A woman of cold comfort
Out of the Woodshed: The Life of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver Bloomsbury 272pp, £25 in UK
Stella Gibbons is best remembered for her 1932 novel, Cold Comfort Farm, in which she parodies the melodramatic rural fiction of the 19th and early 20th centuries and satirises faddish thought such as Freudian psychology. Reggie Oliver, however, argues that she deserves to be remembered also for her twenty other novels, her journalism and her several volumes of poems.
Born in 1902 to Dr Telford and Maudie Gibbons, Stella, the eldest of three, got the full brunt of a tempestuous household of violent egomaniacs. She later described her father as "a bad man but a good doctor". Elsewhere, she claimed that "she had not so much been badly brought up as not brought up at all". In reaction to her dysfunctional childhood, Gibbons spent her adulthood craving for order and making fiction of the chaos she knew best.
Such compulsive craving for normality makes for dull biography. Indeed, one of Gibbons's closest friends, Ida Graves, a wild, polygamous woman with an indelible zest for life, told Oliver in 1997 that Gibbons could be "quite silent and boring, not funny at all. Very prim, orderly and well behaved."
Despite the scathing wit she sometimes displays in her fiction, Gibbons had her dark and brooding side, as if the "something nasty in the woodshed" repeatedly referred to by Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Com- fort Farm was an intimate part of her being. Oliver firmly maintains, however, that Gibbons was "out of the woodshed", that she was done with her past and its pain. In defence, he cites her Cold Com- fort Farm epigraph, "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery", borrowed from Mansfield Park, and maintains that she harboured no self-pity. As Oliver illustrates, though, there are identifiable aspects of the bizarre familial environment she knew as a child.
At times, the life of Stella Gibbons (despite her nephew's best efforts) reads rather like the life of Aunt Ada Doom. This is the sad bit, for one rather expects the author of such a wonderful, if flawed, novel to have lived a life as reckless and wonderful as Dorothy Parker's. But no: Parker's sparkle, in both prose and life, largely evaded Gibbons. Instead, she married Allan Webb, a man of frail constitution, in 1933. Like the bulk of her female characters, who are fully realised but largely uninteresting, Gibbons sculpted her life around the measure of marriage and her daughter, Laura. They lived quietly, perhaps trying to follow the Keatsian ideal, which Gibbons admired, of "a life of sensations rather than of thoughts". When Allan died of liver cancer in 1959, Stella lived for his memory while she read and wrote what she wrote in the wake of Cold Comfort Farm.
James Agate claimed that Gibbons's "character drawing is perfection and her sense of fun too subtle to permit quotation"; Elizabeth Bowen, in the TLS, praised her work for its "perspicacity". Yet Stella Gibbons was not a careful writer. There are irretrievable confusions about the exact relationships between characters and their ages in Cold Comfort Farm. In later novels, such as Bassett and Nightingale Wood, she misused words, employed awkward locutions such as "silverily", patronised her readers and used decidedly bad judgment in her parody of the socialised male during the second World War.
Stella Gibbons became more grudging as she got older. She openly despised Charles Morgan ("Charlie-Morgan-Play-the-Organ") for his pomposity and sexual exhibitionism, and shamelessly used him as a fictional model. In the Sixties, she castigated C.P. Snow. She once claimed that her idea of Hell was to have to go shopping for fishing rods in Harrods with Ernest Hemingway. On Freud, she said: "That man has done more harm than Napolean, Hitler and Torquemada put together." In a postscript to a letter in 1979, though, she said that "the writing of one successful best-seller 40 odd years ago doesn't mean that one has any brains or critical faculty".
Reggie Oliver has no great critical faculty either, but this he admits. While he does his damnedest to do his aunt justice, it is not his fault that she pursued simplicity and order and shunned publicity. Nor is it his fault that Cold Comfort Farm will remain forever the novel for which Stella Gibbons is best remembered.