Stella Gibbons' 1950s novel Here Be Dragons is a dark and brooding story set in London's underworld of cafe's and backstreet bars.
Ever since I read Stella Gibbons’ 1946 novel Westwood I’ve become a big fan of her writing. While nothing I’ve read of Gibbons since Westwood has matched that book, there are many others that I’ve enjoyed very much.
Here Be Dragons was published in 1956 and is a rather dark, brooding novel. Nell Sely is a young woman just entering adulthood in post-war London. Her father, Martin, is an ex-vicar who has lost his faith, and as a consequence, his income and means to support his family. Nell’s mother, Anna, is an intelligent woman struggling to deal with life’s setbacks. To try and help out her family, Nell takes on some office work, but that doesn’t work out. She then tries out work as a waitress, which pays more.
In the meantime, she has started a light flirtation with her Bohemian cousin John. John introduces Nell to the seedy underside of London – bars and coffee houses where young artists and poets strive to realise their full potential. There’s a lot of bravado in their talk, and Nell, who has a good head on her shoulders, tries to navigate this dark and shimmering underworld. She feels great affection for her cousin John, but his nihilism and decadence means the two can’t really be meant for each other. She is practical, he is a self-destructive dreamer. The novel basically charts her inner turmoil over her relationship with him and her struggle to find her own place within her generation. It’s also full of wonderfully poetic descriptions of London – its streets and parks and life after dark.
While Here Be Dragons is not her best novel, I enjoyed it very much. Gibbons is a natural born writer and can effortlessly spin out the pages, developing character and painting lovely set pieces of London. I could read her evocations of London Streets for ever. Nell Sely’s moody and melancholic journey, her struggle to find herself in the dark world of post-war Britain, has a harrowing truth to it.
Here Be Dragons, by Stella Gibbons. Published by Vintage Classics. ISBN: 9780099529361 RRP: $12.95