Review 1868: The Swiss Summer

When Lucy Cottrell’s friend takes her to visit an elderly friend, Lady Dagleish, she has no idea how her immediate plans will be affected. Lady Dagleish is sending her companion, Freda Blandish, to spend the summer at her chalet in Switzerland to inventory its contents, and Lady Dagleish tells Lucy she must go along and spend the summer in the chalet, inviting any friends she wishes.

All during her marriage, Lucy has fallen in with her husband’s ideas for a holiday, he preferring to stay in England or Scotland and near convivial friends. But Lucy has yearned for the alpine meadows of her honeymoon, for quiet and beautiful scenery, so she is surprised but delighted by Lady Dagleish’s invitation.

Lucy is thrilled to arrive at a beautiful, large chalet high up in the mountains. Although she was not impressed by Mrs. Blandish when she met her, Lucy herself is an amenable person, and at first things go well. Then Mrs. Blandish’s teenage daughter Astra arrives and makes it clear that Lady Dagleish doesn’t like her and wouldn’t want her there. Mrs. Blandish asks Lucy not to tell her, and Lucy reluctantly agrees.

Lucy finds she likes Astra but is dismayed to learn that Mrs. Blandish expects more guests—paying guests—her friend Mrs. Price-Wharton and her family, and she expects Lucy to keep quiet about it. Utta, the Swiss housekeeper, is certain these people should not be there, but she doesn’t know what to do about it.

Finally, Lucy’s own guests arrive, her godson and a friend who are mountain-climbing in the area. The two young men begin to make friends with Astra and snobbish friend Kay Price-Wharton. Lucy does not quite have the quiet holiday she desired.

This novel has some likable characters and some not so likable. It is full of the beauties of Switzerland in the 50s, and like another novel, The Enchanted April, made me want to go to its setting immediately. I had to laugh at all the references to the characters’ healthy red (or tanned) faces, though. This novel is charming, with just a hint of the sardonic.

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Review 1854: The Weather at Tregulla

Una Beaumont (again, the publishers got the name wrong on the cover) is 19 and very much still a sulky teenager. She finds her home in a small Cornish village to be absolutely boring. Her father, Captain Beaumont, had promised her that she could live in London and study to be an actress. However, her mother has unexpectedly died and her money was entailed, so the Captain can no longer afford to send Una. Even her distraught father notices that she is more upset by this than by her mother’s death.

The weather in Tregulla is tumultuous, at least in regard to several love affairs. Una meets Terrence Willows, an artist leasing a cottage in the neighborhood, and his sister Emmeline. Terrence is a bit of a bounder, but Una immediately falls in love with him. Emmeline has the kind of looks admired by Una’s friend Barnabas, and she has in fact moved to the area in hopes of getting him to marry her, even though she hadn’t met him before. She is tired of the chaotic existence of her brother and his friends, but when she thinks of Barnabas, she always thinks of his parents’ estate first. Barnabas, although believing he is cautious, is smitten. Finally, his brother Hugo is in love with Una.

At first, I didn’t think I was going to like this novel as well as I did others by Gibbons. I didn’t like Una, and the novel has several more unlikable characters. However, Gibbons is a great storyteller and satirist, and her characters are believably written. Further, some of them improve, particularly Una.

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Review 1755: The Snow-Woman

For nearly half a century, Maude Barrington has been grieving for her three brothers who died in World War I. To the rest of the world she has been cold, letting friendships fall away, living with just her maid Millie, and having just a few neighbor acquaintances.

Then one day, an old frenemy, Lionel Crozier, invites himself to tea. Thinking of him as malicious, Maude doesn’t know what to expect but is not surprised when he arrives with a hugely pregnant young woman from a lower class named Teddie Parker. Soon, the girl begins to give birth on Maude’s couch.

Once Teddie has been dispatched to the hospital, Lionel tells Maude he wants her to come to France, where an old friend, Charles, a famous expert on modern art, is dying. Although Maude has done nothing for years, she agrees to go, and thus begins a kind of opening up, where she reconciles with old friends.

This experience continues when she arrives home and gets more involved, through Millie, with Teddie and her family. The result is the revelation of long-held secrets and a new life for Maude.

Although I wondered why Maude wasn’t curious about how Lionel knew Teddie or why he would have brought her to Maude’s house, and although I also wondered at some point where the novel was going, it turned out to be thoroughly satisfying and heart-warming. Another win for Gibbons.

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Review 1710: Classics Club Spin Result! The Woods in Winter

I might have saved The Woods in Winter for a chillier time of year, but its number was chosen for me for the latest Classics Club spin. It’s a lovely tale.

