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!