Slightly Less Beloved Classics takes a second look at the lesser-known works of celebrated authors. Here we shall decide what is to remain by the wayside and what is to be led gaily back home, lauded with timbrels and trumpets and fatted calves. This first installment concerns English novelist Stella Gibbons and the insufficiently famous Nightingale Wood.
Stella Gibbons, if she is remembered now at all, is best known for the admittedly delightful Cold Comfort Farm (later made into an equally delightful film in 1995 with Kate Beckinsale and the bad guy from A Knight’s Tale), her satirical 1932 novel about the tragedies of rural English life, where Thomas Hardy and the Brontë sisters get it in equal measure.
If you are a particular type of bookish woman–reflective without being sentimental, easily drawn out but rarely forward–this is the kind of book you read often and deeply cherish. You know about what Aunt Ada Doom saw in the woodshed. You may very well long for your own cletterin’ brush. But Stella Gibbons did not lay down her pen in 1932, content to skewer ANGUISH ON THE MOORS but the once, and write nevermore. She went on to publish more than twenty additional novels, the best of which may very well be Nightingale Wood.
It is more than a bit like the Cinderella story. There’s an orphan of sorts, and something of a prince. Sophie Dahl, in the introduction to the 2008 edition, writes that “Prince Charming is charming, yes, but he’s also a little dull, vulgar and complacent. Cinderella is beautiful and true, yet a tad apathetic.” The stepsisters, for their part, are more prosaic and self-centered than cruel, even a little downtrodden. They have their own adventures to worry about. Also, there are multiple garden parties, an excellent addition to any novel.
No one can sketch a fully-fleshed character in as few words as Gibbons. On Mr. Wither, the novel’s closest equivalent to an evil stepmother (really more of a dreary, slightly befuddled step-guardian) and his interactions with his wife of 40 years:
Mrs. Wither came in, but he took no notice of her because he had seen her before.
That’s on the first page, by the way. And there are lines this good on almost every other page, too, I can assure you.
Do you normally pride yourself on being rational and practical, only to shock yourself with how quickly and gleefully you surrendered to foolishness and naïveté the first time you fell truly in love? Stella Gibbons understands:
“It has been hinted that her [Viola’s] nature was affectionate; now that it had received encouragement there was no holding it; she was in love, so much in love that she did not realize that it was Wednesday morning and the letter had not come; and that the man she was in love with was the legendary Victor Spring. Victor had now become Him. He was less of a real person than ever. She never once thought about his character or his income or his mother. She was drunk. She wandered about like a dazzled moth, smiling dreamily, and running downstairs when the postman came, crying:
‘Anything for me?’
He had said: ‘Good. I’ll write to you,’ so of course he would. It was not like last time when he had not said anything.”
Allow yourself a pang of remembrance, but pass over the self-recrimination.
Do you like heroines? This book is chockablock with them. You can’t throw a stone within its pages (not that you could, of course, but if you did) without hitting one.
Do you like dreamy, beautiful girls whose inner lives develop richness and depth after falling in love? Meet Viola. She has grey eyes.
Do you like snappy, peevish girls who prefer books to people and have a knack for saying the wrong thing? Meet Hetty. She becomes a Communist.
‘I want to go to College. I want to be educated. I want to meet interesting people. And I want a job,’ said Hetty, in a savagely careful voice as though she were repeating a lesson. ‘And I see no reason–absolutely no reason at all, Aunt Edna, why I should not do those four things. That is why I don’t care for dancing or the Bunny Andrews of the world. But there is no point in prolonging this argument, is there? Shall I wear the gold shoes or the brown satin?’
Do you like plain, frowsy outdoorswomen who only care about dogs and sports? Meet Madge. She gets to triumph over her father in small but significant ways.
Do you like women who suddenly wake up in their mid-30s and run headfirst toward everything they have always wanted? Meet Tina. She learns how to drive.
There are fairy godparents, too, although not for Cinderella. There is very little magic, but there is a handsome chauffeur and a house-fire and more than one heart is transformed. There is more than one wedding, and more than one woman who does not wed at all, and there are dogs, and feverish assignations. It is as delightfully practical as it is delightfully romantic.
It must be odd to be as happy as that, thinks Hetty, following down the church between the ranks of smiling, moved, wistful faces. I’d sooner have my life than hers.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.