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.