They walked to Saint James’s through streets parked with pale blue, scarlet or pink cars, like a mechanized age’s version of the spring flowers. Such owners as had not started early for the coast were busy with hose and oil and rags, tending their treasures. Erika’s thoughts were vaguely occupied by the new coat and hat she wore, Easter presents from Mrs Pearson. Gladys marched them up to her usual seat, nice and near the front where they could see and hear all that was going on, and proceeded to instruct her charge; kneeling, clasping her hands and covering her closed eyes, praying. ‘How what you mean, Glad, praying?’ breathed Erika, looking sideways at her mentor under the coquettish hat with floating ribbons. ‘Praying – good gracious, don’t you know what that is? – here, where’s the Ourfather –’ Gladys grabbed at the prayer-book and pointed with a black-gloved finger. ‘Read it. Then shut your eyes and say it, girl.’ Erika bent her head and tried to do what she was told…
She was fully occupied with balancing her hat on top of her head and in admiring the church’s festal white and gold, and the many flowers. Erika cautiously settled the hat, looking unseeingly at the ladies moving slowly ahead of her. Her face was beginning to fill out; a pear-shaped German face with white large cheeks and a narrow brow and small eyes blue as flax. That hat, thought Gladys, kind of comical on her. But looks all right, somehow. Wish she could get a bit of colour in her face…
Erika looked up from under the hat brim, flat as a plate, and smiled. Her scarlet ribbons fluttered slightly in the spring wind.
observations: Starlight follows roughly the course of a church year, with stops off at Christmas and Easter: there is an uneasy relation with religion throughout it. The book is set, you would guess, sometime after the second world war – not as late as the publication date of 1967. Erika is a refugee, a displaced person, quite possibly Jewish, working as an au pair/companion for the rich Mrs Pearson. Mr Pearson is what Gladys (his tenant) calls a rackman: ie a terrifying slum landlord. (A Rachmanesque figure appears in Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, and the journalist and interviewer Lynn Barber knew the original Rachman, and wrote about him in her book An Education, subsequently turned into a film.)
Mrs Pearson is living in one of his properties: a pair of connected cottages she shares with the elderly Gladys and her sister Annie. (I have to say, I didn’t at all understand the layout of the two cottages and how they linked up, even though it is quite important to the plot.) Her husband isn’t there most of the time. Her daughter lives with another older rich woman, and is her companion. There is a random tenant upstairs, an older man who changes his name every month and would be called special needs these days.
The local vicar and curate become involved with all these people, just as if this were a Barbara Pym book: there’s a good moment when a parishioner is expressing her long-winded ‘doubts’ to the vicar and he asks if she is going to become RC:
‘Are you thinking of “going over”?’ Mr Geddes experienced some satisfaction at the thought. Let her try on this kind of thing with a Roman Catholic priest and see what she got.But this is a lot more gritty and sordid than a Pym book, and the area is described as a slum. But there is goodness in the story: Gladys, above, would be an immensely annoying character – her incomprehensible mode of speech would drive you mad – but she is kind to Erika. Meanwhile, Mrs Pearson helps Annie, and most of the characters are helped by someone else.
It’s a most unexpected book: if I read it blind I would never have guessed it was Stella Gibbons. It is funny at times, but is also quite disturbing and disquieting, and in the end goes in a quite shocking and unlikely direction. The book it reminded me of most was – improbably - Hilary Mantel’s strange book of modern London, Beyond Black. It’s as if the satire of Cold Comfort Farm has become real. There is an unattributed epigraph: ‘The fated people – the worshippers and poets, the magicians and lovers – who live by the light of the stars.’ But that didn’t convince me – ‘Starlight’ is a most unsuitable name for the book.
The top picture is from the US magazine Ladies Home Journal, in the 1940s. The second one is from Kristine’s photostream.