Why, dear reader, why does it sometimes take me so long to review books? I read Westwood (1946) by Stella Gibbons whilst on holiday with Colin, thought it was very good, have promised you reviews a dozen times… and only now do I get around to writing about it.
Firstly, many thanks to lovely Vintage books for sending me this copy, and super praise to Pep Montserrat who did the beautiful cover illustration. Like everyone who has read it, I love Cold Comfort Farm and was excited when I heard that Vintage were hot on Virago’s heels, in publishing more of Gibbons’ work. Then I read Lynne Truss’ excellent introduction, published in the Guardian (but now not available online) and simply had to read the novel.
In her introduction, Truss writes that ‘If Cold Comfort Farm is Stella Gibbons’s Pride and Prejudice, then Westwood is her Persuasion.’ Those of you who know my thoughts about the relative merits of Austen’s novels may be surprised to learn that this actually encouraged me to read Westwood(!) Obviously Truss’ analogy can only be taken so far, but she has a point – Westwood is not a comic novel (although it has funny moments), rather it is slightly melancholic and very contemplative.
The heroine of the piece is Margaret Steggles, a plain and uncertain type with a thirst for learning and an appetite for adventure which she keeps sensibly subdued. She is only 23, unhappy with her job as a teacher and with her home life – her father is prone to affairs, and her mother is disappointed that Margaret is not more like her feisty good-time-gal friend Hilda. But naturally things do not remain thus. Margaret finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath and, when returning it, becomes embroiled in the lives of self-important playwright Gerald Challis, his spoilt, snobbish daughter Hebe, and her husband, the painter Alexander Niland. They are an eminently fashionable set, full of ideas of Art and Beauty, and Margaret wants in. The nearest she can get, to start off with, is the somewhat hysterical Jewish refugee Zita, who lives with the family and is not quite a housekeeper but definitely not one of the family.
“I like you, Miss Steggles.”
“Thank you. I like you too,” sais Margaret, who in her present mood would have liked anyone.
“Good. Den we are friends,” announced Zita, putting out her hand while her eyes overflowed. Margaret took it and they exchanged a solemn clasp. “Oh, Miss Steggles – what iss your name?” she demanded, interrupting herself.
“Zo. I shall call you Margaret. You will call me Zita?”
“I’d love to, Zita.”
“Margaret, I haf a many sadness. I tell you about it.”
Margaret was so inexperienced as a confidante that no feeling of dismay overcame her on hearing this threat; indeed she hardly heard what Zita said, so overjoyed was she at the prospect of frequent visits to Westwood as Zita’s friend.
As you can see from the ‘iss’ and ‘Zo’ used so liberally, Zita does border a little on stereotype – but she is the liveliest inclusion to the novel, and that which most demonstrates Gibbons’ comic touch. I am guilty of that which Truss does in the introduction, presumably as inadvertently as I am, of quoting the sections which amused me most. For, as I said, this isn’t, broadly, a comic novel. At its heart is Margaret’s awkward attempts to become part of a society which only tolerates her. There is a desperately sad moment where Margaret overhears Hebe’s opinion of her – it’s in the same area as ‘consciously naive’ and ‘you will be limited as to number – only three at once.’ (Ten points if you recognise those references!)
She especially wants to be involved in Challis’ life, and falls rather in love with him – although from the reader’s perspective it is a trifle difficult to see why. He is pompous, with high-blown ideas about Beauty which would make Keats seem like a materialist.
“A landscape without hills,” he suddenly pronounced, “is like a woman without mystery.”
There simply was not any answer to this, especially as his unhappy audience realized that whatever she said would be wrong, so she replied feebly:
“Oh – do you think so?”
“The monotony of an endless plain,” continued Mr. Challis disparagingly surveying the mild meadows on every side, “drives men mad.”
But Challis’ Achilles’ heel (and one of the other funny threads through the novel – although funniness laced with tragedy) is his belief in the Beauty of the common innocent girl, provided she be physically attractive, of course. And the one he sets his eye on is Hilda – remember her? Margaret’s feisty friend who would, in contemporary soap parlance, undoubtedly be described as a tart with a heart. Challis bumps into her walking home from the train (“I have been sent by Providence especially to escort you”) and he decides to call himself Marcus Antonius, and she Daphne. Hilda’s good-natured willingness to put up with him until she is bored, and his slavish (would-be adulterous) devotion to a girl whose nature he has so completely misunderstood, is both farcical and saddening.
Indeed (sweeping generalisation alert) that is how Gibbons treats a lot of the material in Westwood. It is the kind of plot and the (large) cast of characters which could easily be tragic or comic, and Gibbons treads a path between the two – lingering, perhaps, on the tragic, but never fully abandoning the comic. Being asked to empathise with Margaret, rather than laugh at or with her, takes Westwood away from the hilarious tour de force of Cold Comfort Farm, but also creates a more thoughtful, thought-provoking work. Both novels introduce a whirlwind of characters, but while Cold Comfort Farm can rely upon the witty epithet to describe someone, Westwood delves deeper – which does, at times, make the novel feel a bit overcrowded and perhaps overlong – but is also ultimately perhaps more satisfying. If I were one of these novels to reread next, I must admit it would be Cold Comfort Farm – for an uproarious escapade – but I doubt I would gain as much, and I certainly wouldn’t think as much. The novels are so different that it is nigh on impossible to say one is better than the other, but what is obvious is that Westwood should never have gone out of print, and Vintage are to be commended for rectifying whosever oversight that was.
Others who got Stuck into this…
I’m going to copy Jackie’s lovely idea of quoting other bloggers who have reviewed the book, and point you in the direction of their reviews. I think it’s a great addition to Jackie’s blogposts – I’m all about the blogging community. I’ll just pick two or three each time, so as to feel more like I’m including people in a selective list rather than accidentally excluding people from an exhaustive list!
“[…Margaret] is a masterpiece and definitely earns Gibbons the right to be compared with Austen.[…]” – Hayley, Desperate Reader
“[…] do read this if you love a warm, witty, beautifully written and leisurely novel […]” – Hilary, Vulpes Libris