As part of Curtis Brown’s 120th birthday celebrations, Norah Perkins, who heads up Curtis Brown Heritage and is a part of the Curtis Brown 120 team, reflects on the literary works of Curtis Brown heritage client Stella Gibbons.
Stella Dorothea Gibbons’s debut novel was a smash hit. Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932, is one of the most perfect examples of English satire ever written, aimed squarely at writers of the “loam and lovechild’ variety, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Mary Webb and John Cowper Powys among them. It won the Prix Etranger, became a bestseller, and Stella was launched onto the literary scene.
And so Cold Comfort Farm became the book that defined her; indeed, it became almost immediately a burden – an albatross of success and expectation that she herself likened to ‘some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but is often an embarrassment and a bore’. Not one of the novels that followed received the same attention, critical reception or sales of that first one – and this is the great injustice.
For Stella was a prolific writer of many brilliant, witty, moving, thought-provoking, genre-challenging novels. She was always brave enough to try her hand at the new and unexpected. She was a poet – indeed, she saw herself primarily as a poet, despite her reputation as a novelist. And she was a journalist – working for, among others, the British United Press, the Evening Standard and The Lady.
In honour of the extraordinary and unusual body of work, and in celebration of the capacity of writers to travel far beyond their beginnings, and their best known works, here is a very small list of Stella’s other works that are unjustly under read, out of print, or indeed well nigh impossible to find.
1. The poetry, of course, must come first, as it did with Stella. From her earliest satirical entries in the University College London magazine, sending up Yeats, Eliot and Sitwell all together, ‘With apologies to the latest school of Decoratively-Melancholy Introspection’, to a body of poetic works that dealt prophetically with the destruction of the natural world by encroaching industrial landscapes, Stella’s poetry is brilliant, compassionate and provocative. Her three collections, published between 1930 and 1938 and collected in 1960, are well worth revisiting, but are almost completely unfindable.
2. It’s impossible to choose favourite novels – my colleague Becky Brown is already disappointed that we are not including Here Be Dragons, but here are two that should be noted:
Westwood: This is the novel that led Lynne Truss to write that ‘Stella Gibbons is the Jane Austen of the twentieth century’. Published in 1946, the story takes place in London just after the Blitz; and is the story of a rather ordinary girl in wartime London – ‘no stockings, no chocolate, no men’. It is a perfect evocation of a city, ‘sombre and thrilling, as if History were working visibly, before one’s eyes’, and of the handful of characters that are brought together against the backdrop of war.
The Fort of the Bear: As a Canadian, I’m desperate to read this out of print and apparently brilliant and rather strange book set in the wilds of the Canadian North-west in the 1920s. I will quote the excellent Furrowed Middlebrow (stuckinabook.com): ‘I rather like the idea that Gibbons’ fatigued wartime fantasy of an escape to the wilds led to Fort, because it shows Gibbons always challenging herself. Even what began as an understandable dream of getting away from the stresses of war had to be carefully worked through, and came to reflect, in the novel, the dark and destructive extremes to which such anti-social impulses could extend. She couldn’t even imagine herself peacefully relaxing next to a lake without exploring the social and ethical issues involved!’
3. A Book of Fairy Tales called The Untidy Gnome. We are currently trying to source a copy, but I can only assume that fairy stories for children put through the complicated looking glass of Stella’s art must be no less than wonderful and wonderfully weird.
4. ‘A Woman’s Diary of the War’ was a series of columns published in the journal St Martin’s Review during the Second World War. These are uncollected, and lurking in an archive – watch this space…
5. Last but certainly not least! Stella intersected in interesting ways with the burgeoning science fiction genre throughout her writing life, but nowhere so hilariously as in this piece of absolute excellence from Punch magazine: ‘Jane in Space’. Punch commissioned a series of writers to ‘Improve the standards of Science Fiction [with] SF stories in the manner of great novelists’. The series also included ‘Hemingway in Space’ by Kingsley Amis…
Stella died thirty years ago this month. Rightly we remember her for Cold Comfort Farm, but she deserves to be remembered for her extraordinary breadth of talent, across many genres and over many decades.
Stella Gibbons is our first Curtis Brown Heritage author to be celebrated as part of our Curtis Brown 120 celebrations. Throughout the year we’ll spend time with many more writers who have stories have formed a part of our story since 1899.
Norah Perkins is also a guest tutor on Curtis Brown Creative’s London-based novel-writing courses, which you can find out more about here.