I adore Cold Comfort Farm, both the book written by Stella Gibbons and the movie starring Kate Beckinsale. So when I discovered Nightingale Wood, another novel written by Gibbons, I couldn’t pass it up.
Viola Wither, a young shopgirl who married above herself, is forced to go live with her in-laws when her husband dies. Her marriage, lasting approximately one year, was not exactly a bed of roses, but her new life at The Eagles is even more dull and unbearable. Her father-in-law, the old Mr. Wither, is only concerned with “organizing” his money and the lives of the womenfolk under his care. Her mother-in-law, Mrs. Wither, is only concerned with keeping her husband from fretting when his investments do poorly. Madge and Tina, the spinster daughters of the house, feel the oppressive gloom as much as Viola does, longing for something–anything–to happen to relieve the tedium of it all.
A chance meeting acquaints Viola with Victor Spring, the rich and handsome neighbor over whom all the village girls swoon. Victor is practically (though not technically) engaged to Phyllis Barlow. Phyllis is just the kind of wife a man in Victor’s station needs: glamorous, well-dressed, able to throw parties and manage a big house–although it does get on Victor’s nerves how she is always trying to order him around, and the fact that she doesn’t want to have any children…that’s something he’ll have to change her mind about later. The sweet and innocent Viola Wither makes little impression on Victor at first, but when she goes to the Infirmary Ball with a fabulous new haircut and a dress to die for, the neighborhood Prince Charming finds himself quite taken with her. The only trouble is–he still plans to marry Phyllis, and his intentions toward Viola are not exactly honorable.
The secondary romance in the book involves Tina, the younger of the Wither spinsters, and Saxon, the family’s chauffeur. Desperate for love and besotted by the handsome chauffeur twelve years her junior, Tina arranges daily driving lessons so that she will get to spend time with him. Saxon notices her partiality for him, and at first, plans to use it to his advantage to help himself rise in the world. But he soon discovers that Tina, despite her age, is “a pretty little thing” and a secret romance blossoms between these two unlikely lovers.
The author’s narration and descriptions sparkle, reminding me a little of P.G. Wodehouse’s wit. When Viola comes into some money and fritters it away on clothes, Gibbons writes: “Mr and Mrs Wither seemed to think that her clothes were brought by the ravens, like Elijah’s dinner, for they never asked her where she got the money to buy them.” A chapter later in the book opens with this marvelous description of life at the Wither home:
The family at The Eagles was assembled in the drawing-room at that dreary hour when tea is long over and dinner not yet in sight. It was a tranquil scene; it would have annoyed a Communist. Five non-productive members of the bourgeoisie sat in a room as large as a small hall, each breathing more air, warmed by more fire and getting more delight and comfort from the pictures and furniture than was strictly necessary. In the kitchen underneath them three members of the working class swinked ignobly at getting their dinner, bought with money from invested capital. But perhaps this is not a very interesting way of regarding poor Mr Wither and the rest….
One of the most delightful things about Gibbons story is her ability to describe the characters as if they were real people: a young man embarrassed by his mother’s immodest behavior, a pleasant and party-loving lady distressed that she cannot like her son’s intended, an aging spinster fixing all her affection on a dog since she has no man. She shows you the flaws of her characters–shallowness, self-interest, stupidity–and yet still makes you care, and care deeply, for them. Her first description of Viola is not one you would expect of the romantic heroine in a novel: “She did not look quite a lady, which was natural, as she was not one.” And yet the character of Viola, with all its vapidness and gaucheness and silliness, grows on you over the course of the book until you are positively rooting for her to get Victor Spring in the end.
This description of Mr. Spurrey was one of my favorite paragraphs. I do not think you can read it without it reminding you of some acquaintance of your own.
Mr Spurrey was, in fact, lonely as only a crashing bore can be. People were nice to him, as has been explained earlier in the story, but somehow whenever he met someone (unless, of course, he had them pinned in a corner over a meal) that someone had to hurry off somewhere else. This had been happening to Mr Spurrey ever since he could talk; that is, for some seventy-three years. He naturally felt that he had missed something. He did not know what. He only knew that all his life, without realizing it, he had wanted to find someone who would listen while he talked; just listen, without smiling and hurrying away; listen for hours while he frightened them with horrific prophecies, and commented upon the amazing state of the world.
Nightingale Wood was an entertaining read, not quite as superb as Cold Comfort Farm, but still witty and wonderful throughout. I recommend it for anyone interested in reading an intelligent and satirical romance.