Some years ago, I read Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm, and laughed my head off at this pointed skewering of the English Country Novel. But little did I know that Miss Gibbons had written quite a few novels, most of them looking at the eccentricities of English life, and poking a not-so-subtle needle at a grossly inflated balloon.
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The tale takes place in Chesterbourne, Essex, a little town where not too much happens, and is dominated by two families. In The Eagles, a gloomy home filled with relics, both human and wood, reside the Withers, a family ruled over by the sour Mr. Arthur Wither, his wife who is utterly devoted to his every need, and two daughters, Tina and Madge, who are also dying away in this bleak house. Tina wants something -- anything -- to change and bring back some life, and Madge just wants something to love. Such as a dog. Then there are the servants, three dried up maids, the cook, and Saxon, the chauffeur. Saxon, a local boy, is blond, handsome and wants to show all the Fatbottoms -- as he thinks of the local folks -- that he can be somebody. Given the nature of Chesterbourne, that's not too likely to happen.
Then there are the Springs, noveau riche, with a modern, up to date house and heaps of money, where Victor Spring, local Prince Charming, and man about London, lives with his cousin, Hetty, and his mother Mrs. Spring. Lately Victor has fallen into the clutches of Phyl, a brittle socialite who feels that she'd be just dandy as the next Mrs. Spring, and has been maneuvering Victor to that conclusion with precise moves.
But everything is about to change when Viola Wither, the daughter-in-law of the Withers, and recently widowed, arrives in town. She used to be a local shopkeeper's daughter, but was swept away by Ted Wither, Mr. Wither's only son to a life in London, and middle-class existence. It should have been every girl's dream, but Ted died off quickly, and Viola was left with hardly a penny. Graciously, the Withers have opened their doors to her, and Mr. Wither is rubbing his hands gleefully over taking over Viola's life -- and of course the money that her father and Ted left her. Bad news is, there isn't any. Money that is.
And so beginning with quite a few disappointments, this lovely, absurd tale lurches into motion. There are several notable secondary characters, chief among them, The Hermit, a nasty, ratty, drunk squatter in the woods that separate the two great houses, and who seems to be underfoot continually. A Sealyham terrier named Polo, that I found adorable. And then, there are the various emotional entanglements.
I won't spoil the story by saying who gets mixed up with who, but I found this to a wicked little tale that uses a Cinderella motif, but has it all twisted and turned about in very different ways. There are a grand party, snide remarks, a look at English life in the late 1930's and plenty of very believable events. The story is not all fun and games either, and the author was wise enough to mix in just enough sadness and tragedy to make the good bits all the more sharp.
I had tearing great fun with this one, and enjoyed it immensely. The tone of it is fairly light, but with some serious undertones. The language has plenty of slang from 1930's England, but nothing too difficult to sort out. The writing is lively, and the funny moments come quick and often, and while you may not like some of the characters, their antics will certainly make you smile.
In addition to the story itself, there is an introduction by Sophie Dahl, which is a great little bit to lead the reader on into the novel, and shouldn't be skipped over.
All in all, this one gets a hearty recommendation, especially if you enjoy English novels, and four stars from me. It might not be as brilliant as Cold Comfort Farm, but it's no slouch, either. I hope that more of Miss Gibbons' work will be reprinted in the future, her novels are just too much fun to miss.
1938, 2009; Penguin Group (USA), Inc.