Stella Gibbons’ famous book “Cold Comfort Farm”, perhaps her only famous work, was not just a fablus book but a great national institution. I used to look forward to reading some of her other titles, and somewhere (second-hand bookshop or recycling dump), some years ago, I snapped up this copy of her “The Matchmaker”. When it failed the ‘immediately addictive’ test after I swiftly glanced through the first half-page, it went into the Strangetruther Library vaults for possible perusal at ‘some unspecified later date’. The fate of such books has proved uncertain at best but on a brief sortie this spring, “The Matchmaker” (1950) revealed a few features irresistible to me. (Click image for enlarged version – with Gibbons’ other book titles readable!)
The book’s setting was rural Sussex where I was at university, and the kind of area my mother liked, having been evacuated to Herefordshire during the war, and later having been a land-girl, which she loved (and about which she wrote a nicely illustrated book, never yet published). I never caught her enthusiasms for getting up early or for getting up close and personal to large steaming animals, but “The Matchmaker” has as a major character a London lass sent off to be a land-girl just post-war, when the book is set.
It’s been intriguing to me to know exactly what it was like at that time when my mother and for example her sister, my auntie Wendy 🙂 , the spitting image of Kate Humble as it happens, and of a similar personality, had to find a fun living in a glum grey time. Now I have something to compare their tales with (I never watched the TV series The Land Girls). But for Stella Gibbons it was clearly as distinctive and worthy of analysis as the inter-war setting of “Cold Comfort Farm”; she was very familiar with it and goes to great lengths to communicate the spirit of the place to us: its mundane traditions and its recent disjunctions.
But her land-girl character Sylvia was definitely not Gibbons’ favourite. For some reason the rather angular Sylvia was seen as absurd and self-obsessed, unrealistic and unnatural. In fact she came from a weird kind of combination of my own grandmother’s working-class-up-to-almost-middle-class culture and left-wing-politics-loving household, with Katherine Hepburn’s much better off and American home. I envisioned Sylvia as looking like Hepburn, and I still see no reason to disparage any such background. Gibbons therefore swiftly painted herself in my mind as an inexcusable snob.
Is it good for an author to reveal so obviously their personal preferences amongst their characters? I don’t think Shakespeare did. But it’s a special characteristic of Gibbons to break out of staid literary conventions. She likes to talk to the reader, and enjoys discussing how she’s played little tricks with you. This sort of thing enhances whatever attitude you had to her in the first place, but it only made her more interesting to me, not more likeable or enjoyable. She also has a style of story-telling excellently described by somebody in a phrase and passage I cannot now remember, and criticising a different author, where she takes the reader’s attention for granted. Many’s the time I found myself thinking “haven’t you described this bit of countryside enough times like this already?” or “yes we know what you think of this kind of person well enough now, so can we just get on with that piece of plot you’ve left unconscionably hanging for far too long already?”.
But the zippy and irresistible Emma Kennedy makes no such mistakes. Whereas you have to drag yourself though “The Matchmaker”, “The Tent, The Bucket And Me” drags you! She was somehow involved with the low-profile but excellent TV series “The Smoking Room” – either just as a writer or perhaps also as an occasional performer, I can’t quite make out or remember – but this book also has a personal appeal for me. I too was a single child whose parents (also, as in her case, both teachers) took me on camping trips, both abroad and to Wales, where she went on her first trip, and interestingly quite close to where I now live, so I felt very connected from the start. I read this book because my local book reading club chose it, and there was some discussion about how realistic the scene of Emma’s Welsh relative lighting the gas street lamps in the area might have been at that time. Many said they didn’t believe it but some said there was a possibility that there might have been a last three of four gas-lights still going, somewhere in the area. I liked that bit since my great grandfather was a lamp-lighter; and anyway the other cultural images in that chapter seemed right, if very vivid, and certainly enjoyable.
Also, I was at one time a young kid, and it’s nice to be reminded of the world seen though young eyes – indeed it’s a major part of the charm of the book. For some reason her family had much worse luck with their camping holidays. I’ve been trying to work out why; I think my parents were just much more cautious and thorough in their planning.
You soon realise the book is a sequence of amusing anecdotes about funny things that happened but you don’t mind that, or at least I didn’t. They really are funny and it’s easy to imagine how such weirdnesses could arise from ordinary antecedents. For me the highest point of the book was when she’s gone off to a camp without her parents for once, and she and her new friends had woven some intrigue of some minor importance out of the existence of the toilet block and their little social set-up. I did nearly damage my lungs towards the end of that bit.
The latter part of the book gets you feeling rather sad for her as you wonder if things are going to keep getting worse, and if she’ll suffer any long term damage. It becomes as much a horror story as a comedy. Sadly I got the impression that in later years, calamities of the sort involving “The Bucket” and other arrangements of a similar nature, were to be replaced by calamities involving the even more worrying category: Men. Arrh! 😦 😉 . And she seemed such a sweet little thing in her picture on the front cover!
You quickly grew to like her and her parents, as she entertained you through the chapters, through the years, through the miles and through the campsites of Britain and France. You also liked her attitude to writing and to her readers. Reading Stella Gibbons’ book, you soon realised she liked, and perhaps in some cases identified with, modestly heroic young mothers, rustic Italians, “Pride And Prejudice”, and perhaps Jane Austen. She wrote a history book you have to read; whereas you don’t have to read Emma Kennedy’s, but you’re glad you did.