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Stella Gibbons: Westwood

Like most of Gibbons’ novels, this book was never reprinted after it went out of print. It was set during World War II and was published just after the war. It is mainly set in and around London and, though the war does impinge on the action – the inevitable bomb falls causing damage but no deaths or injuries – it is not a major factor, except for the inconvenience of black-outs and occasional characters going off to do their bit for the war effort. The heroine is Margaret Steggles, a somewhat too goody-goody heroine. Her parents do not have a happy marriage. Her father is a sub-editor and has continual extramarital affairs. Mrs. Steggles is well aware of these affairs but turns a blind eye to them, sublimating her needs into her two children (there is a brother Reg but he is in the army) and her house (they move frequently and, indeed, at the beginning of the novel are about to move again.) Margaret has had a boyfriend but they have drifted apart (he will marry someone else later in the book). She also gets a job near the beginning of the book – as a teacher.

The focus of the book is the two Westwoods. When the Steggles move early in the book to Hampstead, their near neighbours include the house called Westwood. Before the move, Margaret had found a ration book, which she had forgotten to return, with the excitement of the move. When she does get round to returning it, she finds it belongs to the wife of the celebrated painter, Alex Niland. This meeting gets her introduced to the family at Westwood. They are the parents of Hebe Niland, Alex’s wife (and owner of the ration book). Gerard Challis works at a ministry involved in the war effort but he is also a celebrated playwright and during the course of book will write his new play Kallë and see it produced. It is the story of a prostitute with a heart of gold, set in Vienna. He is married to Seraphina. Like Mr. Steggles, Gerard Challis is not a faithful husband. He has a series of relationships with much younger women, though, apparently, these are not necessarily consummated. Early in the book he starts a new relationship with Hilda Wilson, a woman whom he meets at Highgate tube station who is lost in the fog and whom he helps, by lighting her way with his torch. He gives her a false name and, of course, claims to be unmarried. What neither of them know but we do is that she is Margaret’s best friend.

Margaret, unaware of Hilda’s adventures, becomes increasingly enamoured of the Westwood set-up – Gerard the dramatist and Alex the painter. She helps with the children, becomes friendly with Zita, a Jewish refugee who helps in the house and Margaret is admitted, albeit as a hanger-on, to the circle. What we see, though Margaret less so, is that most of the adults are not particularly likeable people. The other Westwood belongs to Dick Fletcher, a colleague of Margaret’s father, who has a simple-minded daughter, Linda. When his housekeeper is ill, he asks Margaret to help and she, ever saintly, does so and though she is not looking particularly for a romance, she is very helpful. The upshot, almost inevitably, is that most of the men are revealed to have feet of clay and Margaret, at the end, learns from Lady Challis, that she is on her own and has to make her own way.

While certainly not a great novel and somewhat dated, it does work quite well. Margaret is too saintly but still very much a woman looking for her way, whether it is job, romance or merely hero worship of the (supposedly) great and good. That the great and good are not only ordinary but somewhat flawed as humans is part of Gibbons’ point. While the war is there – a house does get bombed but no-one is hurt – it plays a relatively minor role, except as an ever impinging background. The book is out of print and is likely to remain so, so you will have to dig around to find it but it is sad that Gibbons is only remembered for the one novel.

Publishing history

First published 1946 by Longmans, Green and Co