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September 21st, 2011

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10:53 am - Starlight
Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm in the 1930s. It is one of the most famous comic novels in English - like Northanger Abbey it is a spoof of a genre (in this case 'loam and lovechild' rural gothic) which it has outlived. Gibbons then had a long and moderately successful writing career, but like a lot of women writers most of her works are out of print. Some of her novels have recently been reissued by Vintage Classics. This is a review of Starlight, which was one of her last books, written in 1967.

It is set in London in the 1960s, but this is not Swinging London, this is the bomb-damaged London of unscrupulous slum landlord Peter Rachman. A violent gangster type buys up a dilapidated Victorian house in North London, and installs his wife on the ground floor, cared for by a German girl rescued from a refugee camp. Three very old working class people who are barely scraping by are his sitting tenants. It gradually appears that the wife is possessed by a demonic entity, which is linked somehow to the evil success of the landlord. The plucky tenants join forces with the much more high-brow local C of E vicar and curate to deal with this. There's also a romantic subplot about the landlord's headstrong daughter.

It's an interesting story, though possibly less incident-packed than that brief overview of the plot might suggest. Like Cold Comfort Farm the overall thrust of both plot and subplot is that the unimaginative and practical will win out over the hysterical and overwrought. Gibbons was a member of the CofE and the values which are central to this book are modesty, sensibility and moderation. This reminds me of Jane Austen and Olivia Manning, and like both of those there is also a cool streak of ruthlessness to season the mix.

I was also - though this might be because I am reading Unseen Academicals at the same time - reminded of Terry Pratchett. This is a comic novel, and the two main characters are plucky vulgar old ladies called Gladys and Annie, who remind me of the witches of Lancre, and the vicar an effete but well-meaning wizard.

Here's Gladys watching the downstairs tenant leave, evicted to make way for the landlord's wife.
'P'raps he'll let the downstairs to someone nice, now. Respectable. Not like her. That hair! Looked like that Awful Tower in Paris.' Young Mrs Simms hair, in Gladys' mind, condemned her more than the baby born four months after marriage; the baby at least, Gladys would say, was Natural.

What I enjoyed best about this book was it's picture of a lost working class life, in crowded accommodation, stretching out food to last an extra day, and full of vigour.

(6 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 11:01 am (UTC)
Fantastic rec. Thank you. I'll definitely make a point of getting hold of this.
[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 11:30 am (UTC)
It's only a middle-range book, but I think it's got historical interest as well as gentle and slightly ruthless humour.
[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 01:30 pm (UTC)
Im currently reading Westwood on my e-reader. Also fun.
[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 02:19 pm (UTC)
That sounded a bit sad from the review - the poor girl who wasn't beautiful, and how hard for a woman in those days. But I like the way she admires ruthless vigour and youthful energy.
[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 01:53 pm (UTC)
Oh gosh, thank you for this information! I've been vaguely wanting to read more non-Cold-Comfort-Farm Gibbons for three or four years, but had forgotten to keep checking whether it had come back into print.
[User Picture]
Date:September 21st, 2011 02:20 pm (UTC)
There are two or three out now. Not as world-class as Cold Comfort but worth a read I think. It's a shame how writers go out of style.

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