I have been discovering the novels of Stella Gibbons that are not Cold Comfort Farm. A few years ago they were irretrievably obscure, but some have now been re-published by Vintage Books and others are available for download to my Kindle. I started, out of curiosity, buying Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, which is a selection of stories. The title story is an amusing but not amazing return to the location and characters of her first and much her most successful book. Of the other stories, some are extraordinarily good and some are rather bad – in an intriguing combination.
What we love about Cold Comfort Farm, apart from the fact that it is so funny, is the generous proliferation of ideas, especially the made-up words, which are laid on artlessly, and often out of sheer joie de vivre.
Let’s set it in the future, with tiny aeroplanes.
It’s rather like Dickens, but without the Look-at-me-Mummy quality that ruins his work.
Cold Comfort Farm won a prize that Virginia Woolf thought that one of her cronies should have won, the enchantingly tilted Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for 1933. Woolf wrote to (I think) Rosamund Lehmann, “I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons…. Who is she? What is this book?”
I hope that Stella Gibbons lived to read this. It is the sort of smug pomposity that she liked to collect.
Anyway, she continued to write long after the initial success of Cold Comfort Farm. Her last novel was published in 1970 and she died in 1989. There were thirty-two books altogether. I’ve now read three or four of them, so I am in no position to generalise. But I will.
There are sterling qualities, of the sort that one looks for in a novel – without always finding it. Her people live. She repeatedly introduces what you imagine to be minor stock characters, and then surprises you by making them real.
The artlessness survived to the end. She would spread herself in the interests of a good read. I am currently half way through Here Be Dragons, a novel about the decade between the end of the War and about 1955, when there was no money, rationing persisted, houses were still bomb-damaged, and young people upset their parents by hanging out in coffee bars, failing to wash, holding forth about Rimbaud and going to see Humphrey Lyttelton at The Hundred Club (as it wasn’t yet called).
There is a day in the course of the book which is full of incident, but as I say unhurried incident. The author remarks:
It was just seven o’clock. It seemed to at least two members of the party that the day had already lasted some fifty-six hours.
For a writer this is as dangerous as asking a character in a play to announce that they’re bored; it invites a sympathetic response from the audience.
The reverse side of this artlessness is the surprises. Starlight is my favourite book so far. It’s set in a Georgian house on the Highgate side of Hampstead Heath. These days it would be prettily occupied by the family of an investment banker but then it was a slum property, recently acquired by a notorious “rackman”, who lodges his much loved but frail wife into one of the flats into which the house is divided. (Why? Why not?). The other tenants include two garrulous sisters and a mysterious old man. There are the local Church of England priests, the vicar middle-aged and set in his ways, and his curate, an agonised young man. These turn out not only not to be stock characters, but to be the hinges on which the novel movingly turns.
The rackman’s wife is not just frail but, we gradually realise, possessed by an evil spirit. In the midst of all the humour and the period detail, there is a matter of life and death to be dealt with. Normally she talks in her own voice. Sometimes she tells fortunes and she has an uncanny ability to predict the future. But then she is taken over by the spirit, she talks in the spirit’s voice and it is killing her.
I am used to people talking in voices that possess them. When my children were young and inclined to be disagreeable they would talk in Australian, after Neighbours. Sometimes a simple upward inflexion at the end of each sentence would do the trick. When the better half adopts the world-weary cynicism that is a Russian default setting, she adopts the cadences of a friend of hers. This is not a malign spirit; she lives in Hendon.
But with the rackman’s wife it is deadly serious.
It is the Church of England priests who rise unflappably to the occasion and cast out the spirit. There is a blood-chilling scene where they repeatedly demand of the spirit, “What is your name?”, over many hours, until it comes out into the open. When one priest gets tired the other one takes over.
Some characters die and the sisters end the book living happily with a relation in the country.
I can’t think of a writer who could have written something so funny, so spooky and so full of ordinary detail, all at the same time. Think, as we are daily forced to these days, what Dickens would have made of it. Actually it doesn’t bear thinking about. He would have given them all hilarious names for a start.