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?

Book Beginnings: Westwood by Stella Gibbons

One of the books I’m currently reading is Westwood by Stella Gibbons. It begins:

London was beautiful that summer. In the poor streets the people made an open-air life for themselves under the blue sky as if they were living in a warmer climate. Old men sat on the fallen masonry and smoked their pipes and talked about the war, while women stood patiently in the shops or round the stalls selling large fresh vegetables, ceaselessly talking. (page 1)

Written in 1946 this is set in wartime London, just after the Blitz. In the next paragraphs the ruins of bombed houses are described surrounded by deep pools of water (from the fire-fighters), ducks on the pools, willow-herb growing where houses once stood, foxes raiding gardens, a hawk flying over the city –

London in ruin was beautiful as a city in a dream. (page 2)

I love the way Gibbons sets the scene, showing the effects of war. It’s a novel about ordinary people and what it was like to live then, during the war. I haven’t read much further on and I’m hoping it will live up to its opening.

Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Katy at A Few More Pages.