Stella Gibbons: Nightingale Wood
Apart, obviously, from Cold Comfort Farm, the majority of Gibbons’ works were never reprinted and most are now long since out of print and often difficult to obtain. Fortunately, a small press in Bath, Lythway Press, and then the very wonderful Virago reprinted this book and it is still in print in both the UK and the US. Apart from Cold Comfort Farm, it is the only one of her books still in print.
The story is, quite simply Cinderella (updated, of course, to the late Thirties in England – one family even buys a televisor). The main family lives at The Eagles in a relatively posh suburb of Essex. Mr. Wither, the patriarch of the family, is retired and living on a fairly good set of investments (about which he is always worrying). He is very controlling and likes everything just in its place – his meals at precisely the same time, no visitors without appointments and so on. His long suffering wife tolerates all of this. They have two unmarried daughters, the ugly stepsisters, if you will. Christina, always called Tina, is actually quite sweet. She is thirty-five and has come to realise that she will never be married. However, she is somewhat romantic and, in particular, has fallen in love with the chauffeur/gardener, Saxon, who is twenty-two. Margaret, always called Madge, is forty and spends her time at the Club, playing golf and other games. There was an older brother who worked in insurance. At the age of forty-one, he married Viola who worked in the shop co-owned by her father and another man. She had been courted by Ted Wither but had resisted. However, her father suddenly died and left her only fifty pounds and she realised she had to accept his proposal. Sadly, after only a year, he died of pneumonia. At the beginning of the novel, the Withers have agreed to take her in to live with them, as she has nowhere else to go. Prince Charming is Victor Spring. He lives with his mother and his cousin Hetty, who will be twenty-one during the course of the novel. They are, of course, very well off, and Victor is always making money from clever investments. Hetty is not the slightest bit interested in marriage, society or the other things her aunt thinks she should be interested in but only wants to read and learn.
Viola and Tina meet Victor by chance when they are caught in the rain and he gives them a lift, when he is driving with his girlfriend, later fiancée, Phyllis. He is attracted to Viola and when he sees her again – in the village, at the annual Infirmary Ball, which all the Withers attend, and elsewhere, he is clearly smitten. However, he realises that Phyllis, from a good background, very sporty and active and very attractive, is the girl he should marry and they become engaged, to Viola’s great disgust. It is not difficult to guess the Viola/Victor plot, though there is the odd twist, but Gibbons throws in a variety of subsidiary plots, involving Saxon and Tina, Saxon’s mother and the local tramp, Hetty and other minor characters. Gibbons tells a lovely and witty story but, as in her other books, she is not afraid to mock all and sundry, particularly the staid bourgeois Wither family. It is not as good a book as Cold Comfort Farm, as there are no Starkadders, but it is still good that is in print and should be read and enjoyed by lovers of Cold Comfort Farm.
First published 1938 by Longmans and Co