Stella Gibbons has the reputation of being a one-hit wonder – Cold Comfort Farm both immortalised her name but also overshadowed everything else she ever wrote. A few years ago Vintage decided that this was terribly unfair and decided to re-issue her back catalogue. I had a go at Westwood given that Lynne Truss claimed that it was the Persuasion to Cold Comfort‘s Pride and Prejudice but alas I found it a bit grim – at the time I was still living with my parents and found a few too many parallels with the unfortunate Margaret. I might feel differently now. Still, I have been determined to try again and with Starlight I have finally succeeded. Ten years after I first fell in love with Cold Comfort Farm, I repeated the experience with this novel – the perfect autumnal read. Recently I read Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter and while that one had similarly stunning moments of description, in Starlight Gibbons manages to far more effectively stage a Gothic novel within the domestic sphere. This is a spooky story rooted firmly in a world that is all too real – a world of soggy afternoons and muddy lanes leading to beaten-down houses. The Gothic meets the mundane, the flesh creeps but then we shudder and we go back to normal.
We the reader are bystanders to the action, we see more or less through the eyes of Gladys Barnes, an elderly lady living with her fellow-spinster sister Annie in a run-down cottage in Highgate. Gladys jammers fairly constantly, meaning that her fellow-characters battle on just as the reader does to catch the thread of what on earth she might be talking about. She reminded me of those Shakespearean characters who often opened second or third Acts and only ever spoke in prose – you really have to pay attention to understand what is being said. Gladys and Annie once knew better times, they were born in the countryside and now have to face the horror of a new landlord who is known to be a dreaded ‘rackman’. They and their eccentric but gently-mannered upstairs neighbour are on tenter-hooks over what might become of them under the new regime, even seeking advice from the vicar Mr Geddes and his curate. In any event, the landlord’s daughter drops round to inform them that all will be well but that the cottages will be done up for the landlord’s invalid wife Mrs Pearson to move into, the hope being that living in this area will aid her recovery.
Mr Pearson never quite seems as dark as he has been painted – his origins are clouded, he comes from ‘the sloms of Tashkent’ and he is a coarse man but he is devoted to his wife to the point of obsession, creating a pink and gold sanctum for her in Lily Cottage. He is determined that she be well, she has no complaints against him as a husband, reminiscing to her daughter Peggy about their idyllic early married life in Tashkent when storks roosted on the roof. Aged only eighteen, Mrs Pearson had giggled that it must mean a baby would come and her husband had assured her that he would see to it. Peggy wants to know the source of her mother’s malady but it is shrouded in a mystery; Mrs Pearson had been a medium and her ailment seems to stem from that. The Pearsons seem so very nearly normal – Peggy works as a companion-cum-dogsitter and appears to have a Dark Secret but it turns out to be utterly mundane. Yet when Mr Pearson gives his wife Erika as an au pair, Mrs Pearson exclaims in delight that she has always wanted a daughter.
It is strange to compare Starlight to Cold Comfort; the latter is a hilarious pastiche that borders on the surreal yet remains firmly planted in the natural world. Starlight appears to be a comedy of manners observing the different classes converging on each other – on the ground floor we have the well-off Mrs Pearson in her pink and gold rooms with her schatz Erika, then there is the working class Gladys and Annie and up in the attic the elderly and eccentric Mr Fisher who barely scratches a living. We also have the ‘educated man’ Mr Geddes, the ‘rough diamond’ Mr Pearson and the vapid new-money Mrs Lysaght – but Starlight is far, far away from Barbara Pym territory. It seems impossible that this is going to be a supernatural tale, there is far too much domestic detail … but yet, we begin to recognise that something unsettling lurks within Mrs Pearson, something that got into her all those years ago and which she has never been quite able to shake off. Mrs Pearson hates the sound of the church bells, we are repeatedly reminded by Gibbons how strange the phrase is when Mrs Pearson remarks that she wishes to ‘touch the pavements with my feet’. There is a sense of a darkness gathering and we begin to see more clearly the ‘thing’ behind Mrs Pearson’s eyes.
