Thursday, 23 May 2013

Westwood by Stella Gibbons

published 1946   chapter 28








He turned to look at Hilda. She wore a thin blue silk dress that exactly matched her eyes, and carried a large white handbag. Her slender bare legs were expertly painted brown and on her small feet were white shoes. (We have described these objects from a masculine point of view; now, shifting our focus – or altering the Frame, as Professor Eddington might put it – we may say that the dress was of cheap rayon, and the shoes and handbag last year’s; but they were all fresh and in perfect order, and Hilda wore them with such calm confidence that the effect could hardly have been improved.)

‘I am lucky,’ he answered, smiling, and took her hand in his cool one.

‘You’re telling me. I put off ever so many things to come to your old Kew to-day.’



observations: Needs to be read with the earlier entry.

This time it’s Hilda, Margaret’s best friend, and a different kind of girl (as they were most definitely described) altogether. She has no difficulty attracting men, and is terribly happy in life. She doesn’t have Margaret’s restless searching attitude, or her general misery. Gibbons keeps changing her mind – is Hilda too down-market, or could Margaret learn a thing or two from her? To modern eyes, Hilda wins.

The book is full of contemporary details of wartime London – Hilda’s legs are painted because she has no stockings and she keeps not paying enough attention to her important admirer because she is commenting on other women’s stockings. Earlier Hilda speaks of Lyndoe, who was the first newspaper astrologer, and there are mentions of various other real but now-forgotten people of the era: Freddy Grisewood, Anne Duffield, Michael Arlen (not forgotten round here, of course), while Arthur Eddington was an astrophysicist with an interest in the philosophy of science. There is a precision: Margaret is making a blouse out of net, not chiffon, because net is unrationed while chiffon costs coupons.

There are pages of strange digressions, and Margaret only meets Gerald Challis – the alpha male of the family, and the would-be seducer above – a third of the way through. Challis is assumed to be based on the writer Charles Morgan, though I wonder if there is also a touch of the du Mauriers about the family –  Gerald, above, gives Hilda the nickname Daphne...

Elizabeth Bowen’s 1948 novel Heat of the Day is the key text on wartime London, and Gibbons is no Bowen. But Westwood, though rambling and occasionally irritating, makes you think you can imagine what it would be like to live through the petty irritations of civilian life in wartime London, feeling that the war should be giving you great opportunities, but worrying that your youth is wasting away. Poor Margaret.

One shocking detail in the book – Gibbons says:
nowadays it is not the done thing to give descriptions in novels of what women are wearing…

Clothes in Books is horrified at the idea, but fortunately it didn’t seem to take. 

Links on the blog: Stella Gibbons has featured a number of times - click on the label below.

The picture, again, is illustrating utility clothing for the Ministry of Information.

6 comments:

  1. Moira - Perish the thought of not describing people's clothes - well, at least to some extent. One of the things that strikes me is that even from your short description here I get the sense of time and place. That alone makes it sound worth reading. I've seen 'photos of that trick of painting one's legs to look like nylon stockings; how interesting it's described in the book.

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    1. I know - I think it's details like that that really give a book atmosphere. Plus, that contemporary feel - it's difficult for those writing historical novels to get that kind of thing quite right.

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  2. I love the dress with the slightly clumpy shoes. It reminds me a little of what Princess Margaret used to wear. I've never really got on with Stella Gibbons but it's interesting to read about her books through your posts.

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    1. Yes, Sarah, I see exactly what you mean, very much Princess Margaret. I do enjoy her books, in a very specific way, but she's not one of those writers I'd be saying 'No no, read her again, give her another chance' - I can completely understand why people don't like her.

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  3. How does this compare to Cold Comfort Farm? I was a big fan of that when I read it (at school, I think, so it must have been memorable!). I'm going to look out for a copy if only because my surname's Westwood.

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  4. Well Rich you should definitely read it - Westwood is the big and rather grand house lived in by the arty family, I feel you should have one too. I loved Cold Comfort Farm, and this is nothing like it, though good in its way, much more like a normal novel, not satirical and funny like CCF.

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