by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: January 1, 1970
...for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.
Ivy Gower, a curmudgeonly middle-aged charwoman with some slightly witchy talents, inherits a rural cottage in Buckinghamshire and takes up residence near the tiny village of Little Warby. Having settled in with a rescued dog and a pet pigeon, she manages, despite her anti-social instincts, to have surprising effects on her new neighbours, including Angela Mordaunt, a spinster still mourning her dead beau, Coral and Pearl Cartaret, ditzy sisters who have just opened a tea shop, the local vicar, and wealthy Lord Gowerville, whose devotion she earns by healing his beloved dog. But her biggest challenge will likely be the 12-year-old runaway who shows up at her door...
Blending vivid characters and a deep knowledge of human nature, this is also a funny and poignant tale of the challenges and freedoms of old age and solitude.
There really couldn’t have been a better start to my DSP December than The Woods in Winter, which is placed primarily within a wintry landscape, exactly as the title would suggest. You can find out more about DSP December which is the brainchild of Liz from Adventures in Reading…: here.
Now it was December. The last leaves had gone and the beeches stood naked and strong, and breathing out calm, or rocking slowly in the tearing winds that whirled their copper carpet in showers. With her winter hat rammed well over her brow, and followed by Neb leaping and pouncing after the flying leaves, Ivy walked in the woods, with step light as the racing clouds above; unnoticeable, dark and small in the bronze and russet glades, below the giant branches.
This is my 4th Stella Gibbons, and I have several more on my TBR, some of which were also published as part of DSP’s Stella Gibbons tranche, some of which are print Vintage paperbacks that I’ve picked up here and there. Somewhat oddly, none of them are her best known work, Cold Comfort Farm, although I’m sure I will get to that one sooner or later as well.
What I like best about Gibbons is that she writes really interesting women characters – her men tend to be placeholders and catalysts around which the action happens, but her women are really complex. She absolutely does not write characters that are either unremittingly good or relentlessly bad; every character has positive traits, negative traits, blind spots, stupidity, bad behavior, brilliant moment of insight (OK, maybe not always brilliant moments of insight). They make terrible decisions, which sometimes turn out badly, they make decisions that would have been terrible for the time in which they lived, but which turn out to be exactly right, or they make the right decision, but it turns out to make them miserable.
This book centers around a middle-aged char lady, Ivy, who inherits a life estate in a dilapidated cottage in the country and who sets about living her life for the first time. She rescues a dog – Nebby – from an abusive situation and the two of them live in harmonious austerity.
In Ivy’s case it was because, for the first time in her life, she was living as she had always unknowingly wanted to live: in freedom and solitude, with an animal for close companion. Her new life had acted upon her like a strong and delicious drug.
I read Lolly Willowes, by Sylvia Townsend Warner a couple of months ago – I haven’t gotten around to writing about it, yet, but I will. There were elements to this book that had that same witchy, supernatural vibe.
She began to dance; round and round the table and between the mattress, pulling him after her in awkward mimicry while their shadows reared and dwindled, reared and dwindled, against the fire-painted walls. Green and blue flames from the logs on the fire were their torch-light, and Neb’s wild barking was their music. The cottage rang, glowing like some fiery cave
There are also four unmarried young women in this book: Coral, Pearl, Helen and Angela. By the end of the book, each of them is married, and their travails are lightly covered – Angela gets probably the most page time, as an unmarried woman in her thirties whose beloved died in the war, she has been living in the past. She makes a pretty bold decision to climb out of the grave in which she has buried herself next to Peter and live again.
There is also a wonderful interlude between Ivy and a boy of approximately 12, Mike, who shows up at her cottage having run away from home, and who lives with her for a brief period. Ivy has approximately the same sensibilities as a 12 year old boy, when it comes right down to it, and there is definitely loss when he leaves.
I really enjoyed The Woods in Winter – it’s probably my favorite by Gibbons that I’ve read. Published in 1970, it was the last book that Gibbons submitted for publication. She went on to write two others, but those were not published until after her death. Most of the book takes place in the late 1940’s – I think – but there is an epilogue from 1970 that provides a nice birds-eye view of the lives of all of the side characters who are in late middle age, including Mike. His fate was absolutely one of my favorite elements of the book.