Stella Gibbons, The Swiss Summer (1951), A Pink Front Door (1959), The Weather at Tregulla (1962), The Snow-Woman (1969)
Sometimes all I ask from a book is to transport me to someplace different so I can meet and live with another set of people for a while. If the scenery of that place is attractive, so much the better, but mostly it’s about the people, slipping into their hopes and fears and dreams, letting go of my own convoluted problems for a while.
Stella Gibbons seems to be a master at this type of book. Best known for her popular parody of the “loam and lovechild” school of fiction, Cold Comfort Farm, she later wrote a number of other novels of quite a different flavor, several of which are now available from Dean Street Press. On the DSP site, Elizabeth Goudge is quoted as saying “Stella Gibbons sees people as they really are but she observes them so lovingly as well as acutely that one loves them too.” This is a fine assessment, I think, and links Gibbons’s work with Goudge’s own, as well as with another writer I love, Jane Gardam — all sharp yet un-jaded observers of human nature.
This means that Gibbons accomplishes the remarkable feat of keeping me engaged with her characters even when they are not particularly likeable or relatable. I’m not sure how she performs this magic, but it kept me reading through four of her novels with a constant rueful smile on my face, and saving the last (The Woods in Winter) for a time when I need extra cheering up.
Here’s a summary of my whirlwind Gibbons tour. In The Swiss Summer, Lucy, a middle-aged English matron finds herself accepting a surprise invitation to spend the summer at a Swiss chalet — a dream for her since she loved the country on her honeymoon visit years ago. She finds that things are not all clean and aboveboard in the mountains, and as a variety of guests (some unauthorized by the chalet’s invalid owner) converge on the Alpine meadows, becomes a bemused observer of a very human comedy. By summer’s end, things have evolved in a somewhat surprising, but entirely fitting way.
A Pink Front Door centers around Daisy, a young wife and mother who seems to not have enough to do and must busy herself with helping friends and neighbors, not all of whom deserve it or are grateful. Thus we meet, again, a varied cast of characters with all kinds of quirks and idiosyncracies, more opportunity to show Gibbons’ skill at individual characterization. Daisy’s husband suffers in silence behind the door of their charming but expensive Hampstead home, until one day, he doesn’t. And so the story takes another turn …
The Weather at Tregulla concerns 19-year-old Una, who is longing to get away from her father’s failing violet farm in Cornwall to a dramatic life in London. While stuck in that atmospheric location, she falls for the deceptive charms of a visiting artist and his charming sister who is concealing aspirations of her own. Once more, events turn out a bit differently at the end than you might have expected.
The Snow-Woman was my favorite of the four, probably because it has by far the most lovable protagonist. Now in her 70s, Maude has never gotten over the deaths of her brothers in the war years ago, and never permitted herself to become close to another human being. Things change when a baby is born on her antique sofa (horrors!), she takes a trip to France and revisits old haunts and meets old friends, and returns home to some new discoveries including that love can come back to life after all. Funny, heartwarming, and poignant in the best way.
Character and setting are the strength of these four, so if you fancy a visit to Switzerland, Hampstead, Cornwall or France in the company of some entertainingly flawed individuals, do take a look. For me, it was just the break I needed.
Review copies gratefully received from the publisher, Dean Street Press. No other compensation was received, and all opinions expressed are my own.