As you know, Cold Comfort Farm is one of my favourite novels, and I have always wanted to be able to emulate it’s heroine Flora Poste.
It’s author, Stella Gibbons, also wrote twenty five other novels, as well as collections of short stories and poetry. Sadly, these were all overshadowed by her masterpiece, and remained out of print for year, until Vintage decided to re-release them this summer. Westwood, published in 1946, is the one that has got the most press, being reviewed most enthusiastically in The Observer . Released with an introduction by Lynne Truss, I resisted it’s charms until last week, when I promptly forgot about that and spent the last of my pennies on a new book (Bad Jess, second time this summer, no points for you).
The story of Margaret Steggles, a teacher who moves with her warring, unhappy parents to Highgate during the Second World War and promptly falls in love with a local writer and his set, this book explores what it is to be plain in a world that favours the pretty; intelligent and interested in the world of the (often irritating) intelligentsia.
Twenty three, plain and bookish, Margaret is described as having ‘minor beauties not enough in themselves to make a woman attractive’. Obsessed with poetry, music, drama, and art, she dreams of a life of elegance such as she has never seen in her suburban home, with her socially hesitant, downtrodden mother and her philandering journalist father. Her best friend, Hilda, with ‘the face of a nymph but the soul of a typist’ (one of my favourite lines in the book) is a wonderful mix of Lydia Bennet and Prue from The Land Girls; living her life for fun and Sunday night parties with ‘her boys’, and never a thought to the Higher Arts: she describes the Mona Lisa as ‘that fat pan’.
When Margaret returns a lost ration book she finds on Hamstead Heath, she enters the world of it’s owner, the awful Hebe Niland, daughter of the even more awful Gerard Challis; writer, and possibly one of the greatest written misogynists I’ve ever encountered. Challis hates all women apart from the ones he creates in his plays, fake beautiful things that live in emotional bubbles and destroy the lives of everyone around them through their loveliness. Real women, according to Gerard are ‘noisy sweaty things’, ‘shrews’ that are ‘always plotting’, annoyingly having children and expecting his input with them, and disturbing his great unparalleled genius. Gerard requires nothing more from his young lovers than spiritual substance, for them to worship at his feet and look at him longingly whilst he does the same to them, then goes to home to his sensible upper-class brick of a wife and writes a play about them.
Of course Margaret falls in love with Gerard, and in fact his entire family and home, the ‘Westwood’ of the title. Despite being treated appallingly by them (they foist their small children onto her to look after for the day without warning, they give her cruel nicknames and mock her for clearly being in love with Gerard) she keeps on coming back for more, seeing Westwood as the home of all finery and beauty.
Margaret is a complex character that I at once had great empathy with, but also dispised for her weakness. She learns throughout the course of the book very little about herself, she knows not to not fall for false gods, but does not recognise the character flaws in herself that have allowed her to do so in the first place. This is a novel about accepting one’s fate rather that changing it.
Margaret acquaints herself with the Challis’ refugee housekeeper, the pouting, difficult Zita, who accuses Margaret when no contact is made for two weeks of being cross with her, thus making Margaret feel guilty and put more effort into a friendship founded on possessive selfishness than having anything in common. Although Margaret despairs of the friendship, and finds Zita tiring and irksome, she continues with it because Zita means access to the Chalisses, and Gerard. This using of someone, no matter how difficult and selfish a person, jarred with me. But by having Margaret as so flawed a character I was able to empathise with her more-unlike the saintly Anne Elliot who is aware of her flaws and is a good friend to many and who therefore I want to be, rather than believe I am like.
As Margaret’s relationship with Westwood becomes more intense, she also has to cope with issues in her professional life-doubting her vocation in teaching (she eventually decides that she has to teach because ‘if I can’t teach them not to worship false gods, I can at least teach them how to add up their change quickly in shops and the geography of the British Isles, and I will’, possibly my second favourite line in the book- almost on a parr with Sarah Burton’s ‘I was meant to be a spinster and by God I’m going to spin’. In fact, Margaret could be a Young Sarah, and if you enjoyed South Riding I would definitely recommend giving Westwood a go).
Margaret also forms a friendship, initially as a deflection of her mother’s almost comical rudeness at a party, with a young single father Dick Fletcher, whose daughter Linda has learning difficulties and disabilities. This leads me to one of my main problems with the book. It was written in 1946, a different world I know, with different standards and thought patterns relating to how we think of others. But that never excuses for me racism, or ablism. Having Linda described as ‘looking like a Japanese’ massively jarred, and made me very very angry with the book, spoiling an otherwise perfect narrative structure. This is why I’m four, rather than five-starring it, as I do with all books that discriminate, or excuse discrimination, but are in all other ways a masterpiece. I wouldn’t do it for The Woman’s Room, I wouldn’t do it for Gone With The Wind and I won’t do it for this.
Dick and Linda live in a house also called Westwood, and Margaret for a time helps Dick out when his normal babysitter is injured in the Blitz. Margaret begins to fancy herself in love with Dick, a good, kind, unpretentious man, and for a time it seems as if redemption is on hand. But no, once again the main message of the novel shines through and Dick, after kissing Margaret passionately, becomes engaged to the pretty housekeeper.
By this point you’re almost groaning for Margaret-why can’t she just do an Anne and become more attractive over the course of 200 pages? But this isn’t Persuasion, this is real life, and one by one her potential suitors callously leave her for women with pretty faces who wear bright soft clothes, rather than ‘plain women making the best of themselves’ like Margaret.
This point is even more cruelly emphasised by the subplot involving Hilda. Coming home on a packed tube, she meets Gerard Challis, who falls in love with her beauty and supposedly classical-goddess like nature, even though she gives him no hints of this and hilariously brushes off all references to mythology with a ‘here we go again…’. Gerard, because of his unwillingness to see women as people, ignores her true, good, character completely and instead writes a play based on the one he has created in his head for her. This plan to win Hilda’s (or Daphne as he prefers to call her; there is something more Humbert that Humbert Humbert about Gerard) affections hideously back fires when he describes the play to her as if a friend of his has written it and she quips ‘why on Earth would he want to write that?’. Thankfully, this affair-that-never-was comes to a dramatic end when Gerard’s true character is discovered by all concerned (apart from his wife, who knew all along) and Hilda declares him ‘nothing more than a dirty old man’.
The book made me laugh out loud several times, but weep desperately at the end. It really has come as a bit of a wake up call that there is absolutely no point frittering away your life on a romantic, unrealistic ideal. Unrequited love may get you through the day, but in the end you are wasting your time on something that is hurting you. As Margaret comes to realise, ‘flowers and solitude and Nature never fail one, they ask nothing and are eternally comforting’. I might have that done as a sampler above my bed and repeat it several times a day.
The novel’s main message is one of realism over romantic fantasy; eyes don’t meet across a crowed room: you are never going to walk down a staircase and have your hero look up at you in wonder: men want pretty women: Captain Wentworth isn’t coming back. And maybe, just maybe, some women, like me, need to realise that.