Category Archives: Gibbons, Stella

A Pair of Dean Street Press titles

It’s old news at this point, but I was so sad to hear that DSP won’t be publishing anymore titles under their Furrowed Middlebrow imprint. Fortunately, it does appear that the titles they already published are going to remain available.

Last year, Liz Dexter at Adventures in Reading spearheaded a Dean Street in December reading extravaganza, and I’m hoping that she does it again this year. I usually spend most of October reading scary books & mysteries, and this year was no different. However, for the fall Read-A-Thon, I decided to do something different and dip into my backlist of Furrowed Middlebrow titles. I was looking for some easy reading, and that seemed to be just the ticket.

I ended up finishing the first book, The Musgraves by D.E. Stevenson, and coming pretty close to finishing the second, The Snow-Woman by Stella Gibbons.

The MusgravesThe Musgraves
by D.E. Stevenson
Rating: ★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1960
Genre: fiction
Pages: 227
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of women

How old you can grow in three years! It is only a fraction of time but to Esther Musgrave it seemed longer than all the rest of her life put together. In three years she had become an entirely different person-or so she felt. Following the death of her beloved husband, Esther believes she will never be happy again. But soon, her "natural buoyancy" and the problems and adventures of her three daughters-difficult, unmarried Delia, cheerful and practical Margaret, and young Kate just out of school-bring her pleasure and purpose anew. The local Dramatic Club's troubled new production, the arrival of an attractive widow with a hint of scandal about her, the return of Esther's long-estranged stepson, and Kate's perilous rendezvous with a young ne'er-do-well whom Stevenson fans will recognize from her earlier bestseller The Tall Stranger -all provide drama, laughter, and joy to the reader as well as to Esther herself. First published in 1960 and set in the Cotswolds, The Musgraves is one of D.E. Stevenson's most lively and entertaining tales of family and village life. This new edition features an autobiographical sketch by the author.

D.E. Stevenson is classic comfort reading for me, which is one of the primary reasons I chose to read The Musgraves. There has never been a D.E. Stevenson book that I didn’t like, although none of them have quite lived up to the greatness of Miss Buncle’s Book for me. The Musgraves is a middling Stevenson for me, better than some, not so good as others.

I love the way that Stevenson will reintroduce characters from earlier books. This one, apparently, included a character who was a bit of a ne’er do well in The Tall Stranger, which I have not read. He is not redeemed in The Musgraves. I’m wondering if he ever gets the kick in the pants – leading to some positive character changes – in any of her later books. The Tall Stranger is available through the KU library, so I will probably pick it up at some point. I would read this one again.

The Snow-WomanThe Snow-Woman
by Stella Gibbons
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1969
Genre: fiction
Pages: 228
ReRead?: No

I suppose I was lonelier than I knew.

It's the 1960s, and Maude Barrington, now in her seventies, has kept life firmly at bay since the deaths of her three brothers in World War I. But when an unexpected visitor convinces Maude to visit old friends in France (and an old nemesis, who persistently calls her "the snow-woman"), she is brought face to face with the long-suppressed emotions, sorrows, and misunderstandings of the past. Upon her return to London, she finds her frozen life invaded by a young mother and her son (born on great aunt Dorothea's sofa, no less) who have been more or less adopted by her long-time maid Millie. And Maude finds the snow of years of bitterness beginning to melt away.

In The Snow-Woman, first published in 1969 and out of print for decades, Stella Gibbons has created one of her most complex and poignant, yet still very funny, tales-of aging, coming to terms, and rediscovering life. This new edition features an introduction by twentieth-century women's historian Elizabeth Crawford.

I have read several Stella Gibbon books, including The Woods in Winter, which I read last year during DSP December.

This is a very late Gibbons, published in 1968, but it feels like it is set much earlier than that – more in the 1940’s. This is probably because the main character has never really recovered from the death of her 3 brothers in WWI. Her life pretty much stopped in 1920, with the end of the war, and never really picked up again. She is now quite an elderly woman, having outlived most of the people she knew as a girl and a young woman.

The title is a propos, because she has been frozen in place for decades. This book is about a quite unexpected thaw, half a century later. I enjoyed it, although not quite so much as The Woods in Winter.

The Woods in Winter by Stella Gibbons

The Woods In WinterThe Woods In Winter
by Stella Gibbons
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: January 1, 1970
Genre: fiction
Pages: 226
ReRead?: No

...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.

