Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm was a fixture of my youth, a book everyone in the family read over and over again, though it was years before I understood it to be a satire. (Yes, sadly, I was a child who actually believed it was reasonable to name cows Aimless, Graceless, Feckless, and Pointless.) I finally grasped its true nature and have never been without a copy of the book since adulthood, so I was thrilled to receive Nightingale Wood from a friend. Even more thrilled to read the first sentence: “It is difficult to make a dull garden, but old Mr Wither had succeeded.”
Here’s what this short sentence told me. First, we are in the safe company of prosperous Englishmen, probably in the inter-War years, since no one else bothers to “make gardens.” Second, our narrator is going to take a firm line through the story, telling us what to think about the characters. Third, said narrator is perfectly happy to take a swipe at her own creations; in fact, she doesn’t much care for Mr. Wither at all. A very promising beginning, and Stella Gibbons kept it up. The story concerns well-bred well-fed people, the ones who populate E.F. Benson and Angela Thirkell. Gibbons, though, is less mean-spirited than Benson and more psychologically acute than Thirkell. Nightingale Wood is a re-working of the Cinderella story but it’s more like origami than a straight re-telling. Yes, ultimately, a modern orphan marries a modern prince, but there are multiple candidates for both of those roles and the plot has a way of doubling back on itself that just extends the pleasure.
Briefly, the story involves the intertwining of two well-off families in two comfortable houses that face each other across a wooded dell in Essex. The Withers are, as their name announces, joyless, while the Springs are noisy and cheerful. The Young People get involved with each other. And while Gibbons is sympathetic to most of her characters, she is not beyond skewering their pretensions. Thus Hetty Franklin, the mournful intellectual niece who lives with the Springs, mulls over her misfortune one afternoon before a party: “The world was so beautiful! so crammed with romance, excitement, horror, irony! In every part of it, except at Grassmere near Sible Pelden in Essex, there were to be found truths that were stranger than fiction, and more satisfying…. There were people to be taught, wrongs to be righted, there were politics and history and economics… I know just how Florence Nightingale felt.”
It’s this little trace of affectionate mockery that makes Gibbons special. As one character tries to seduce another, the narrator announces, “Champagne can never be ordered without the temperature shooting up.” At a wedding, relating the eager attention of the guests, she says, “Their wistful, envious, interested eyes take in the tiniest detail, the finest shade of expression, the last shred of meaning, in everything that happens. It is very tiring to be a woman.” But very rewarding, with a book like this in your hands.