Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Matchmaker, by Stella Gibbons

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Stella Gibbons’s 1949 novel The Matchmaker is set just after the Second World War and dissects that exhausted society in great detail. With her skill at creating full blooded, three dimensional characters, coupled with her sharp social observations, Gibbons creates a rich and absorbing canvas of English life in the mid 1940s.

The career of Stella Gibbons is somewhat of a mystery to me, namely, the enduring success of her first novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932) when there are so many other rich pickings in her considerable oeuvre. For this reviewer at least, Cold Comfort Farm remains insubstantial fare when compared to later, more mature works. 

My personal favourite is her plaintive Westwood  (1946), with its questing heroine Margaret Steggles, struggling in war time London and trying to make a satisfying life for herself. Her quirky late novel Starlight (1967) reminded me of Angela Carter’s Wise Children, and dealt with two elderly women living in a dilapidated household. Her short story collection, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940), features fiction she wrote in the 1930s and highlights her skill at character and the complexities of human relationships.

Happily her 1949 novel, The Matchmaker, is also a thoroughly enjoyable experience. While not as brilliant as Westwood, it exhibits many of Gibbons’s great strengths: well rounded, believable characters and shrewd observations about the human condition. Gibbons has a no-nonsense approach to fiction, writing to communicate and entertain while eschewing brassy literary effects. 

It is just after the Second World War, and Alda Lucie-Brown’s husband, Ronald, is posted overseas. To try and create a safe, sequestered environment for their three daughters, Meg, Jenny and Louise, Alda moves her girls into Pine Cottage in rural Sussex. Soon enough she is caught up in all the local politics and neighbourly goings-on. When Alda’s long time friend, Jean Hardcastle, comes unexpectedly to stay, she starts a bit of mild advice giving on Jean’s single status. There are local romantic prospects, namely a handsome chicken farmer named Mr Waite. He seems a good match, yet Jean is distracted by the highly romantic image of an old love, the fashionable Oliver Potter. A second romantic plot involves a young Women’s Land Army recruit, the boisterous Sylvia, and an Italian prisoner-of-war, Fabrio, who works on a nearby farm during the day.

The drama for Jean involves deciding between the plodding chicken farmer, Mr Waite, and glamourous yet superficial Oliver Potter. For Sylvia, the choice is even more impossible: leaving England to live with an Italian peasant. It seems that this situation must have been not unusual with many prisoners-of-war working the countryside in the immediate post war period. These aspects of the novel give it added interest as an historical document of the times.

The miracle in Stella Gibbons’s prose is how she weaves such ordinary, day-to-day events into such a compelling narrative. At 420 pages long, there’s never a dull moment in this sprawling tale of rural English life. If anything, Gibbons has the fine gift of the classic 19th century novelist. Her novels take time and care to dissect character and tease out the complexities of the human condition. In some ways she has her moments as a minor twentieth century George Eliot. The wonderfully civilised novels of Anthony Trollope also come to mind when reading The Matchmaker.

I could perhaps countenance the success of Cold Comfort Farm if some of Stella Gibbons’s other fine novels enjoyed as hearty a reputation. Perhaps now that they have been given a new lease of life via the Vintage Classics range, some of her forgotten gems may now find a wider audience.

The Matchmaker, by Stella Gibbons. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099529330  RRP: $12.95