9 June 2020

Starlight by Stella Gibbons

It's nice to be back here after several weeks of reading The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel.  Deciding to forego any note taking, I thoroughly enjoyed a lazy immersion into Thomas Cromwell's world of privilege, mindful dialogue and keeping on the right side of King Henry VIII.  Why would anyone strive to catch the attention of a King or Queen in any court?  Give me a small cottage as far away as possible and one or two loyal friends.  

The garden beds at home are popping with the glow of newly emerging hosta and Annabelle hydrangea.  Flowers for the pots haven't always been easy to come by.  Stock supplies aren't as plentiful as they've been in the past but it's an opportunity to try something a little different in plantings.  The find of the season was jasmine.  Ever since a flood of that sweet flower engulfed me in front of Keats House in Hampstead a few years ago, I've wanted a plant of my own in the worst way.  Jasmine is hardy to zone 7, unfortunately we're zone 5 so the affair with my two vines will be short, but oh so wonderful.

But, on with Stella Gibbons.  For me, she's an obvious choice for a good read that takes me to a feel good reading place.  Not a sappy or syrupy place, just somewhere I am sure to find interesting characters I will actually care about, copious cups of tea, both city and country landscapes, and a situation that needs resolving.  Starlight has a synopsis that is completely bonkers but Stella Gibbons' talent for writing and quality storytelling had me completely invested.

   'Dust, grease, dimness.  Yet the room was cosy.  Thin red curtains kept out the foggy night at the square window, and Gladys, the one who went out to work every day, knew that, from outside, they made a faint but heartening ruby glow; the little, old broken gas-fire burned with an opulent roasting flame.  It ate shillings, fair ate them, was the sisters' verdict, but what could you do?'

Gladys and Annie Barnes are sisters in their seventies, living in a tired cottage in Highgate.  Also living at Rose Cottage, in the loft, is Mr Fisher, a former teacher, who makes small dolls from bits of straw.  The sisters are not entirely sure if he's peddling or begging while wandering the Heath most days, but they do know he's what people would consider 'odd'.  The fact that he changes his name each month goes a long way to cement the sentiment.

Of the two sisters, it's Gladys who sees to the general running of things.  Having worked in service spanning the years before and after both wars, and now in a family run Greek café, she is very much a doer.  Annie, on the other hand, spends much of each day enveloped in layers of jumpers, scarves and coats while lying in bed.  She suffers from an ailment that seems to centre around anxiety.

Also in the cast of characters is a Vicar.  Mr Geddes considers bringing his mother in to work as a daily at the Rectory as he is tired of Mrs Hemmings cooking and sour face (not very Christian, is it).

   'Would it be shockingly selfish to bring his mother down from Harrogate to look after him?  She had only been released from the tyranny of many stone-floored, rambling, draughty, mousey vicarages three years ago, and the hotel was warm, pretty and comfortable.

Working alongside the Vicar is Reverend Corliss, a young bachelor recently graduated from ecclesiastical college.  Life in the parish is rather routine until Rose Cottage is sold to a suspicious-looking 'rackman', Mr Pearson.

Mr Fisher, Gladys and Annie are terrified of being evicted, but their fears are dampened when they learn that Mr Pearson means to renovate the cottage and move his wife into one of the rooms.  So, what's this all about, they wonder?  Mrs Pearson, at first glance, seems to be a respectable woman but a very colourful past slowly emerges including no small amount of criminality lurking in the background.  They have acquaintances who run a small hotel in a bombed out area off Warren Street.  It's all edging towards a place that's slightly dark for a novel set in Highgate with two spinsters and a retired teacher featured prominently.

There's also a subplot involving the Pearsons' twenty-two year old daughter, Peggy.  There is heartbreak in the young woman's recent past, something that involves a man and a riding school in Sussex.  Desperate for some space and freedom from parental inquisition, Peggy takes a position looking after Mrs Corbett's dogs and to occasionally be available to 'hand out' during gatherings at her employer's impressive home.  Mrs Corbett has a son in his forties....and let me just say, for a woman who doesn't like creepy things, she's not looking closely enough at a few personality traits of her offspring.

Somehow Gibbons manages to layer elements of post-war England with gangland dealings, and contrast religion with psychic phenomena with complete success.  On the surface it could all seem a bit cosy but don't get too comfortable.  If you're a fan of The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns you'll find further entertainment with a copy of Starlight.  Is this the best book I'll read this year?  No, but it was exactly the sort of story I was looking for at the time.

Stella Gibbons has been a tonic during these days of lockdown limbo.  So much so, I've ordered two more.

A Spiritualistic Séance by Kunnas Väinö (1896 - 1929)


  1. I haven't read this one but I loved Cold Comfort Farm and Nightingale Wood. This one is on the TBR list, and I also own several others reprinted by Vintage - The Bachelor, Westwood and My American. I also found a copy of Pure Juliet which is a new printing of an unpublished manuscript. Also still unread, sigh. Which two Gibbons did you order?

    1. Hi Karen!
      You're filling a shelf with wonderful reads for down the road...a great idea. The Bachelor arrived yesterday and The Matchmaker should be here in a day or two, making 11 titles by Gibbons at my house. As for Pure Juliet, I loved that story and have no idea why the reviews were lukewarm. You're in for a treat!
      Thanks for letting me know you loved CCF because it hasn't struck me as one to reach for. Yes, I'm in that camp of readers that seem to be reading everything around that title, but I'll get there!

  2. I read this two years ago and labelled it "an odd book" and I stick by that! https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/book-review-stella-gibbons-starlight/ An interesting one, though!

    1. Hi LyzzyBee!
      One of the things I really like about Gibbons' books is that she wasn't afraid to stretch a bit. And somehow, even if that stretch runs to the ridiculous, it's satisfying. Having said that, Gibbons' treatment of poor Mr Fisher's end was disturbingly dark and Mrs Pearson...I wasn't prepared for things to go to that level of odd!
      It's nice to have a choice within Gibbons' oeuvre to suit your mood.

  3. Oo sounds v interesting, and I think I have it among my MANY unread Stella Gibbons books...

    1. MANY?! Where are my smelling salts, Simon! Get yourself to the 'G' section of your many bookcases and get stuck in.

  4. It's very readable, isn't it - but as you say, completely bonkers! Quite as worthy of parody as the highflown novels she was taking the mickey out of in Cold Comfort Farm.