Westwood by Stella Gibbons

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When Vintage republished a large proportion of Stella Gibbons’ back catalogue a couple of years ago, I was delighted. I’d read and loved the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm as a teenager, but it was impossible to get hold of any more of her novels and I was very keen to try more. Vintage’s jazzy, retro cover designs promised fun and plenty of 1930s period detail, and I snapped up Westwood as soon as it came out. Obviously because I am a book hoarder, it has taken me two years to get to it, and I was quite surprised by what I found. Westwood couldn’t be further from Cold Comfort Farm: rather than arriving in the depths of the countryside, I was transported to wartime London, and the world of a troubled young woman with a heart full of desire.

Margaret Steggles is a twenty something teacher living in Highgate with her unhappily married parents during WWII. She is earnest and romantic, and longs for a life more exciting than the dull and often disappointing one she lives. Plain and unattractive to men, as her unsympathetic mother often tells her, she despairs of finding the joy and happiness her idealistic and sentimental soul seeks through its love of music, literature and art. She is mocked for her seriousness by her pretty, free spirited and fun loving best friend Hilda, who has a queue of boys outside her front door and is batting off proposals like flies. Margaret, however, can’t help but feel things too deeply, and she can’t face life with the unquestioning and simplistic viewpoint Hilda adopts. Desperate for something more than the miserable existence of her parents, Margaret tries to channel her energies into teaching her students, but this just isn’t enough. She longs for adventure, for glamour, for excitement…but where can someone like her find such things?

On Hampstead Heath, it would transpire. For, one misty afternoon, while enjoying a walk over the Heath, Margaret happens to find a lost ration book belonging to Alexander Niland, a famous young painter who Margaret much admires. Full of all sorts of fantasies of what might happen when she meets him, Margaret goes to his house to deliver the ration book, but finds only his pretty and capricious young wife Hebe at home, who then promptly leaves for a party, asking Margaret to stay and babysit the children. She is relieved by Grantey, Hebe’s mother’s maid, who then asks Margaret to come and have tea with her at Westwood, Hebe’s parents’ mansion in Highgate.

This unlikely event causes Margaret to become drawn into the world of the Nilands and the Challises, Hebe’s parents, who happen to be famous playwright Gerald Challis and his celebrated beauty of a wife. Margaret admires Gerald’s work enormously and can hardly bear to be in the same room as him, so great is her awe. She cannot believe her luck at being welcomed into the Challis’ home, and when she becomes firm friends with their eccentric Jewish emigre maid, Zita, a whole new world of colour, culture and vibrancy is opened to her. Margaret begins to neglect her former life entirely, dropping everything to spend as much time at Westwood as possible, which seems to her the epitome of the life she has always dreamed of. However, the arrogant and philandering Gerald is not as perfect as he seems, and neither are Hebe and Alexander. The more time Margaret spends at Westwood, the more she realises that this world she always longed to be a part of might not be an idyll after all…

This is an absolute doorstop of a book, at around 500 pages, and there are so many sub plots involving a whole maze of characters that it would take me far too long to unpick and explain them all. However, Margaret is at the centre of it all, and it is her journey from ingenue to experienced woman of the world that provides the narrative arc throughout, and she is a fascinating and highly empathetic character to follow. Gibbons is marvellous at character portraits, and the world of the Nilands and the Challises in all of its arrogance and eccentricity is marvellously drawn. The real star of the show however is London, which is beautifully and atmospherically described amidst the background of the Blitz. I loved the focus on my old stomping grounds of Hampstead and Highgate, and Gibbons manages to capture the unique charms of these two neighbourhoods perfectly. Her opening description of a mistily autumnal Hampstead has to be one of the finest depictions of London I’ve ever read.

Westwood is not a perfect novel; it is over long, over complicated, and contains some very questionable morals, especially considering the context of when it was written. It is no Cold Comfort Farm, though it is certainly very funny, and while entertaining and enjoyable, it lacks the gravitas it could have had were it a little more focused. I was pleased to read it and experience a different side to Gibbons, but I’m not sure if I feel particularly compelled to read more. Was she a one hit wonder? I’d be interested to hear other people’s opinions of her back catalogue!

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14 comments

  1. I’ve read a lot of the reissued Stella Gibbons now – Westwood I did enjoy a lot, but share your reservations. Starlight is a very strange novel but really evocative of time and place, and I enjoy novels where supernatural elements appear unexpectedly! I have also read Here be Dragons, The Matchmaker, The Batchelor and My American, and while I don’t think I have enjoyed any of her other novels so far as much as Cold Comfort Farm, I do think that her other novels are worth reading, as much for their depiction of a way of life now gone.

    1. I think they’re probably books for a certain mood…I did enjoy Westwood, and it was a real curl up in a ball and just enjoy yourself sort of read. So I shall probably try another of hers when I need a break from life for a while! Thank you for encouraging me to keep giving her a go!

  2. What an interesting, well wrought review, Rachel. I think I might appreciate Westwood for it’s period interests and it does sound like a compelling read. I must admit that I am drawn in by the new cover.

    I meant to comment on your previous post, but, time got away from me. So, just let me say that I think the world, and your lovely island, are a better place with you as a teacher in it. :)

  3. I have a soft spot for Westwood as it was the first Stella Gibbons novel I ever read, having avoided all attempts to be persuaded to read Cold Comfort Farm (although I have now read, and loved, which just shows what fatheads 18 year olds are.)
    My favourite of her novels is Nightingale Wood, it is what I think of as a sophisticated fairytale – it does give in to a reasonable amount of romance cliches but I hardly cared, I enjoyed it so much. Possibly it holds a place in my heart as the character Saxon is one of my favourite literary crushes :)

    1. That’s the one that’s not been republished by Vintage – I was trying to remember what it was called, so thank you Lizzie! I shall definitely try that one out – it sounds marvellous!

  4. Thank you for this review but I’m left undecided about whether it would be a good gift for a friend who lived, and loved living, in Hampstead and has now moved away. Any thoughts? Happy Holidays x

  5. So far I’ve read Nightingale Wood, Here Be Dragons, Westwood and My American. They have all been lovely reads to sink into a chair with and I expect nothing less with The Rich House which is on my tbr pile. I think of books like these as perfect gear shifters between more challenging reads or when switching genres. So not a one-hit wonder with me!
    Doesn’t Vintage do such an extraordinary job when it comes to cover art?

    1. Well, Darlene, you have convinced me that I need to be peristent, but also save Stella for when I’m in the mood for a comfort read. Expecting Cold Comfort Farm again and again will only lead to disappointment! Yes they do – I don’t normally prefer paperbacks over original hardbacks but in this case I definitely will be sticking with the Vintage editions!

  6. I can’t speak to her being a one-hit wonder or not, but I quite enjoyed Nightingale Wood. That’s the only other one of hers I’ve read so far though, and it was definitely not as good as Cold Comfort Farm. It was much shorter than Westwood appears to be. :p

  7. Like you, I loved Cold Comfort and was quite drawn to the re-issuances of Gibbons’ other novels, snapping up several of them after they became available (that wonderful cover art would have done it, if nothing else!). Alas, I’ve not yet read a single one! Thanks for the excellent review–based on it and the various comments, I’ll save Westwood for one of those great rainy days when I’m in a certain mood.

  8. I have the same worry about her being a one hit wonder- the only other Stella Gibbons I’ve read is Starlight, and while I did warm to it by the end I definitely didn’t love it as much as Cold Comfort Farm! It felt quite strange- but maybe I was just disoriented by my expectations.

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