Original date of publication: 1946
My edition: 2011 (Vintage)
Why I decided to read: though it would be a good vacation/plane read
How I acquired my copy: Waterstone’s, Piccadilly, September 2011
I’m usually hit or miss with Stella Gibbons’s novels. I was on the fence about her most famous novel, Cold Comfort Farm; but I loved Nightingale Wood. Westwood falls into the Nightingale Wood category, happily.
Set in London in the midst of WWII, Westwood is the story of Margaret Steggles, a romantically-minded young woman who, after finding a ration book belonging to one Hebe Niland, becomes entangled with the family who live at Westwood, primarily among them Gerard Challis, a middle-aged playwright at work on what he believes is his masterpiece. Then there’s his daughter, Hebe; her husband, Alex; and their three children. A variety of other characters round out the cast, including Margaret’s cheerful old school friend Hilda, who never takes anything seriously; and Dick, a friend of Margaret’s father.
Stella Gibbons is incredibly adept at describing her characters without explicitly saying so. For example, we know that Gerard Challis is an incredibly hypocritical man because he describes his wife as dated; yet he assumes that Hilda is a reader of the novels of Ethel M. Dell, a writer popular 15-20 years prior to the setting of the novel. He’s literally the kind of man who doesn’t like children or puppies; so you can see why he’s such an unlikeable character. He also doesn’t have much of a sense of humor; Hilda’s sarcasm goes completely over his head. I even think that Margaret takes herself and her ideals too seriously; and we’re never sure if she’s really in love with Gerard Challis, or if she’s just in love with the ideal he represents (and in the end, I got the feeling that the Niland/Challis family just used her as a glorified babysitter). As a result, the characters that take themselves the most seriously are the ones that Stella Gibbons subtly pokes fun at; and therein lies the comedy of this novel.
The world these characters live in is very insulated too; but I think that Stella Gibbons did that intentionally. For example, there’s no mention of what was going on in the outside world at the time. But maybe Gibbons did that in order to preserve the comedy of the novel (exclusion of the outside world was a common theme in WWII literature, mostly because people wanted to forget about reality when they read a novel such as this one). In all, Westwood is one of the better books I’ve read this year.