17 November 2014

The Rich House by Stella Gibbons

There are plenty of cosy reads out there and then there are those that rise above - The Rich House is delightfully in the latter group.  Set during the 1930s in a coastal town the opening line is enough to make you stop what you're doing and plug in the kettle.

'Mrs Pask was an elderly widow living in the town of Seagate, where the meekness and simplicity of her nature caused her to be somewhat despised by her acquaintances.'

If that doesn't make the corners of your mouth curve with a grin, Mrs Pask lives on the 'Quiet Side' of the High Street.  The mild way in which Stella Gibbons highlights what is desirable to this character clearly displays the issue of class.  Having said that, there is a substantial amount of gazing through the net curtains so what goes on across the street, while perhaps being undesirable, provides a great deal of entertainment.  Through cutting humour the reader is provided with a pretty clear picture of where most characters stand on things.  

'Most people have a They.  Some people, when they say They mean the Germans; others mean their relations or burglars or Communists.  Miss Gaye meant the tradespeople.'

My favourite character is the orphaned Mavis Jevons who lives with Mrs Voles and her daughter, Reenie.  Mavis rents a bedroom with a 'slim view of the sea' for eight and sixpence a week but struggles to make ends meet.  Despite every appearance of a well-organized existence Mavis owes money to the Cosyhome Furniture Company and lives in fear of not making the payments.  Her dinners, taken in her room, consist of a boiled egg, some lettuce and a bit of fruit but there is always the comfort of a pot of tea.  Needless to say, her complexion runs to the anemic.  Meanwhile downstairs, Mrs Voles is frequently frying up something so the house seems to always smell of meat but she is too mean to share. Mrs Voles also has an aversion to any kind of fruit featuring black people on the label so refuses to eat pineapple from Hawaii.  Living in a modern society where it's frowned upon to write amount matters of class and race in such a way, there are moments that made my eyes widen but I'm not about to judge past literature.   Reenie, in her efforts to look for foods which 'Belong to Us' discovers she is quite taken with geography and begins a search in bookshops for 'a natlas'.  Thankfully she is a gentler soul than her mother.  While there is humour in the writing, again, as a modern reader I desperately wanted Reenie to have the option of furthering her education rather than doing her mother's bidding.

Pauline Williams is twenty-two and remembers her teenage years as carefree.  She is still spirited but getting on which surely explains the neuralgia in her head when the cold winds blow.  The love of her life is Brian but his constant fixation on 'going all nudist' is a turn-off which leads to no small amount of strife between the pair.  Other than a handsome face and a bit of money in the family, I failed to see what Pauline saw in Brian - he's quite despicable.  His deplorable side is not lost on Pauline though (thank goodness) and I was thrilled whenever she rebuffed his childish and spoiled rantings to join his club.  Another woman, wealthy and past her prime in looks waits in the wings and even Brian's father thinks it's a match made in heaven.

The Rich House is really a nickname for Parkfield, the large family home of the Early family; theatrical bohemians who live amongst exotic souvenirs, old playbills, and cobwebs.  Their son, Ted, is maturing into a handsome young thespian who is great friends with Pauline.  He enters the servants' corridor and finds Louise...

'She was sitting at the table under the barred window with all the materials for stuffing a chicken around her, but a book was in front of her and she was reading.  As he came in she slowly looked up.
  'Is that for tonight?' he enquired, poking the chicken with a not very clean finger.
  'Yes.  Don't do that.'
  'Don't you put sage in the stuffing, then, you know I can't abide it.'
  'It isn't going to be stuffed with sage, it's going to be stuffed with prunes and chestnuts.'
  'She put her chin into her hands and smiled at him.  Her face always had the ghost of a smile on it, and this annoyed people in Seagate.  Her teeth were not her own and her lips were too full and she was forty-seven and not groomed, but she was beautiful.  Ted was too inexperienced to know what was the force that made her face attractive.  It was not intelligence, nor gentleness nor spirituality.  Most women disliked her at sight.'

There is a wealth of social observation to absorb within this book's 312 pages.  I was even intrigued by mention of one character's engagement ring which is bragged to be worth an eye-watering £70 but purchased for £40.  Thanks to Google you can find out approximately how much that bauble would be worth today and it turns out to be somewhere near £4,312.

There is also an air of mystery when spiteful letters pop up in mailboxes which make it obvious certain people are being watched.  Poor Mavis receives her share and coupled with losing her job at Just's Library she is driven to a breakdown of sorts.  This is the part of the book where, if you have a heart, you'll be driven to the tissue box.  Think along the lines of poor Jane Eyre wandering the moors all alone and starving.

You may wonder why, with so many storylines featuring a negative slant, this works as a cosy novel.  For me it's the way Stella Gibbons puts the reader on a chair in every room and in the head of the main characters.  Being able to soak up what happens in other people's homes and examine social mores from another era through story is as good as any documentary.  Also, just a quick mention, the synopsis of this book begins by stating that it is set on the eve of World War II but there is barely mention of anything relating to that event.  So if you're looking for hankies and tears on the train platform, you won't find it here but you will be thoroughly entertained at every turn.  I promise you.

Thanks to Fleur and Scott for pointing out this title when I posted about another wonderful book by Gibbons, Here Be Dragons.  The Rich House is now a firm favourite and something tells me it will be all the richer after a second reading.  If you're looking for a very nearly perfect and very enchanting cosy read to get you through the approaching wintery months, this is it.


The Seaside by Alice Maud Fanner
c.1920

6 comments:

  1. I am so glad you loved this book too - thank you for taking me back into its world for a little while.

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    1. I went ahead and ordered Bassett as well so my 'Gibbons' collection is quickly gaining ground on my shelves. Thanks for knowing my reading tastes so well and passing on recommendations, Fleur!

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  2. Another recommendation by you that will go into my ever growing pile of books to be read! I have never read anything by Stella Gibbons, though I saw the film adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm which I loved. Thank you!

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    1. Cold Comfort Farm is supposed to be quite different from anything else she wrote...it does sound rather strange but hey, it has quite the following! Make room on your shelves, Sunday.

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  3. I've read a few non-CCF Stella Gibbons novels, and liked or very much liked them, but haven't found anything in the same league as CCF - but this could be! That opening line is a delight.

    I really, really love the first half of Bassett, which is about two spinsters setting up a boarding house together, but the young-love-triangle which occupied the second half was too tedious.

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    1. I'm working my way up to CCF, I think....it sounds a bit on the weird side but it might simply be a case of settling into Gibbons' sense of humour. I will try! You would love The Rich House, Simon, that I do know. And thanks for sharing your thoughts on Bassett...will make sure to be in the mood for something tedious when I read it!

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