Ivy Gover (not Gower, as it says on the back cover of my Furrowed Middlebrow edition), three times a widow and a charwoman, is living in a tidy but small North London flat when she receives a letter. Not being able to read well, she takes it to her employer, Miss Helen Green, who tells her she has inherited her great-uncle’s cottage out in Buckinghamshire for her lifetime.

Ivy abruptly moves to the country but not before stealing a neighbor’s dog that she has heard barking for months and finds living in its own dirt. Although the cottage is primitive and has a hole in its thatch, she moves right in and begins befriending the local animals. For she has a touch with wild things and for healing, as Lord Gowerville finds out when she magically cures his dying dog. The next day, he sends someone over to fix the thatch in her roof.

As Ivy befriends the birds, a fox, and eventually a boy, her neighbors also have their adventures. The vicar is suddenly taken with Pearl Cartaret, one of two sisters who open a tea shop. Helen is sometimes nearby pursuing an affair with an elusive young man. Angela Mordaunt, a “spinster” brought up by her mother more as a well-bred boy than a girl, catches the eye of Sam Lambert, a kind farm laborer.

This novel was the last one published (in 1970) during Stella Gibbons’ lifetime and displays a longing for the England of 40 years before, when most of it is set. I just loved it. It is funny yet astringent, has some engaging and other very lifelike characters, and contains lyrical descriptions of the countryside around Ivy’s cottage as well as a conservationist conclusion. Ivy herself is a spunky individualist. I liked her a lot.

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Review 1614: A Pink Front Door

Stella Gibbons’s books always start out seeming to be froth, but there is an edge to them, I’ve found. Still, she handles her characters’ foibles with compassion.

In A Pink Front Door, her heroine, Daisy Muir, is engaging, but she has one big flaw. She tends to make the problems of a set of misfits her own, much to the discomfort of her husband, James. At the beginning of the novel, she’s trying to keep one silly friend, Molly, from running after men, in particular an Eastern European refugee named Tibbs, who keeps losing both jobs and his lodging. Lodging is difficult to find in post-war London, and the next thing Daisy knows, she has Don, a man she barely remembers from Oxford, at her front door. Don and Katie and their three young children have just lost their lodgings, and Don hopes Daisy can help.

Daisy remembers “little Katie” from university, the most promising student of her year. Later, Katie reflects that she became stupid with love and made only a poor third. Don, however, is only a few months from finally taking his exams to qualify as a chemist, and Katie hopes to find a quiet place where he can work. If he passes, he can take a good job and they can begin a better life, but until now, they have been living in cramped, noisy, unpleasant quarters.

Daisy thinks of a former neighbor and friend of her father, Mrs. Cavendish, a horrible snob who has an entire upper floor free. Mrs. Cavendish, like many of the upper classes, has fallen on comparatively hard times and has lost her last servant. She agrees that the family can move in but insists that the hard-pressed Katie spend some time every day cleaning in exchange for the low rent that is all they can afford. The house is inconvenient. Katie must haul all their water and coal upstairs. It is also not laid out for children. But it is quiet, and Don is finally able to work.

While Daisy is embroiled in the difficulties of her friends’ lives, Molly has homed in on James and has begun dropping by Daisy’s house especially when Daisy isn’t there, making tea for James and babysitting James Too. James himself, usually tolerant of Daisy’s projects, has begun to lose his patience.

Gibbons has an eye for social follies and foibles, and she employs it here with effect. I enjoyed this novel and was touched by its conclusion.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Day 86: Nightingale Wood

Cover for Nightingale WoodI hardly know how to categorize Nightingale Wood, written in 1938. On Amazon, it is called a romance, but the novel is a little cynical for that. It is described on Wikipedia as a rewrite of the fairy tale Cinderella. If so, neither the heroine or hero is what you would expect. Stella Gibbons, better known for writing Cold Comfort Farm, has written a charming, light novel with a touch of acid.

Viola Withers comes to live with her in-laws after her husband dies, leaving her penniless. The Withers’s home is uncomfortable and gloomy, containing miserly Mr. Withers; socially conscious Mrs. Withers, who thinks her son (Viola’s husband) married beneath her; and two unhappy daughters, Tina and Madge. Viola soon meets Victor, a wealthy cad who is almost engaged, and falls in love with him.

Gibbons’s characters are quirky and obsessive, and even the heroine and hero are not totally sympathetic. Viola is silly and not very bright, Tina is in love with the chauffeur, and Madge cares only about getting a dog. And I think we know enough about Mr. and Mrs. Withers already. What makes Gibbons’s books appealing is that people turn out to be better than they seem at first, and everyone gets what he or she deserves.