westwood stella gibbons

Slowly, stealthily, I am amassing a big collection of Vintage books. The works of that publisher are crawling over my bookshelf, breeding with every blink. I don’t quite know how; whether something is recommended to me or I browse over it in a second hand shop, I always seem to get it home to discover that chalky red spine and that scratchy black “V.”

And they rarely let me down. I’m delighted by a Vintage book more often than that of any other publisher. How do they do it? However it is, long may they continue. This delight, however, comes with a degree of expectation. I anticipate a book with a red spine to have a level of intellect and agenda beyond pure plot – I’ve come to regard it as a quasi-guarantee of quality.

In the case of Stella Gibbon’s recently back-in-print Westwood, I initially doubted whether it was worthy of the dizzy Vintage marque. The coming of age tale of a young woman in wartime London, it initially appears rather too jolly hockey sticks for words, darling. Hilda and Margaret rub along amidst Blitz and blackout, one overflowing with GI suitors and another yearning for love, beauty and meaning and hero-worshipping any upper-class intellectual or artist that she comes across. In short, it didn’t feel “very Vintage.” Just substitute London for Dublin and I could have been reading Maeve Binchy, I thought, rapping the cover.

Then I noticed the slicing portrayal of Gerard Challis – a celebrated playwright and a joyless, pompous ass with an overload of intellectualised idealism and a vacuum of integrity. His character is contrasted brilliantly with the naive protagonist, who wants to hang on his every word but finds each one in total opposition to her instincts. His fixation with the human ideal (and that of the tragic, weak, elegant, self-abnegating female in particular) is skewered when he falls in love with the entirely grounded, uncultured Hilda – a good-time girl with only practicality between her ears. From this puncturing of Challis’ ideals to the highly witty account of the writing and debut of his new play, his character is a stunning argument against a dry intellectualism of head not heart.

And once you’ve noticed the sharpness of the depiction of Challis, suddenly you see the book’s agenda spreading in front of you, wonderfully drawn at every turn. For the book is no wartime love romp – it’s a deeply human account of growing up, becoming yourself, and what really matters. And what does matter? The book’s alternative title is “The Gentle Powers”, and it is with these that the book ends – an explanation of what we’ve seen through the course of the book, which is the numinous and powerful effects of Beauty, Time, Pity, and the Past (for which I understand both a sense of perspective and historical understanding.) Through these powers, our heroine turns from an impressionable fool to a young woman delicately tracing her way through life, though not without many struggles ahead of her. As a philosophy, it’s not complicated or erudite or lofty; it’s simple, true, and overwhelmingly female. (This isn’t a book I could see written by a man, and I wonder what a male reaction to it would be. For one thing, the depiction of men throughout the book is overwhelmingly negative and even bitter – they are untrustworthy, shallow and emotionally useless to a man.)

But as a philosophy, it feels right and true where many a complicated intellectual (Vintage published) male mind seems overcomplicated and overblown. The Gentle Powers chime with my own experience with achieving life satisfaction, and I’ll head in to the new year determined to spend more time with the Gentle Powers of Beauty, Time, Pity and the Past.

My initial scepticism was a Gerard Challis-like position – snobbery of simple human truth and the expectation of a more intellectualised agenda. Gibbons speaks a hell of a lot more sense than, say, John Fowles, and it is a testament to the wide church of its publisher to recognise the merits of such diverse works. Vintage wins again.

ps. My next book is also, by chance, Vintage. This is getting ridiculous.


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