I have just finished reading Westwood, one of a whole series of Stella Gibbons novels recently republished by the fabulous Vintage Classics.
Gibbons (1902-89) has never been forgotten. That said, she is remembered for only one novel, one of the greatest first novels ever published and probably the best loved of all literary satires, the wondrous Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
In fact, Gibbons published continuously and successfully for the better part of half a century. There are two further Cold Comfort novels, also now in Vintage.
Westwood is a wartime novel, published in 1946 but set (and I suspect written) a couple of years earlier. My guess would be 1944, with the air raids continuing but the Blitz itself long over. It certainly has to be after the beginning of 1942 because the Americans are established participants in the war.
Westwood has this wartime background but is in fact a gentle satire of the pretentious Hampstead set – notably the overweening and justly forgotten West End playwright Charles Morgan – couched in the form of a comedy of manners.
The paperback has a quote from the Times on the back cover, citing Gibbons as a 20th Century Jane Austen. This is exactly right, with the heroine, Margaret ‘Struggles’ Steggles more a Catherine Morland than an Emma Woodhouse.
What Gibbons has, which Austen does not particularly possess, is a gift for effortless incidental description. Take this for example, culled at random from one of the later chapters. The dramatic point of the chapter is a party at the big house to which Margaret has been invited as a very peripheral adjunct to the gilded circle. But Gibbons takes the time to describe the garden which Margaret passes through on her way in.
“It was a calm evening, grey and still. Soft plumes of violet cloud lay along the west, where a little golden light broke through, wave on wave of cloud lying beyond the clear reaches of the light. Not a leaf stirred, and the pansies and roses, lifting their motionless faces in the flower-beds, looked as if their eyes were shut. There was a sweet cool smell in the air of freshly mown grass. A trail of blades and severed daisies had escaped as Cortway was carrying the heaped bin over the paths and lay along the ground; his sight was not so good as it used to be, and he had overlooked them when he was sweeping.”