Stella Gibbons wrote many books in the early 20th century, but is unfortunate to be known really for only one, the delightful and funny Cold Comfort Farm – a satire of the Rural Primitive school of fiction of the time (also satirised by Josephine Tey in her Alan Grant detective novels in the form of Silas Weekley’s books). Nightingale Wood is not as funny or fast-moving as Cold Comfort Farm, and the characters aren’t so deliciously odd, but there are many pleasures to be had from this novel, set in 1930s rural Essex.
The Wither family – repressive patriarch, quiet wife, mannish elder daughter Madge and girlish younger daughter Tina (both daughters are in their thirties) – are awaiting the arrival of Viola, widow of Theodore, son of the family. Viola is “not quite a lady” – a shop-girl, in fact – and has been left very badly off by Teddy’s recent demise. Mr Wither is indifferent to Viola’s presence, but pleasurably anticipates looking after her money for her; however, Tina hopes for a companion more like herself than elder sister Madge. It’s soon clear that the Wither women are endlessly diminished by Mr Wither’s sarcastic put-downs and essential smallness of mind – though he’s not physically coercive or intentionally cruel – and it’s through Viola’s arrival, though she doesn’t actively do anything, unlike Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, that things begin to change for the better at ‘The Eagles’.
Across the valley lies another house, entirely different: ‘Grassmere’, the home of Victor Spring, who is young, charming and rich. The young women of Chesterbourne, Viola among them, have all day-dreamed about marrying Victor, but he is quite happy to flirt and charm, without seriously considering marriage.
In a way, Nightingale Wood is a Cinderella story, with Viola as Cinderella – though Madge and Tina are sympathetic characters – and Victor as Prince Charming – though his intentions towards Viola, when he first encounters her, are not strictly honourable. But it’s more than that. Gibbons generates considerable sympathy for her other characters, such that even Mr Wither achieves a kind of affection, and her account of Tina’s romance with Saxon Caker, the Withers’ beautiful chauffeur, is touching and realistic. Hetty, Victor’s cousin, is also dissatisfied with her life of pleasure and luxury – she’s more interested in books, and seeks drama and real feelings in her own life than the rather shallow world her aunt espouses.
“The house and grounds had that feeling (delightful or not so delightful; that depends on whether one likes parties) of moving a little faster than other places, as though it were always upon the brink of a party. This was because cheerful, though permissible, noises sounded through the parquet-floored corridors and the luxurious rooms that did not contain a single book. A pretty maid steered the Hoover across a carpet (Mrs Spring hated plain maids; they depressed her), a burst of gay music came from a wireless that was being overhauled in readiness for next weekend’s party, a young gardener whistled as he worked, or Mrs Spring sat before her pianola playing the Handkerchief Dance. The telephone rang every half-hour or so. Vans from Harrods, from Fortnum and Mason and Cartier, came up to the house, and out of them came plain, wickedly expensive-looking parcels that were carried triumphantly indoors. These were for Mrs Spring, whose hobby was shopping.”
The antagonists are, naturally, Mr Wither, but there’s a lovely character, Phyllis Barlow, introduced as Victor’s fiancée, but who will be, we discover, entirely the wrong kind of wife for Victor. She’s nicely bitchy and stands up to Victor in a way that no-one else seems to be able to, but she gets on very badly with Hetty and later finds Victor unbearably irritating. However, Gibbons treats all her characters with a degree of detachment, presenting both their flaws and their strengths to the reader. The only character I actually disliked – ‘The Hermit’ (Dick Falger), who is a promiscuous old waster of a man, battening on former female conquests – did have some joie-de-vive about him, though he’s definitely bad news to Saxon’s mother, and Saxon hates him because he can’t protect his mother against the older, but stronger, man.
Being Gibbons, the book is flashed through with humour, though she doesn’t shrink from describing the seamier side of people’s emotions or behaviour. The assumptions made about Saxon’s relationship with his employer, for example, when he’s left money on the latter’s death, are rather prurient and upsetting, but perhaps understandable. I think that’s one of Gibbons’ main strengths, this talent to make her characters entirely realistic and believable: though her prose is well-written and engaging.
The book ends with an entertaining epilogue, detailing the histories of most of the characters after the end of the main story.
Nightingale Wood, in short, is an entertaining and satisfying take on the Cinderella story, with lots of entertaining and believable characters – though it’s not as enjoyable as Cold Comfort Farm.