When I attended a middlebrow conference last year, my friend Terri was talking about boarding house novels – and one particularly grabbed my attention. As you’ll have guessed from the title of this blog post, it was Bassett by Stella Gibbons – whose Cold Comfort Farm I, of course, love, and whose Westwood was wonderful in a very different way. Clicking on those titles will take you to reviews which explain what I loved about them… and now I can add Bassett to the fold, thanks to my friend Barbara giving it to me for my birthday last November. Indeed, if it had just been about the boarding house, this would be on my 50 Books You Must Read list, and I’d be screaming from the rooftops. Read on, dear reader…
Bassett (1933) kicks off with the glorious Miss Hilda Baker, and I think the best way to describe her is: imagine Paul Gallico’s Mrs. ‘arris if she were written by Stella Gibbons. Which, of course, she is. ‘She dressed neatly and badly in ugly little hats and ugly little necklaces’, works cutting patterns for a dressmakers, and her one vocation in life is identifying when other people are ‘sassing’ her, and reprimanding them for it. Miss Baker has managed to save some money, and is intrigued when she sees in a paper that another lady is looking to turn her home into a boarding house, and is looking for someone to run it with her. Determined not to be cheated out of her savings, but intrigued, Miss Baker writes to The Tower, Crane Hill, Bassett – and receives this wonderful reply, which is too wonderful not to quote in full (with strong reservations about one racist sentence, of course):
Dear Miss Baker,
After much earnest thought I have decided that yours is the most suitable letter I have received as a result of the notice which appeared in Town and Country. I am sure that the house could be made a success. It is not damp. Some of the letters were most unsuitable. There was one from a Mr. Arthur Craft. Frequent buses, but rather a long walk to them! ! ! It is so difficult, in these days, to know what to do for the best. Mr. Craft suggested a Club. I have a geyser and there are beautiful views. Perhaps we could lay out the tennis court again in the field behind the house. We are six miles from the station, but the buses run past the bottom of the hill. I thought we might take Indians (not Negroes of course) as guests. Is afternoon tea included do you know? I believe not. Perhaps you will let me know what you think. Or perhaps it would be better if you came down one Saturday. It is easier to go to Reading and take the bus. I could meet you, if we decided to meet in Town, at half past three in the Clock Department. Perhaps you would suggest a day, if Saturday doesn’t suit you. (This Saturday is not good for me I am afraid, as I have my W.I.) But of course, they close on Saturday afternoons. Will you let me know, by return if possible, whether you will meet me as arranged.
Yours faithfully, Eleanor Amy Padsoe.
P.S. – It is on clay soil, but some of it is on chalk. Very healthy! ! !
That, ladies and gentlemen, is Miss Padsoe – and isn’t she a wonder?
As with Scoop, which I wrote about recently, incompatibility makes a great start for a comic novel. Long story short, after going to see The Tower (and finding Miss Padsoe as barmy as the letter suggests), Miss Baker decides against the venture – but is then made redundant and can’t think what else to do. So, off on a train she hops to Bassett once more. Here’s an indication of their current assessment of each other…
And she thrust herself half out of the window again, waving vigorously and giving a false, toothy smile, and wishing Miss Padsoe looked a bit smarter. Like a rag-bag, that’s what she was, and an old-fashioned one at that.
And Miss Padsoe, greeting Miss Baker with a convulsive flutter of her umbrella-less hand and an equally false and toothy smile, found time to wish amid much mental distress that Miss Baker did not look exactly like an under-housemaid.
Miss Padsoe’s mental distress is caused chiefly by her mother-and-daughter cook and maid, who have been cheating and neglecting her, and have now locked her out of her own house. The sass of servants is like a red rag to a bull for Miss Baker, and she goes off to sort things out… It’s all very funny, filled with the sort of nonsensical dialogue I love (“‘Remember’? I’ll give her ‘Remember’!”) and all rather touching too – the first signs that Miss Baker and Miss Padsoe will become friends. It’s not as rammed-down-your-throat heart-warming as that sounds (and as it might threaten to be in the hands of Paul Gallico, much as I love him!) but it’s rather lovely.
As I said at the beginning of this review, had Bassett concentrated exclusively on these ladies setting up their boarding house, with Gibbons’ delicious turn of phrase and moments of irony, this would be one of my all-time favourite novels. Sadly, Bassett is diluted by the goings-on of another family in the village, and this takes up most of the second half of the novel…
Queenie is a 20-something girl who has come to live as a companion to Mrs. Shelling – and gets to know her children George and Bell, who are about her age. They have progressive views about morality and romance, as does Queenie, and… well, one thing leads to another, and it becomes about Queenie falling in love with George, and the struggles this causes, involving class, morality, aspirations…
Apparently Queenie and her situation was very autobiographical, but I have to say that I found the whole thing a bit of an unnecessary addition. It certainly wasn’t awful, and my response might well only be my impatience and boredom with any novel focuses on the anxieties of youthful ardour, but it seemed such a shame to take the attention away from such interesting and amusing protagonists. And despite some attempts to combine the two strands, Gibbons’s seems to give up at one point, and from then on just writes about Queenie et al – the two storylines don’t blend at all neatly.
But that is a fairly small reservation, caused chiefly by the excellence of the first half of Bassett – so not a bad fault to have, all things considered!
Vintage Books have brought Stella Gibbons’ books back into print, some with absolutely glorious covers – Bassett is one of those which is only (I believe) Kindle or print on demand, so doesn’t get the same beautiful cover illustrations, but I’m not going to quibble – I’m so grateful to Vintage for making this brilliant novel accessible, and to Barbara for giving me a copy!