Mar 30, 2010

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

The plot summary on the back cover of Nightingale Wood is, I think, somewhat misleading: it tells us that this is the story of Viola Wither, a young widow who goes to live with her deceased husband’s family in an old country house in Sussex. Her life with the Withers is dull until she meets Victor Spring– dashing, rich, and the local Prince Charming – at a ball, and finds herself involved in a Cinderella-like story with him. Except this prince is not exactly always charming.

All of the above is true, but this is only one of the several subplots of Nightingale Wood. The book tells us the story of the Withers and the Springs: of the two unmarried Misses Wither, women in their thirties who still live under the thumb of a tyrannical father; of how empty life was at this supposedly happy home; of Hattie Spring, Victor’s cousin, a literary young woman who feels out of place in the social whirlwind which is the Springs’ lives; and of several others colourful minor characters.

In a way, Nightingale Wood is a Cinderella story with added complications and unpredictable turns, but that’s only one among the many things it is. What this humorous, magical and tender book reminded me of was Howards End. Yes, there are many differences, beginning with the fact that they’re from different time periods, but they have a lot in common too: the focus on two families, the fact that both novels deal with class and social conventions and how these limit people’s lives, and Stella Gibbons’ very clear fondness for her characters. Gibbons is more biting than Forster, and she doesn’t refrain from occasionally despairing of them to the reader, but in the end, she gives them all what they want. She allows them to escape their constraints and discover life. Which reminds me of something else I loved about Nightingale Wood: the fact that the third-person narrator occasionally addressees the reader and breaks the fourth wall with comments that show an awareness of the storyness of the story. Rather than pull the reader out of the book, these only add to its fairy tale mood.

I think I mentioned recently that when reading fairy tale-ish books such as The Blue Castle or The Enchanted April, I don’t necessarily mind predictability. I was ready to embrace it in Nightingale Wood, but much to my surprise this story is unpredictable and subtly subversive in many different ways. On the surface things mostly go as expected, and yet—and yet they don’t, not quite. For example, Tina Wither falls in love with Saxon, the family chauffeur, who is not only from a different class but also twelve years her junior. I won’t tell you how things turn out, of course, but oh, I want to give Stella Gibbons such a big hug for how she dealt with these characters. She defied stereotype after stereotype about class, about gender, about relationships between older women and younger men, and simply portrayed them as two individuals. The Tina and Saxon storyline was my favourite, and would on its own more than have made the book for me.

There’s just so much to love about Nightingale Wood. At its core, this is a book about people struggling with imposed definitions of who they are and trying to figure out who they want to be. One of the constraints they struggle with is, predictably enough, gender. As Sophie Dahl says in her introduction,“Perhaps the most succinct surmisal of the 1930s female lot comes from Viola’s best friend, Shirley, who says wryly, ‘Vote, Marie [Stopes], perms, and all, we can’t do anything.’”

The beautiful thing, though, is that Stella Gibbons allows her characters to escape these constraints without at all diminishing their weight or shrugging them aside. She acknowledges how very real they were, and yet still finds them a way out. Nightingale Wood is a book that proves that sometimes a happy ending can be far from conventional. It can be very daring and subversive indeed.

Much to my surprise, I loved this book even more than Cold Comfort Farm. It’s not as funny, but then again it’s not supposed to be. It’s a delightful and surprising fairy tale with rich characterisation, which makes it much more my kind of book. I so wish that more of Stella Gibbons’ work was still in print.

Favourite passages:
All night the countryside did not seem to go to sleep, for the roads were busy with the tiny jewelled beetles of cars racing their owners down to the sea for a moonlit bathe, and all along the shore for miles, bungalows and beach huts were full of golden light and happy voices, and damp towels dragging vigorously across wet bodies. Don’t often get this kind of thing; may as well make the most of it. Unbelievably beautiful, the long silver waves rolled in, over the dark rocks of Cornwall, the white rocks of Sussex, the flat firm sands of Northumberland and the rounded baylets of Wales. Even the bathers, running screaming and splashing into the milk-warm water, felt the beauty of the sea rolling under that green magian-light.
‘Good to be alive, eh?’ they said to each other, with characteristic English reserve. ‘Glad to be alive on a night like this, eh?’— in a world toppling with monster guns and violent death.

