I loved Westwood, and it’s increasingly rare that I love books at first read. I generally rather enjoy Stella Gibbons’s work (and I reviewed The Matchmaker here) but apart from Cold Comfort Farm, which I adore unequivocally, I’ve found Gibbons’s novels to be pleasant rather than stimulating. Westwood (1946) manages to be both comforting and sparkling, a Victorian novel of morality and marriage with a Regency comedy of manners at its heart, and sprinkled with the fragments of a modernist tale of disconnection, dysfunctional marriage, and the anxieties of wartime London.
Margaret is rather serious (and plain) schoolteacher whose parents don’t like each other, and her beautiful friend Hilda is determined to enjoy the heady sensation of being popular among young men in uniform. Both live in the London suburb of Hampstead Heath, and both separately encounter the aristocratic and artistic denizens of one of its Great Houses–the Westwood of the title. Westwood is owned by the celebrated playwright Gerard Challis, who has a penchant for beautiful young women and allusive turns of phrase (“There is a shadow in the crook of your elbow” is a line in one of his plays). His wife, the long-suffering and graceful Seraphina, and occasionally their beautiful spoiled daughter (a Bright Young Thing barely grown up), her artist husband, and their children belong to the household. Margaret finds the colour and music she has been longing for in the house; Hilda becomes a bemused object of inspiration for Gerard, and everyone eventually finds their destiny–and it’s not always what you’d expect. Along the way there are caustic comments on modern art and literature, the behaviour of the British aristocracy, the limited options open to women, and the different effects of wartime London and its privation felt by the Challises and their more humble neighbours. It’s hard to describe the charm of the book–it’s wistful and beautiful, and the stories in it are small and light, but Westwood is also dark and sharp enough to leaven any sentimentality.
“He was always in love with his heroines; those women of fire and dew who represented the Eternal Mistress of Man, and each time one of them went out into the world in a play he trembled for her as if she were a breathing, suffering, living woman, and it hurt him if all women did not envy her and all men long to possess her. (None of his heroines ever had any children, for he did not consider that a woman with children was fitted to be a fiery, dewy mistress.) Each time he met a woman who seriously attracted him, he put her on her mettle by indicating that he had never met his Ideal Woman outside his own plays, and then she would try to be fiery and dewy, until the inevitable moment arrived when she had had it.” (101)
(Review title quotation from Louise Imogen Guiney’s “The Lights of London”)