Books: Fiction Review of Stella Gibbons' Nightingale Wood
(Virago reprint, 2009)
The reappearance of Nightingale Wood, first published in 1938, finally gives us a chance to discover the real voice of Stella Gibbons. Despite her massive canon, Gibbons is now only known for Cold Comfort Farm and its parody of Mary Webb and other 'darkly rural' thirties novelists, and this, as Sophie Dahl remarks in her charming foreword to this Virago reprint, is a great shame. Gibbons' own style is a delight: urbane, witty and poetic, with a knack for an idiosyncratic turn of phrase. Nightingale Wood is not one Cinderella story, but several. The major focus is twenty-one-year-old Viola, a sweet-natured and gauche young widow who is existing, rather than living, with her respectable Essex in-laws the Withers. We also follow the fortunes of her lonely sisters-in-law (arty Tina and jolly-hockey-sticks Madge) and Hetty, the priggish teenage intellectual who lives with the glamorous yet philistine Springs on the other side of Nightingale Wood. The Springs, particularly their dashing son Victor, exert a powerful attractive force on Viola. Gibbons' sophisticated, multi-layered, hugely inventive romance is leavened by a streak of hard-headed metropolitan realism, of which Viola's best friend, Shirley, is the chief exponent. The women dominate, but there are also sensitive, clear-eyed portrayals of the male characters. There is no completely unattractive personality in the novel: all the characters are likeable to varying degrees.
Gibbons' writing is sharp yet sensuous, characterised by an artistic visual sense reminiscent of Eleanor Farjeon, another brilliant and unjustly-neglected female writer of that era. While the central story, Viola's pursuit of Victor Spring, conforms to a well-worn romance novel structure, the rest of it is not typical at all. It satirises contemporary intellectual currents from psychoanalysis to Fabianism, yet somehow does so sympathetically, while also parodying contemporary romantic novels ("She imagined him looking gaunt and worn and Miss Barlow asking him what was the matter, and him starting and biting his lip until the blood came and muttering 'Nothing,' with a sigh that was almost a groan.") It startles the reader with its extremely modern tone, particularly in its depiction of the limited horizons and private unhappiness endured by many women of that time, denied a career or a university education, and condemned to a half-life if unmarried. Viola is oppressed by her surroundings as a live-in permanent guest of the Withers: "Time seemed slowed to half its usual pace by the heavy ticking of an old clock in an alcove, the faint smell of furniture polish, the meagre clusters of flowers in thin glass vases, and the dull shine on well-polished wood." As this example demonstrates, one of the book's great strengths is its evocation of thirties material culture: the interiors of the Wither and Spring households, the fashionable White Rock Hotel with its cacti in plant pots and its dining-room "designed to resemble the deck of a luxury liner," and the small village shop: "the dismal light from a street lamp shone upon dismantled stocking stands and shut drawers, rolls of rayon covered in dust-sheets, and stacks of Coyscurl knitting wool."
These descriptions crackle with immediacy, transposing the reader to that elusive time just before the Phoney War, when the faint, skittering echoes of the Jazz Age were all that distracted people from what might happen next. The spectre of war gives the central fairy tale a fragile beauty, lending a bittersweet quality to the happy endings, particularly the happiest ending of all, implied but not explicit -continued peace. Yet, despite the fairy tale structure, there is a whiff of resignation following the happy endings; the characters settle down to contentment, rather than rapturous happiness, making the story more complicated than would at first appear. Prince Charming is not, in fact, all that charming; outwardly admiring of women's achievements, he is privately a chauvinist. These tensions, along with the Austen-like humour, keep the novel firmly anchored.
With a creativity verging on profligacy, Gibbons has created a host of engaging minor characters. These include the pathetic and malicious old bachelor Mr Spurrey; the glossy, cold and self-centred Phyllis, Viola's love rival; the talkative and affectionate Miss Cattyman, a shopgirl for fifty years; the domineering yet deeply insecure Mr Wither; Hetty's piously Fabian cousin; an ancient roustabout ironically called the Hermit; and the artistic, warm-hearted Baumers (a portrait which should put paid to the accusations of anti-Semitism provoked by the character of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm). The description of Viola's London set captures a certain type of brittle, witty urban romantic. Mr Wither's ambitious chauffeur Saxon gradually develops from a minor into a major character, in what is one of the few successful portrayals of a working-class man in a novel by a middle-class woman, a triumph of imaginative understanding without a hint of condescension.
Essex has not received as much attention in English literature as it deserves, making the novel interesting for its setting. Gibbons beautifully describes the Essex countryside, which "seemed quietly awake under a silvery sun (it was so flat that the sky seemed always full of light, enormously high, and falling almost like a mist)". Her nature writing is acute and hyper-real, and this is remarkable given her urban upbringing. The Essex that she captures is lush and peaceful, but also prone to soul-dampening heavy rains and mists, piercing winds and tedious winters, when the only bright spot is a trip to the marshes to see the wild birds. There are occasional eye-watering attempts at authentic Essex dialect, for which, Gibbons endearingly admits, she had to rely on Mr H Cranmer-Byng's Dialect and Songs of Essex and Essex Speech and Humour.
Nightingale Wood taxes the grey matter only occasionally, but it certainly exercises the reader's empathetic powers in its depiction of the stifling interwar female predicament. It is, perhaps inevitably, a woman's novel first and foremost; for those brought up on Cinderella, it suggests that fairy tales can come true, and that a ball (of course there is a ball) and the perfect evening dress can be instrumental to their realisation. For readers who enjoy women's writing of a certain vintage, here is a novel that would fit snugly on your bookshelf between The Pursuit of Love and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. --Isabel Taylor