Stella Gibbons is best known for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a brilliant work of wit and caustic irreverence aimed at debunking the myth of the English country idyll. She is one of those authors who found it impossible to get beyond the success of her first book because the public loved it so much. However, in many ways her sharp and bemused observations of that first novel are taken up in Here Be Dragons with a heroine of common sense attempting to negotiate a world that is tilted towards the absurd.
Nell Sely, is nineteen and freshly arrived in London from rural England where she grew up in a small village, the daughter of a country parson. Her father has lost his faith and resigned his position because he could not continue the farce of preaching what he no longer believed. Without a way to earn his living he is forced by penury to move his family to London and seek support from his wealthy sister Lady Fairfax, Nell’s Aunt Peggy, who is a successful actress making a new career for herself as a television personality. In addition to being poor and unemployed Mr. Sely lately (Rev.) suffers from depression and is incapable of finding work while his wife, Anna has no skills whatsoever, beyond keeping house and gardening and furthermore is determinedly disinclined to find work. It falls to their only child, Nell to go out and earn the family a living. This would be a dreary start to a comic novel especially as the house on loan to the Sely family is dark and grim. However, all this gloom is erased by Nell’s optimistic outlook and her excitement at being in a big city and at the starting point of a new life. There is also the distraction of her sixteen year old cousin, John who lives with his father in the upstairs apartment of the same old house. Aunt Peggy is helping out Charles, her ‘ex’, who is having a hard time finding work as an actor. (Although it is implied her motives have more to do with spying on her ex husband and his new wife than helping him out). Despite their age difference, Nell develops a kind of infatuation for John who lives most of his life wandering from one Bohemian-style hovel to another
The book was published in 1956 which would have been around the heyday of the Beat generation. However, Stella Gibbons’ book reads amazingly as if it anticipates the Hippy era that followed in the sixties (skipping over the ‘Mod’ period in between). The free style fashions and the café’s and the hint of recreational drugs are there in the background. There is also the mention of John having to do his compulsory military service which he clearly dreads but rationalizes that time in the military will give him more material he could use as an aspiring writer of fiction.
Nell has youth and optimism on her side and is impervious to the dour outlook of her parents. She had found village life and her time at boarding school uneventful and utterly boring although given her age and the timeframe it must have been during the dangerous and unsettling period of the Second World War. However, with the prospect of getting to know London before her, Nell can only anticipate a future full of opportunity. She starts work as a typing clerk but soon leaves for a position in a tea room working as a waitress where the tips alone pay more than the salary she was earning as a typist. It is in the tearoom that she devises the idea of becoming an entrepreneur.
I lived in London in the seventies about twenty years after this novel was published and can attest to the same grey rundown feeling that still existed all that time later. It took London a long time to overcome the destruction of the Second World War and though it is not mentioned in this novel, it is logical to think that Nell and John as well as the other characters must have lived through that horrifically destructive time. Stella Gibbons describes these young people as being hungry, not just for more life experience as young adults are apt to be but also physically hungry. It was a time of great deprivation. All this is glossed over however by a spirit of optimism,
John is something of an arrogant manipulator of people. He is selfish and thoughtless. While Nell sees all these defects she can’t help be fascinated by his self-confidence and his conviction that he is smarter and cleverer than anyone he is associated with. Nell’s relationship with John reflects her relationship with the new post war world in which she must find her way. Stella Gibbons obviously believes in the promises of focused ambition and hard work.
I must admit that a couple of chapters in I was wondering where this book was going. Aside from one trip to Paris the answer is: it does not go far but it is excessively interesting to wander through the sort of seedy parts of the city that is described here and wonder how all these young people will turn out after Carnaby Street , Soho and the Swinging’ Sixties comes into its own and then there is the whole onslaught of Beatlemani. The novel does not venture beyond the one year but it seems obvious to me the characters in this novel will be open to all these future experiences.
The key to this novel is its characters. There is for example, the angst driven, twenty something Garvis, secretary to Lady Fairfax and Benedict, the starving artist with whom Garvis is in love and Elizabeth, Nell’s wealth,y aristocratic, heiress friend who enjoys dipping her toe into the London’s artistic underworld. Sometimes these characters are in danger of becoming caricatures but the author has kept that in check and cannot be accused of going back to the style of Cold Comfort Farm. Some of the characters get lost to self-destruction, others, such as Nell and Nell’s father, find a sort of redemption. I also saw references to Chekov’s The Seagull with the middle aged actress, Aunt Peggy (like Irina) at the centre because she is the only one with any money and there is John, the aspiring writer who regarded all his relationships as material for his future novels and was even willing to maliciously manipulate his acquaintances to see how they would react (rather like Boris). There is even someone who takes her own life because or unrequited love. In other ways, I was reminded of a Midsummer’s Night Dream, without the forest as the lover’s and prospective lover’s, the beloved and the mistakenly loved, wander about meeting and not meeting. All these references whether actual or imagined makes reading fiction a continuously enriching experience… don’t you think?