Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Grass is Always Greener. . .

Westwood is completely different from Stella Gibbons' classic novel Cold Comfort Farm, but it is still an enjoyable read; the wit is less employed (though very welcome when it is) and the subject matter and main character more sober in outlook and temperment, but Gibbons has still crafted an original and unusual book populated by a wacky set of characters. There may be nothing nasty in the woodshed but there's certainly a lot of uncomfortableness in both Westwoods, two dissimilar houses in different parts of London representing two possible (and fantastical) options for Margaret Steggles, a plain, bookish schoolteacher, only twenty-three but resigned to the fact that she will probably never get married. She is an observer more than an object of attention, a woman, "still far from the peace of middle age, which has learned to enjoy gardening more than people, and people were what interested her, not wheelbarrows and secateurs."

This 1946 novel is set mostly in London during the blackouts of the Second World War, which intrudes periodically but stays mostly in the background. Margaret lives with her parents - an opinionated and bitter mother, and her frequently absent father who likes to escapes his unhappy home life by having affairs. Margaret too longs to flee permanently and she enviously eyes both Westwoods. One is a sickly sweet house in the suburbs belonging to her father's friend Dick Fletcher, who has a young daughter "not quite like other children", who needs looking after when his housekeeper is hurt in a raid.  The other is the far grander Westwood of famous playright Gerald Challis, father-in-law to a famous painter and grandfather to three children that Margaret also gets saddled with taking care of.  He too has a roving eye and it doesn't alight on Margaret but on her best friend, the vivacious Hilda who knows him only under an assumed name after a chance meeting in the fog.

The world swirls energetically around Margaret as she longs for a more interesting life and I will admit to being frustrated around the middle of the novel with her refusal to see how easily she's taken advantage of by selfish people that don't deserve her adulation, much less respect. But I was still intrigued to see how Gibbons would resolve the story and I'm glad I stuck with it. This is not the WWII London of Patrick Hamilton or Elizabeth Bowen,  Sarah Waters' Night Watch or Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn, but Westwood shares that universal search for happiness and human connection, made more urgent during war - at least in this case -  by the drabness of the homefront and the narrowing options for husbands, deceivers as they may be. If there's a message - and this pops up in a lot of women's fiction from this period - it's to find your own type of happiness that doesn't necessarily rely on the opinions of others.

I'm glad this novel was brought back into print. Vintage UK have also released Gibbons'  Starlight, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, and Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm.  I'll also have to get a copy of Nightingale Wood, re-issued two years ago by Virago.

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