I first read Cold Comfort Farm aged sixteen and fell in love. It was hilarious. Instantly, it became one of my all-time favourite books. I noted vaguely that Stella Gibbons had written a number of other novels back in her day but that they were all out of print. This was unfortunate but otherwise of little interest. Flash forward ten years and they started to be republished. I was delighted, expecting more Starkadder shenanigans. But no. Westwood was incredibly depressing. I could not complete it. While Starlight was a Gothic wonder, I felt similarly let down by The Yellow Houses and The Matchmaker. I wondered, could it be that there was – horrors – a reason why Cold Comfort was the only one of Gibbons’ books to have remained popular for all these years? Fearing another disappointment, I approached Nightingale Wood cautiously but within the first few pages, I was breathing a sigh of relief. As Sophie Dahl describes in the introduction, this is one of those rare books which is ‘an unadulterated delight’.
Stella Gibbons set out in 1938 to write a version of the Cinderella fairytale which was ‘right up to date’. For the modern reader however, it has become instead an enchanting period piece. The story revolves around Viola, 21 years old, newly widowed and cajoled into going to live with her in-laws. The Withers are a buttoned-up and repressed middle class family consisting of money-obsessed Mr Wither, spiritless and dispirited Mrs Wither and their two middle-aged spinster daughters, Madge (wants a dog) and Tina (wants the chauffeur). None of the Withers were every very convinced by son Theodore’s choice of Viola as bride; she was so much younger than he and a common shop-girl to boot.
Truth be told, not even Viola had been particularly keen but with no other prospects on the horizon, she was persuaded into saying yes and not entirely grief-stricken when he died a year later. In having Viola come to live with them, the Withers felt dutiful and Mr Wither had high hopes of getting his hands on his son’s money. To his horror, there turns out to be no money to be had. Nearby but a world away are the Spring family, revolving around Victor Spring, the local Prince Charming, his uppity mother and his unhappy cousin Hetty. Poor Hetty loathes their social butterfly lifestyle and longs for her twenty-first birthday so she can throw it all in and go to live in a garret. Flitting in and out is the fantastically ghastly Phyllis, Victor’s unofficial fiancee and all round Bright Young Thing.
It would have been very easy for the story to centre on Viola meeting Victor, following the standard boy-meets-girl trope. Viola has pined after Victor from afar (far afar) since her shop-girl days, but never with any expectation of actually speaking to him, let alone becoming acquainted. However, Gibbons shows early on that she is taking her Cinderella in her own direction and not afraid to poke some holes in the illusion. Her version of the story emphasises the contemporary social barriers enforced by class divisions, snobbery and gender inequality. Even when Viola and Victor dance together at the Infirmary Ball, it is not so simple as love-at-first-sight. Victor’s intentions are not necessarily honorable, since Viola has a past which makes her ineligible as a bride but which just might make her fair game for a seduction: ‘Yes..of course, she was a widow. He had forgotten that. She looked the very image of innocence, she talked like a schoolgirl, but widows were not innocent. However young and simple a widow might seem, you could not get away from the fact that widows, presumably, were not…Well this girl was actually more experienced than old Phyl‘. This Prince Charming is not quite the gentleman.
Gibbons makes her point further however through her strong supporting cast. There is Madge who is about to reach forty and still cannot get her parents’ permission to get a dog. The scene where, despite being known for ‘not howling’, she nonetheless breaks down and cries while begging for one is truly pathetic. Then we have thirty-five year old Tina who lusts after Saxon the chauffeur despite him being from an utterly inappropriate social class and twelve years her junior to boot. Madge and Tina both fulfill the Ugly Stepsister (or sister-in-law) role within the story but Gibbons makes it clear how powerless they are as unmarried women, still having to go cap in hand to their miserly father. For them as for the unworldly Viola, there is no obvious escape. Gibbons captures the mindless boredom of the bourgeois female with merciless accuracy; Viola returns to the Withers’ home thinking ‘I wish I was dead. Well, not exactly dead, but I wish I was a nun or something, or something simply marvellous would happen tomorrow.’ All she seemingly has ahead of her are more days and days and days of the same.
Even Hetty Spring, apparently in a far livelier household, is unable to make her own choices. She reads voraciously, hates parties and is mocked and infuriated by Victor’s mean fiancee Phyllis. By contrast, she finds the gloom of the Withers’ house strangely appealing. Further down the social scale, Viola returns to visit the shop where she once worked (and which her late Shakespeare-loving father once part-owned) and frets as she realises that her elderly erstwhile supervisor is very probably going to get the sack, with no income at all to fall back upon. As Viola’s best friend Shirley points out tartly, for 1930s women, things may have moved forward but despite ‘Vote, Marie [Stopes], perms, and all, we can’t do anything.‘
Biting observations have always been a key Gibbons trademark and Nightingale Wood is no exception. Where other authors can easily jar the narrative by breaking the fourth wall, Gibbons always manages to do so with aplomb. The contrast between Cold Comfort Farm and Nightingale Wood could hardly be more extreme; the former has an earthy setting transformed into absurdist farce while the latter is a fairytale made resolutely earthbound. Despite Gibbons’ determination to take her Cinderella story into the real world, she does still show a remarkable tenderness for her cast. Saxon the chauffeur sets out to make a quick buck from seducing Tina and blackmailing her father afterwards but is caught off guard by developing feelings of his own. Their love story forms the secondary plot and adds a greater depth and dimension to the novel as a whole. It would be too much to call this a feminist retelling but while one would expect a book following the Cinderella story to be predictable, Gibbons repeatedly defies stereotypes around class and gender and even age relations. She never dismisses or diminishes the obstacles that these divisions can form, but like the fairy godmother herself, she does allow her characters a means of overcoming them.
Nightingale Wood allowed me to remember how much I enjoy Gibbons as a writer. Even with her books that I have failed to connect with, there have always been passages that I had to go back over and reread because her gift for expression is truly unsurpassed. A particular favourite in Nightingale Wood was her description of how the bookish Hetty ”was eating, rather than reading, large slabs of a very thin book of contemporary verse each page having a thick wodge of print, without capital letters, starting at the top and running nearly to the bottom.‘ As a Cinderella retelling, Gibbons has taken the story in a slightly cynical direction, perhaps requiring the qualification ‘they lived happily enough ever after’ in its conclusion, but her version still has a wit and a sparkle all of its own. Clearly destined to be one of my comfort reads for the future, Nightingale Wood was pitch perfect from beginning to end.
Affiliate LinksBuy on Amazon.co.uk
Buy on Amazon.com
Buy on BookDepository.com
Buy from Foyles Books (UK)
Buy from Waterstones
Published by Hachette UK on February 17th 2011
Genres: Fiction, Classics
This post contains affiliate links which you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.