren.
    What most prompted me to write now, was your little comment about Heathcliffe as a romantic character - we studied Wuthering Heights at school, and I never got it (mind you, studying a book at school, in those days, was a good way to ruin it*). I have read it a couple of times since and still have not liked it - I know, that is not the same as what you wrote.
    But I have always managed to get the impression (not from the book itself) that Heathcliffe is "supposed to be" a romantic hero. ?? The book gives me the creeps - and not in a good way. So your remark was interesting. [I do love Kate Bush's "Wuthering Heights" though).

    *Neville Shute's "Pied Piper" is a favourite of mine, in spite of studying it at school. [I like all of Neville Shute's books that I have read, and "A Town Like Alice" is one of my all time favourites.]

    Noting your list of must read books, I am glad to have read at least one of them, which is "One Pair of Hands" by Monica Dickens.
    I am a fan of Monica Dicken's adult books.'
    I have put Paul Gallico's "Love of Seven Dolls" on my 'try to read soon' list - not sure it sounds like my kind of book, but interesting, and Paul Gallico is an interesting writer.
    "Snow Goose" is on my list of short, poetic, favourites, along with "Storm Boy" by Colin Theile (please do not think about the movie), and "Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary".

    I believe your review of "Love of Seven Dolls" was when I first read your blog, last year sometime, and I cannot remember what lead me there; something entirely unrelated I think.

    I am afraid there are a lot of well-respected (classic) books that don't work for me; the one getting a lot of attention just now being "The Great Gatsby". 'One of the great American novels' ? really? I tried it again, as I recently found a really sweet, tiny, copy of it amongst my Mum's books, and it was being written about a lot because of the recent movie. Still disappointing.

    I believe my top favourite author has to be Rumer Godden (I read "Two under the Indian Sun" at a fairly early age), and next Anya Seton ("Katherine"). Favourite style of (fiction) book would probably be family sagas (Rumer Goden's "China Court") and historical fiction - people books. Some random favourites (that I would have to look up the authors of): "Waxfruit", and "The Dollmaker" (American). I haven't read many modern authors, I will have to try to think of some more recent books that I have enjoyed. I tend to read more non-fiction these days.

    Speaking of beautiful covers, I have a lovely copy of "My Friend Phil" by Isabel Maude Peacock. I thought this story was a random gem when I found it - but believe she was a fairly well known author. I still have not read anything else of hers, and haven't researched her.

    I tend to have a leaning towards children's and young people's literature. I am a great fan of the "Five Children and It" series, which I did not discover 'till I was a parent.
    And I never stopped buying beautiful picture books - even when my children were "too old" for picture books.
    I am left speechless by the storytelling of Shuan Tan's (wordless) picture books (not necessarily for children).

    I live in Brisbane, Australia.
    As a child I was always "stuck in a book" (at that point fiction) - my family used to go out boating on Moreton Bay, and a common saying was "Don't forget to tell Josephine if the boat starts sinking."



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    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment!

      I hope you find Love of Seven Dolls as excellent as I did - although it certainly doesn't make for a comfortable read.

      Loved Five Children and It as a child, and must re-visit now that I am no longer one... indeed, Nesbit in general would bear revisiting.

      I have never heard of Isabel Maude Peacock, so thank you for mentioning her!

      And what a hilarious family motto :)

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  9. Books and their covers: how do you 'feel' about the recent use of slightly sticky covers? Perhaps 'sticky' isn't the right term, but there seems to be a fashion to use covers which feel 'intrusive' in a 'clammy' way. (apologies for the 'quotes' - but if they offend you and make your skin crawl, then you are sharing the effect them there covers have on me!) It's really annoying when a reading experience is tainted by a poor marketing choice - my latest book is a delight, but it is marred by the covers. Ugh!

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    1. Oh, I couldn't agree more - the copy of The Hare with the Amber Eyes I picked up at the weekend has a cover that feels really nasty. Why?????

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    2. I am struggling to imagine what those covers could possibly be like! My equivalent is cloth covers from the 1910s which have gone all dry and horrible...

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  10. Ahh I quite like an unusually textured cover - Andrew Motion's In the Blood has a thick almost crinkly cover which did feel slightly rough to the touch, but I think this made it more memorable as a physical object. And it was also less likely to slip out of my hands in the bath! Kaggsy, my fiance found the slimy cover of The Hare a bit distressing too, though!

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    1. Slimy definitely inferior to crinkly!

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  11. Hello,
    Very belatedly commenting on this (as very belatedly catching up with your excellent blog - which has solved many 'what on earth shall I get my Mum for her birthday' crisis for which many thanks).
    Anyway, picking up on the 'novel where someone opens a tearoom' theme I just wanted to double check that you have come across The Fair Miss Fortune - now published by Greyladies which is a delight and perfect holiday / wrapped up in duvet reading. To which a tea shop is a central backdrop!

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  12. Thanks Katrina! I didn't know about The Fair Miss Fortune - well, I think I've seen it mentioned somewhere, but had forgotten about the tearoom element. I'm sold!

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