Westwood by Stella Gibbons: a Book Review

I found Westwood by Stella Gibbons a slightly disappointing book. I liked it, but didn’t love it, as I’d hoped I would. I do enjoy descriptive writing, and there are some beautiful descriptive passages, but there were far too many, even for me, which eventually made me wish Gibbons would just get a move on. Lynne Truss in the introduction wrote that she loves it deeply and it made her laugh and weep. I found it amusing in places and also touching. It’s a slow meander through the characters, their lives and their houses.

Margaret Steggles, a plain young woman finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath which provides her with an introduction into the lives of Gerard Challis and his family, his beautiful wife, Seraphina, his self-absorbed daughter Hebe and her spoilt children and Zita the family’s maid. Margaret idolises Gerard, who is a playwright. He in turn falls under the spell of her best friend, Hilda. The contrast between Margaret and Hilda is marked. Margaret is serious, somewhat of a snob, ‘not the type to attract men’, and impressed by the artistic circle surrounding the Challis family. Hilda, a beautiful young woman who attracts many male admirers has no trace of romance in her nature and Margaret realises that Hilda ‘would not or could not be serious’. Margaret becomes obsessed with Gerard’s house, Westwood and longs to be there whenever she can. Feeling that she has outgrown Hilda, she cultivates a friendship with Zita.

This is not a wartime novel, although it is set in London just after the Blitz and there are some wonderful descriptions of the city and its unexpected green and unspoilt places amidst the ruins of bombed houses. Although the war is not really in focus, the atmosphere of the times infuses the novel. The nature of war itself is discussed by Grantey, the family’s old nurse in her conversation with Hebe:

… it’s all part of God’s plan for doing away with war for good and all.

All those dreadful explosions and atrocities and secret weapons they keep on talking about, … and not knowing when you go to bed at night if you’ll be alive when you wake up in the  morning – that’s all part of God’s plan. He’s letting it get worse and worse, so’s it’ll destroy itself, like; it’ll get so bad not even wicked people’ll want it , and then it’ll stop. (page 277)

Really???

It’s a novel about relationships, about friendship, about hope and longing and above all about disappointment and ‘coming to terms with life’.

*Slight spoiler alert follows*

*I wouldn’t have known without Lynne Truss’s introduction to the book that Gerard was based on the writer Charles Morgan, who had annoyed Stella Gibbons, and Gerard’s characters in his dreadful plays are parodies of Morgan’s female characters. Morgan had claimed that a sense of humour was lacking in writers.The pompous Gerard is the butt of the humour in the novel  – in particular the scene where his grandchildren find him in a compromising situation in Kew Gardens – that did make me smile.*

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Classics (4 Aug 2011)
  • Language English
  • ISBN-10: 009952872X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0099528722
  • Source: I bought it
  • My Rating 3/5

Stella Gibbons’s more famous novel is Cold Comfort Farm. I used to think I’d read it, now I’m not so sure. I like Westwood just enough to make me curious to look out for it. If you’ve read it, or Westwood, what are your views?

Being a Tourist in London

During last week’s heatwave we made one of our rare visits to London. I can’t remember the last time I went, probably it was over two or three years ago when I attended a course for work. Such visits meant travelling in by train, dashing to the course venue and seeing very little of London. So it was strange to be in London with the whole day devoted to sightseeing.

First we went to the Museum of London – my first time there. Some of its galleries are closed as they are being redeveloped but there was still plenty to see – the history of London up to 1666. The highlights for me were the gallery showing Medieval London AD410-1558, topical for me as I’d just finished reading Company of Liars a novel of the plague by Karen Maitland, and the exhibition of the Great Fire of London 1666. I was also fascinated by the shoes on display – the long-pointed toe, or ‘poulaine’, popular in London in the 1380s, with the toe measuring up to 4 inches long, stuffed with moss or hair. The 16th/17th century jewellry display is just beautiful.

london-mug

museum-highlightsIn the Museum shop I bought a booklet of the Museum Highlights to remind me of what I’d seen, and a mug showing the Houses of Parliament and a red London double-decker bus.

Next up was a walk from the Museum along London Wall to Wren’s Monument. I was delighted to see the remains of the original City Wall outside the Museum, including a thirteenth century tower.

london-remains-of-tower

As we were on our way to see Wren’s Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London we didn’t have time to stop and look at anything else, but I took photos of various sights along the way including St Alban’s Church Tower, sandwiched on a traffic island in Wood Street. I didn’t know what it was but thought it looked so incongruous between modern buildings. According to various websites it may date back to AD 930. The rest of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire, subsequently rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1685, only to be bombed in the Blitz in 1940. The remaining perpendicular tower with its pinnacles is now dwarfed by modern buildings.

st-albans-church-tower-wood-st-city-of-london1

The Royal Exchange (now a luxurious shopping centre) – you can just see the Gherkin in the background.

royal-exchange-city-of-london1

And this golden statue caught my eye

ariel

It’s Ariel, or the Spirit of the Winds, on the Bank of England on Tivoli Corner, by Sir Charles Wheeler.

ariel-statue-bank-of-england1

And here is Wren’s Monument, a Doric order column made of Portland stone with a viewing tower. It’s 202 feet tall, which is the distance from the base of the monument to the shop on Pudding Lane where the fire started. I didn’t go up it – my legs wouldn’t take all those stairs but others with me did – maybe I can get one of their photos.

monument

monument1

The photo above is of the viewing tower and if look closely at the enlarged picture (click on it)you can just make out my son and grandson looking down.

And finally here is Tower Bridge taken from London Bridge.

tower-bridge