‘Look here, Tina, what on earth did he mean? About you and Saxon’ going red, ‘about you and Saxon, I mean’ blundering.
Tina looked up quickly. Just for a second, her face frightened them, it was so furious, ashamed, despairing, so transformed by passion. Fifteen years of longing for love, of joylessness and cowardice, of trying to be ‘nice’ as her family wanted everything to be ‘nice’ and ‘decent’ (even mating, birth and death), of lies, of gently dying from starvation, of never using a strong word or telling the truth to anyone – she wanted to shriek her sufferings at her three frightened faces.

Nearer and nearer it came, until suddenly swept over her head a flock of wild swans, rushing on white-gold wings into the sunset. Laughing with excitement, she ran down the track to follow their flight, but the sunset, and tears, dazzled her, and she could not see.
For some time she stood there, staring yearningly across the distances where they had flown. They were so beautiful, she had never seen anything so beautiful in her whole life. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could always feel like she had felt when they thundered over her head, not wanting anyone, happy to be quite alone and looking at something as beautiful as those swans?
And for extra cool points:
Mr Spurrey, too, was content. The sun was shining (Mr Spurrey liked sunshine), there was blue sky, the Rolls was running well, and at home he had Dorothy Sayers’s latest novel waiting unopened. He would read it that evening, over a decanter.
…except that – well, I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but something happens and Mr Spurrey doesn’t get to read his Sayers novel that night. And as Nightingale Wood was published in 1938, the book in question was probably Busman’s Honeymoon. Isn’t that tragic? Poor Mr Spurrey.

Other Opinions:
Verity’s Virago Venture
Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. Unpredictability - you're right, that is a big characteristic of this book. Thanks for the link to my review. You've also reminded me that I must give Cold Comfort Farm another go...

  2. I cannot resist Cinderella and since this is a Cinderella story with added complications and unpredictable turns, as you've so nicely put it, I'm going to give this a try. But first, I'll put it in my wish list. Thanks for the review! And I love the passage you've chosen to include in this post. :D

  3. I finished Cold Comfort Farm last night and found it hilarious and absolutely loved it. Now I just have to have this one too. Still moving rather slowly through Un Lun Dun though. Not because it is boring, as I am really enjoying it, it is just for some reason, it is taking me a long time.

  4. Another one of your many reviews that simply leaves me with a contented smile on my face as I reach for my notebook to add the title to my wish list.

  5. I think I've told your previously that this novel disappointed me, perhaps it was due to that lack of predictability? I went into it expecting something like The Enchanted April or Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and was given something else instead. Now, the something else is the type of something else that I would normally love but perhaps it was just a matter of expectation? As it is, the story has remained with me, has grown even more in my affection after reading your lovely review, and one day I will need to reread it.

    I loved Hattie's story.

  6. Can you imagine living with your deceased husband's parents and dating someone new? Talk about an uncomfortable situation. I'm intrigued by the plot of this one!

  7. You liked it more than Cold Comfort Farm? That says a lot to me as that is one of my favorite books (and movies). Off to order it in a moment.

    I have had a similar experience with The Bloomsbury Group books. Expecting something light and frothy yet stumbling upon unexpected depths. Always a nice surprise, right?

  8. Recently someone compared one of my short stories (the one I'm adapting to a GN) to Cold Comfort Farm, which makes me think I should read it. I'll probably try it before this one.

  9. I want this one too. Thanks for the great review!

  10. I've wanted to read more Gibbons since I read Cold Comfort Farm. Unfortunately I don't think it's in print in the US. Drat!

  11. I loved Cold Comfort Farm and am certainly looking forward to this book!

  12. I didn't even know Stella Gibbons had written other books. I love to hear the adjective "subversive" applied to women's fiction, so you know I'll be checking this one out! :)

  13. I'm interested in this one for sure!! Great review!

  14. Subtle subversion makes me so happy! Well... in books, not in my life. I haven't heard of this book before, but I'm glad now to have heard about it. And of COURSE there is a Sayers reference- it's like you can't get away from her ;-)

  15. this sounds like a really good read. now youve got me curious about Tina and Saxon!

  16. Cold Comfort Farm is the only book I have read by Gibbons, but this sounds like a wonderful book to make my second! I like that it deals with it's characters in a less than predictable way and I am also very curious about the love affair between Tina and Saxon. I am going to be looking for this sounds wonderful! Thanks for the heads up and the great review on this one!

  17. Wow, nice book choice! I'm surprised I haven't heard of this because it sounds so great. I've got to find this and read it right away!

    from Une Parole

  18. Wow. How do you *do* that?! I wasn't particularly interested in this book, and even at the start of the review I was all "hmm" and then somewhere in the third paragraph I was suddenly all "YES! MUST READ!"

    My poor TBR.

  19. I just ordered this from Amazon. I can't wait to read it.Great review!

  20. I really, REALLY want to read this one! I didn't love Cold Comfort Farm, but I think it's because I'm not super familiar with the genre that it was referencing, so some of the jokes just didn't do it for me. It was also a case of my expectations being drastically different from what the book actually was. But this sounds delightful, and I think I'd like it a good deal! Thanks so much for the illuminating review!

  21. When I first read that the plot summary was misleading I thought immediately that the book was a horrendous disappointment. Have I become cynical?

    Sounds like an interesting book after reading your review.

  22. Verity: They're different enough that I can perfectly see someone loving this but not caring for CCF, or vice-versa. But I hope it does work for you when you try next!

    Alice, aren't they wonderful? The first one in particular I just found so beautiful. And the one about the swans <3

    Vivienne: I know just what you mean about Un Lun Dun - it took me two weeks to read it for some reason, and I almost never take that long to read a book! Anyway, I think you're going to *love* Nightingale Wood :)

    Debi: :D

    Claire: Expectations can be tricky like that, yes. This is definitely not just a fairy tale (not that there's anything wrong with being "just" a fairy tale, of course!). I loved Hattie's story too, and I loved how it ended.

    Kathy: You'd think that'd be a problem, but the family dynamics in this book is so complicated that that's the least of it :P

    Frances: Yes, definitely a nice surprise :) I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did!

    Amanda: Really? That's awesome! I can see you really enjoying Cold Comfort Farm.

    Andreea, I think you'd love it!

    Karen: Aw, what a pity! But there's always The Book Depository! (I swear I'm not saying this because I'm an affiliate :P I just love them and the whole no-shipping thing they do.)

    Amanda, I hope you enjoy it!

  23. Jenny: She wrote over twenty novels, including some for children! And Sophie Dahl says in the introduction that there were two others with fairy tale plots, based on Bluebeard and Beauty and the Beast. I'm so sad that they're all out of print. Hopefully Persephone or The Bloomsbury Group will bring some of them back someday?

    Staci, thank you!

    Aarti: Interestingly enough the book I finished right after this one, Reading Lolita in Tehran, also included Sayers references :D It's really like I can escape her - not that I mind :P

    Naida: Their story is just awesome beyond words. It made me so happy :)

    Zibilee: Sadly it seems that they're the only two that are still in print. Booo! Considering how good they both are, I can't believe the rest of her work was rubbish :P

    Emidy: I wish Stella Gibbons were more well-known! It seems that the majority of people don't know she wrote anything other than Cold Comfort Farm - and this included me until very recently.

    Kiirstin: lol, apologies to your TBR :P But this is good! You know you want to :P

    Mrs B: I hope you enjoy it as much as I did :)

    Steph: I can see how not being familiar with the originals would make a difference. I'm a D.H. Lawrence fun, and I actually loved the way she made fun of him all the time :P Anyway, this is a different sort of book altogether, so I think that people who weren't crazy about CCF could very well love it!

    Rebecca: lol, you're not cynical :P That often happens. But in this case, I liked what I got even if it wasn't what I was expecting.

  24. Okay, I need to read this. Love Cinderella-type stories. And I love when narrators address the reader, especially when it's done well. It makes the whole experience seem more personal.

  25. I love Cinderella stories, too! This book sounds like something I would really like, but I wonder if I should read Cold Comfort Farm first.

  26. Thank you for mentioning my review. I really enjouyed this book, did not know what to expect and so totally different from Cold Comfort Farm. Anybody turning to that title from this one - beware - it is totally different. Terrific but different....

  27. Alita: It does, doesn't it? I hope you enjoy this when you pick it up :)

    Heidenkind: I don't think it matters, really. Both are excellent, though in completely different ways.

    Eliane, thank you for stopping by! I agree, they're completely different. It's best not to go in expecting more of the same.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.