Most people only know Stella Gibbons for writing Cold Comfort Farm, her first novel. But she went on to write more than 20 novels and Westwood, published in 1946 was believed to be Gibbons’ own personal favourite.
Set in wartime London, Westwood is a coming of age story. It is the story of Margaret Steggles, a plain, bookish but remorselessly romantic young school teacher who is looking for love even though her mother told her that she is not the type that attracts men. Margaret’s down-to earth school friend, Hilda acts as a foil to Margaret – Hilda is vivacious and pretty and keeps an ever constant supply of service men ‘ever so cheery’.
Margaret finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath and through this meets the extended upper class Challis family and in particular the pretentious and self –obsessed writer Gerard Challis. Margaret immediately becomes infatuated with Challis and his artistic circle and tries hard to be a part of their world, centered around the Challises’ large and to Margaret, near magical mansion in Highgate – Westwood. The Challis family arrogantly takes advantage of Margaret’s desire to get to know them and from the very start they use her as a free baby sitter and extra servant.
Unbeknown to Margaret, Challis who is a compulsive womaniser meets Hilda in a blackout and in turn becomes infatuated with her, making her his muse. Hilda has no idea that Challis is a famous playwright, has no interest in literature and assumes that he is a lonely, elderly bachelor – which he does nothing to disabuse. The kindly Hilda feels sorry for Challis and so agrees to go out with him on the rare occasions when she has not seeing one of her service men. Eventually in an extremely funny scene in Kew Gardens, Margaret who is baby- sitting the Challis grandchildren, comes across Gerard trying unsuccessfully to seduce Hilda.
Challis is apparently based on the playwright Charles Morgan. Oliver, Gibbons’ biographer, considers this characterisation to be one of Gibbons’ “most enjoyable and vicious” satirical portraits . Gerard is truly awful but for most of the book, Margaret fails to see this, taken in by his fame and apparently high-brow credentials. An example of how Gibbons uses this to great comic affect is this description of Margaret, besotted with Challis, waiting for him at a country station:
“She crossed the road and sat down on the heavenly bank, where moon- daisies and buttercups (were) growing in the long grass and a mosaic of yet flowerless green plants, ivy, ragged robin and many others, growing in the hedge… She clasped her hands round her knees and sat in idle silence, rejoicing in the scene and the solitude, and wondering if it were possible to be so unhappy that such loveliness could fail to give delight.”
But when Challis arrives we see the same scene very differently, he “stood glancing discontentedly about him; taking in the flat, uninteresting landscape, the shabby little station… and the plain, nervous young woman sitting (absurdly, he thought) among those dusty weeds on the other side of the road.” (Chapter 23)
The novel covers far more than just Margaret’s obsession with Challis and Challis’s obsession with Hilda. There are a wealth of other often eccentric and fascinating characters not least the Challis’s housekeeper, Zita a refugee from Austria who befriends Margaret. A sub plot revolves around the divorced journalist Dick Fletcher who appears to taking an interest in Margaret. Dick also lives in a house called Westwood – an equally magical but far less grand house than Challis’s Westwood. Dick and his house Westwood provide a powerful contrast to Gerard and his Westwood.
This is definitely not a traditional romance and has a strong feminist message. Throughout the novel we are shown unhappy marriages: Margaret’s own parents’ marriage is loveless, her mother bitter and father unfaithful; Gerard’s wife is aware of his philandering: Gerard’s daughter’s self-obsessed artist husband often disappears for long periods of time and Dick Fletcher’s marriage broke up when his wife walked out leaving him and their disabled daughter. Lady Challis, Gerard’s mother too had an unhappy marriage as her granddaughter, Hebe said “‘I don’t think Granny had much fun and games after they were married’”. Lady Challis only seemed to be truly content after her “terrifying husband” died and she could start to live her life as she wanted. (Chapter 24)
Romantic love is not all that it is cracked up to be – even the beautiful Hilda marries a “pleasant ordinary young man.”. And of course Margaret’s Prince Charming turns into a frog: “In that moment the disillusionment which (she now realised) had been gradually approaching, was completed. She had reluctantly suspected the value and genuiness of his philosophy for some time, and now she saw with her own eyes that he was as other men: a disloyal husband, a weak admirer of pretty faces. He could even stoop to carrying on a flirtation under a false name; that was actually sordid, like some story in the evening papers, and it sickened her more than all the rest”. (Chapter 29)
However, it is not ultimately a sad book. The ending is quite life affirming, if unexpected. While Margaret does not find romantic love, she finds her life is enriched instead by her women friends. Zita becomes a good friend – “at least there was never dullness where Zita was. Margaret became protectively fond of her.” (Chapter 31)
The character that in the end has the most lasting impact on Margaret is Lady Challis, Gerard’s mother. She is one of the few Challises who is unpretentious, warm and friendly and takes a genuine interest in Margaret. It is through Lady Challis’s advice that Margaret can move on from her romantic notions. Lady Challis tells Margaret to stop living only in the past; that Margaret must not accept her daughter-in-law’s job offer to become her child minder; that Margaret does not need a major tragedy in her life to grow up and that there are other things in life to make one happy apart from romantic love – “Beauty, and Time, and the Past and Pity… Laughter too – you need calming and lifting into the light, not plunging into darkness and struggle”.
And finally, quite surprisingly as religion has never been mentioned in the book until this point, Lady Challis tells Margaret that she thinks “that God would probably get hold of (you) one day”. Margaret is sceptical but the reader is told in the penultimate scene that “she stood there, with the struggle that was to last for so many years already beginning in her heart.” (Chapter 31)
Although Westwood has been described as “A wartime masterpiece” (Evening Standard), the characters seem very little affected by what is happening on the frontline. Yes there is rationing, air raids, blackouts and a lack of eligible young men apart from GIs but it seems strange that the war is mentioned so infrequently, and none of the characters seem particularly touched by the larger events occurring at the time. This may be deliberate – the Challises live in a charmed world but no one in the novel seems much affected or worried by the war: there are still parties, plays, concerts. However, it is war’s impact on the barriers between the social classes that is important for the novel – it gives Margaret the opportunity to socialise with the upper class Challises and get to know them. As The Mail on Sunday says “Gibbons was an acute and witty observer, and her dissection of the British class system is spot-on”
While I am not sure I quite agree with Lynne Truss who in her introduction to the book’s 2011 reprint said “Stella Gibbons is the Jane Austen of the 20th century”, there are similarities to Austen in Gibbon’s subject matter and her comic genius. And I do tend to agree with Truss’s description of Westwood as “a rich, mature novel, romantic and wistful, full of rounded characters and terrific dialogue” that deserved more commercial success than it received. ” It is well worth reading.
• Oliver, Reggie (1998). Out of the Woodshed: The Life of Stella Gibbons. London: Bloomsbury Publications. ISBN 0-7475-3995-2.
• Truss, Lynne, in Gibbons, Stella: Westwood, or, The Gentle Powers (2011). “Introduction”. London: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-09-952872-2.