While another writer might ramp up the horror, Stella Gibbons does just the opposite. As well as pondering what might be going on in Lily Cottage, the vicar Mr Geddes considers at length whether or not he can justify inviting his mother to come keep house for him and the curate. When she finally arrives, she sweeps around the house claiming the territory for her own, throwing the cat out of the kitchen to its own space at the bottom of the garden. The cat much prefers this arrangement and develops a passionate adoration for Mrs Geddes, spending much of its time gazing at her and demanding to be stroked, prompting her to repeatedly mutter how much she dislikes cats and occasionally condescend to ‘manipulate’ the fur round its ears – Gibbons assures us that nobody could call it stroking. Gibbon’s eye for observation is as razor sharp here as it ever was in Cold Comfort – we can tell we are in the same hands but the direction we are moving in is quite different.
It was always clear that Gibbons has very little truck with affectation. She has a real knack for creating characters for whom the reader can feel a real contempt. In Cold Comfort there was Mr Mybug who kept telling Flora that she was repressed while she politely sat there, bored rigid. Much of the humour in Westwood comes at the expense of Gerald Challis, a fabulously pompous writer who was in fact based on a real person. Here, the villain really is Mrs Lysaght, the foolish woman fixated on having a ‘sitting’ with Mrs Pearson, on passing on the gossip in as cruel a manner as possible. Gibbons does not suffer fools gladly and she always gives these characters the ultimate humiliation. Even before the grand finale though, Mr Geddes had unleashed the Polite Wrath of the Church of England when Mrs Lysaght vaguely pronounced that she was leaving the church as it was ‘too narrow’ and going to try her hand at meditating. It is so rare to read such a passionate defence of the church and it has become so easy to make the Anglican Church an effortless punchline that Starlight becomes a double treat – here Mr Geddes and curate are all that can save the residents from the grasping evil.
On page 193, Gibbons notes that spring has arrived, ‘There were blue sky and warm sun and silver catkins and golden daffodils to be thankful for, as well as the alleged return from the dead of a gifted teacher with a messiah complex’. Yet despite this flippant remark, there is a conviction behind Gibbons’ words against Mrs Lysaght, we see the author’s true derision for people who dismiss Christianity as ‘narrow’ and ‘out-dated’ when they have no clear idea how to replace it, her contempt for those who do not see that the ‘narrow path’ was one set down by Jesus. More importantly though, Gibbons points out that only airheads like Mrs Lysaght with nothing better to do would ever come up with something so half-baked in the first place. The rest of us lead busy lives and are too occupied with our own affairs.
Gibbons never dwells on the horror that is happening in her novel. The characters seem to be unsurprised when the kindly Mr Fisher is suddenly wiped out in a senseless act of violence – it is never explained or even questioned. Mr Fisher, who changed his name every month, who was silently but passionately anti-war, who saw to the truth of things and tried to do the right thing – in an ordinary novel, he is not a character who dies. The very unexpectedness of it adds to the shock. Similarly, when events in the cottages reach their crescendo, we arrive late at the scene, having travelled with Mr Geddes. Gladys has to anxiously explain what has happened – Mrs Lysaght has already fled in hysterics, desperate to find a taxi and everybody else is keen to bail out too. Gibbons never ever names the evil being that has entered the house – the manner of its banishment is exhausting yet again so understated.
We only hear the aftermath via Gladys and Annie yet I never felt cheated as I did upon finishing The Vet’s Daughter because Starlight has a stronger emphasis on the realism rather than the magic. Gibbons’ characters have a far greater bite than those drawn by Barbara Comyns – Gladys and Annie pick themselves up and chat vaguely about what has just happened but we sense that it will fade as an anecdote as they move on. This felt like a truly three-dimensional tale – oddly enough, it felt very real, the lurking darkness within Mrs Pearson a true threat. Never written to shock, Starlight is a tale for the fireside and embodies all that is great about British fictional traditions. It was a true pleasure to discover another fantastic novel by Stella Gibbons.
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Published by Hodder and Stoughton on 1967
Genres: 20th Century, Fiction, General, Ghost Story, Horror & Ghost Stories, Literary
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