The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons

The BachelorThe Bachelor
by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: August 1, 1944
Genre: fiction
Pages: 420
Project: a century of women

Brother and sister, Constance and Kenneth Fielding live in calm respectability, just out of reach of London and the Blitz. But when a series of uninvited guests converge upon them – from a Balkan exile to Ken’s old flame and the siblings’ own raffish father – the household struggles to preserve its precious peace. In this full house, in a quiet corner of suburbia, no one expects to find romance.

I had planned to read this one for a 1944 club on my blog but ran out of time. This is my second Gibbons, and I have not yet read her most celebrated work Cold Comfort Farm – the first one I read was called Nightingale Wood, which I read a couple of years ago.

I think I liked this one a tiny bit better than Nightingale Wood, although it has some of the same issues that I stumbled on in that one. It’s set during WWII, so the characters are on the homefront during the active fighting, but they scarcely seem to notice that there is a war on. There is some talk about the blackout, and a bit during a barrage, and a couple of the characters have war work that they are engaged in, but for the most part the three main character’s lives go on much as they do during peacetime. I’m not sure if this is an accurate depiction of the way that money can smooth all of the rough edges off the world, even during WWII, or if it is a bit of wishful thinking on the part of Gibbons. I tend to think the latter.

It is a bit of a romance, with the characters coupling off all over the place. My issue with The Bachelor is that I found only one of the pairings even remotely appealing or plausible. Gibbons writes flawed characters, which isn’t a problem for me, but also writes characters who need a swift kick in the ass. The only characters I particularly liked were Betty and Alicia, and I actively disliked Vartouhi and Constance and found them unconvincing. Richard and Kenneth (the titular bachelor, btw) were pleasant enough, if a bit wet.

The writing is a pleasure to read, however, and the descriptions of Sunglades, the home where most of the “action” takes place, are beautiful. I will definitely read more Gibbons, because no matter my issues with her novels, they are worth reading.

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale WoodNightingale Wood
by Stella Gibbons
Publication Date: April 1, 1938
Genre: fiction
Pages: 387

A sly and satirical fairytale by the author of Cold Comfort Farm

Unavailable for decades, Stella Gibbons's Nightingale Wood is a delightfully modern romance ripe for rediscovery by the many fans of Cold Comfort Farm.

Poor, lovely Viola has been left penniless and alone after her late husband's demise, and is forced to live with his family in their joy­less home. Its occupants are nearly insufferable: Mr. Withers is a tyrannical old miser; Mrs. Withers dismisses her as a common shop girl; and Viola's sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina, are too preoccupied with their own troubles to give her much thought. Only the prospect of the upcoming charity ball can lift her spirits-especially as Victor Spring, the local prince charming, will be there. But Victor's intentions towards the young widow are, in short, not quite honorable.

I have not read Gibbons’s most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm. One of my goodreads groups focuses on dead authors, and we are doing a genre challenge, so this novel won the poll for our February romance genre group read. I fell in love with the cover, and being completely shallow, I was excited to read.

Nightingale Wood was published in 1938, prior to the beginning of WWII, and is set near the end of the interwar period. It is marketed as a Cinderella-style tale. There are three main female leads: Viola (the Cinderella of this tale), Tina, and Hetty. Viola is the widow of Teddy Wither, who is brother to Tina and the rather awful Madge, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Marge Dursley, from her over-sized, inelegant tweed-clad frame, to her obsession with dogs.

My favorite character is the bookish Hetty, cousin of the charming Victor, who lives at Grasmere. Viola, Tina and Madge all live at the neighboring manse, The Eagles. I really love books set during this time period – it was period of immense social and cultural change, and these changes make for great fiction. The roles of girls and women are in constant flux.

Of the three female leads, Tina has, for me, the most satisfying romance. Lady Chatterly style, she takes up with the chauffeur, Saxon. Saxon is an interesting character – he is ambitions, talented, and quite the up-and-comer. She is a full dozen years older than Saxon, and is both wily and unconventional. The resolution of their story is convincingly lovely, in spite of the obstacles they overcome to find happiness.

Viola is a bit of a wet hen – conventionally dissolving into tears at the drop of the hat. But, she rallies nicely to help out an old friend, and her happy ending is both deserved and pleasing, if not very romantic.

Hetty was my favorite character, but her romance was the least satisfying – volatile and capricious. I would have loved a full length book with Hetty as the main character, and I was not pleased with the way that her story ended.

I enjoyed this one enough to seek out more books by Gibbons.

#1944 Club: 10/15/18 through 10/21/18

Simon, at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting the 1944 Club next week. This will be the first time that I’ve managed to participate in one of their “clubs,” and I’m very excited about it. I haven’t quite settled on a book (or two) yet, but, in keeping with this blog theme, it’s definitely going to be by written a woman. Some of my possible choices: