Posts Tagged ‘Hampstead’

Christmas Pudding

December 9, 2013

Christmas Pudding by Nancy MitfordWe discussed Christmas Pudding, Nancy Mitford’s wonderfully silly, laugh-out-loud second novel, at Emily’s Walking Book Club yesterday.

Hampstead Heath was beautiful, the sun sweeping across it and warming us as we gathered around a bench at the Druid’s circle, scoffing mince pies and fruit loaf, wondering if Mitford would have considered our location to be London or country – a dichotomy she explores in her novel. Yesterday, wandering through such expansive space, while looking out across the crowded city, Hampstead was the best of everything. We did, however, recall Elizabeth von Arnim’s contemporary novel The Enchanted April, and thought that Nancy Mitford might have agreed with Lady Caroline:

Perhaps people who lived in Hampstead might be poor; indeed, must be poor, or why live in Hampstead?

Touché.

Christmas Pudding is the perfect antidote to the stresses of Christmas itself, when overfed families are liable to be at each other’s throats. I read it very quickly and laughed out loud on several occasions. I say, at the first sign of any trouble this Christmas, retreat to a sofa and pick it up and it will considerably brighten your outlook! In any case, it was exactly what I needed after such an upsetting read as The Bell Jar, a very affecting novel, the horror of which has haunted me all the week.

(Yes, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that The Golden Notebook – the final, most daunting novel in the Margaret Drabble recommends trilogy – has been put on hold. And, I’m afraid, it continues to be on hold, most likely until the New Year, when I hope I might have a spurt of energy that might inspire tackling such an intellectual, meaty, thick book.)

Christmas Pudding has a terribly silly plot: The improbably named Paul Fotheringay is distressed because his first novel Crazy Capers, which he wrote as a poignant tragedy, has received rave reviews as a hysterically funny farce. His friend, the inimitable ex-courtesan Amabelle Fortescue, advises him to write a serious biography for his next book, and he decides on Victorian poetess Lady Maria Bobbin for his subject. He writes to the present Lady Bobbin asking if he might visit and read her ancestor’s diaries. On receiving his letter:

She read it over twice, found herself unfamiliar with such words as hostelry, redolent and collaboration, and handed it to her secretary, saying, ‘The poor chap’s batty, I suppose?’

Thus rejected, Paul turns to Amabelle again, who devises an ingenious plan. She is friendly with Lady Bobbin’s teenage son Bobby Bobbin, who is at Eton (of course), and is a fun-loving, self-confessed snob. She engineers it so that Paul will go to stay with the Bobbins over the Christmas holidays in the guise of Bobby’s tutor. Amabelle has conveniently rented a nearby cottage, and Paul and Bobby spend all their time supposedly riding and golfing etc, while actually sneaking off there to play bridge. Add to this Paul’s falling in love with Bobby’s bored sister Philadelphia, and a certain Lord Lewes who becomes a rival for her affection, and a host of other minor characters all brilliantly daft, and you get a pudding of delight!

Carry on JeevesIt reminded me very much of PG Wodehouse. I kept expecting to bump into Gussy Finknottle and his newts. Here, the equivalent to Bertie Wooster’s twitty friends, are Squibby Almanack and his friends Biggy and Bunch, who are more passionate about Wagner than debutantes. Missing, however, from Christmas Pudding, so essential to Jeeves & Wooster, is Jeeves! For while Mitford has her posh twits aplenty, she pays no attention to manservants or any staff at all. There is a brief mention of Amabelle’s groom, who exercises the horses to fool Lady Bobbin, while Paul and Bobby play bridge, but that’s pretty much it. One can only conclude that Mitford was interested only in the antics of the upper classes, not the lower. Perhaps she felt capable only of dissecting the problems faced by people of her own class. Perhaps she was simply a snob, but if so, I hope we can forgive her, seeing as she is so good at poking fun at and pointing out the many shortcomings of all her toffs.

Mitford pays a great deal of attention to the question of marriage, which is shown to be more-or-less the only option for upper-class woman. The great question is whether to marry for love or for money. Advice on this tends to be rather unromantic. Amabelle says:

If I had a girl I should say to her, “Marry for love if you can, but it won’t last, but it is a very interesting experience and makes a good beginning in life. Later on, when you marry for money, for heaven’s sake let it be big money. There are no other possible reasons for marrying at all.”

Later on she says:

The older I get the more I think it is fatal to marry for love. The mere fact of being in love with somebody is a very good reason for not marrying them, in my opinion. It brings much more unhappiness than anything else.

While lesser novelists might be tempted to write a run-away love affair, the sort of Sybil and Tom narrative of Downton Abbey, Mitford takes care to stress the sensible unromantic realities beneath all her silly farce.

At Emily’s Walking Book Club, we were all rather enamoured with the winsome character of Amabelle. She has the most autonomy of all the characters and is able to choose her fate as well as manoeuvre the others into helpful positions. I wonder if there is something of Mitford herself in her, with her spirit of fun, and writerly controlling of the plot.

Another point that walkers raised was that while Christmas Pudding should read as a period piece, capturing a 1930s situation that ought to be inconceivable now, in actual fact, little has changed. There remains a feeling of entitlement amongst the upper classes, especially in politics, with the Lords who decide they might take up their seat in the House. Just look at our Etonian cabinet, raged the walkers. I felt rather proud that we’d managed to get so political. Who dares to claim that reading novels is less serious than reading non-fiction?!

So while on first glance Christmas Pudding is the perfect book to raise one’s spirits, providing some light relief to what can be a rather dark time of year, on further scrutiny there is a great deal of serious stuff to discuss. Marriage, politics, class, matriarchy and more. What a clever, skilful novelist Nancy Mitford was!

I set Daphne the acid test of choosing between Christmas Pudding or some rocket leaves:

Christmas Pudding 1

The rocket caught her eye immediately.

Christmas pudding 2

She made a beeline for it.

Christmas pudding 3

And consumed it with relish.

Christmas pudding 4

Then, faced with the prospect of Christmas Pudding, she seemed rather weary.

Christmas pudding 5

I can see that Christmas Pudding is rather too fast-paced for her. Or perhaps she simply finds the snobbery rather tedious. Or perhaps she simply prefers the writing of Mitford’s great friend, Evelyn Waugh.

The Enchanted April

April 15, 2013

The Enchanted April pbkIt would seem that English women in the 1930s were all in desperate need of a holiday. As Mrs Wilkins explains to Mrs Arbuthnot in The Enchanted April:

Why, it would really be being unselfish to go away and be happy for a little, because we could come back so much nicer.

Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot are miserable middle-class Hampstead wives, stuck in loveless marriages. Going into town to buy fish for their husbands’ dinners is more-or-less the highlight of their days.

We could add to Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot, E.M. Forster’s earlier middle-class women Lilia Heriton and Caroline Abbott from Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Margaret Kennedy’s Florence Creighton from The Constant Nymph. This dire need of a holiday was not, however, just a middle-class thing; it was also felt by wealthier ladies. In The Enchanted April there is young, beautiful Lady Caroline Dester, worn out from too many parties. Or in Illyrian Spring by Ann Bridge there is Lady Grace Kilmichael, who is fed up with her husband and children and wants to travel around the Mediterranean and paint.

Nearly a century later, not much has changed. We all could do with a nice long holiday. If I were to happen along the following advertisement, as Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot do at the beginning of The Enchanted April, I too would long to go:

To Those who Appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine. Small mediaeval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let Furnished for the month of April. Necessary servants remain. Z, Box 1000, The Times.

For our 1930s fictional counterparts, this advertisement proves to be a rare catalyst for independent action. They quietly defy their husbands, recruit two more women to their cause (the aforementioned Lady Caroline Dester, and formidable elderly dowager Mrs Fisher, who doesn’t stop banging on about her friendships with all the great, dead Victorian intellectuals), and rent this castle, San Salvatore, for April. As the name ‘San Salvatore’ might suggest, this holiday will indeed be their ‘saviour’, their salvation, from the dreariness of London life.

The Enchanted April hbkThe Enchanted April could easily be a delightful, soppy story about women going on holiday and being transformed by joy. Mrs Wilkins, on her first morning in San Salvatore looks out of the window and feels utterly overcome with emotion:

Happy? Poor ordinary everyday word. But what could one say, how could one describe it? It was as though she could hardly stay inside herself, it was as though she were too small to hold so much of joy, it was as though she were washed through with light.

I have a weakness for this kind of sentimental gush, but for those of you who are a little tougher, fear not, for The Enchanted April is brilliantly balanced by Elizabeth Von Arnim’s wonderful sense of humour. She is forever poking fun at her characters, wryly observing their habits, putting them in awkward situations and watching them stew. Take this, for instance, perhaps my new favourite literary food quotation:

Mrs. Fisher had never cared for maccaroni [sic], especially not this long, worm-shaped variety. She found it difficult to eat, – slippery, wriggling off her fork, making her look, she felt, undignified when, having got it as she supposed into her mouth, ends of it yet hung out. Always too, when she ate it she was reminded of Mr. Fisher. He had during their married life behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified, and when at last she had got him safe, as she thought, there had invariably been little bits of him that still, as it were, hung out.

Perhaps you need to have more of an idea of pompous old Mrs Fisher before really getting the hilarity of it. Think Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, all dressed up in lace, sitting down to lunch, bang on time, by herself, in a gorgeous yet shambolic Italian castle, and being confronted with a rebellious plate of pasta.

Needless to say, when I told the husband that he might be compared rather unfavourably to macaroni, he was a little troubled.

There are other very funny moments too. Mr Wilkins (summoned to San Salvatore by his wife) can’t handle the Italian plumbing. On arrival, the first thing he tries to do – in true English fashion – is have a bath. But he manages to blows up the stove. Then:

Mr Wilkins leapt out of the bath and rushed to the door, and only the instinct born of years of training made him snatch up a towel as he rushed.

He manages to run straight into Lady Caroline, a.ka. ‘Scrap’, who he is keen to impress because she is so posh. Indeed he has spent hours on the train carefully choosing his words of greeting, and yet here he cries out, ‘That damned bath!’:

No, it was too terrible, what could be more terrible? Only a towel on, water running off his legs, and that exclamation … Rarely did Mr. Wilkins use that word, and never, never in the presence of a lady or a client. While as for the towel – why had he come? Why had he not stayed in Hampstead? It would be impossible to live this down.

But Mr. Wilkins was reckoning without Scrap. She, indeed, screwed up her face at the first flash of him on her astonished sight in an enormous effort not to laugh, and having choked the laughter down and got her face serious again, she said as composedly as if he had all his clothes on, ‘How do you do.’

Some might dismiss this as no more than farce, but surely Von Arnim uses this comic instance to capture the essence of her characters. Here is Mr Wilkins, whose deepest instinct is for modesty and decorum, so of course he is excruciated by his improper behaviour to a Lady. Scrap manages to fall back on her impeccable manners. Mr Wilkins, amazed at her magnanimity, reflects ‘blue blood, of course.’ It is a perfect distillation of two different English classes.

These English women who go on holiday – usually to Italy – seem to flourish in their new setting. They are exhilarated and liberated by it and so are able to act independently, free from the restrictions they felt in England.

Von Arnim’s descriptions of Italy centre on the garden at San Salvatore, in a way that reminds me a little of how Vita Sackville-West wrote about the house in All Passion Spent, with its heavenly peach tree ripening in the sunlit garden. Von Arnim suggests that her female characters are not so different from flowers – one of them is even called ‘Rose’ – but most unexpected is the transformation of old Mrs Fisher, with her:

curious sensation, which worried her, of rising sap … a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon.

The plant metaphor is extended: ‘she might crop out all green … come out all over buds.’ Mrs Fisher, like the other three women, blossoms in the Italian Spring. They are able to be at their most natural and beautiful. All the lovely descriptions about the flowers blooming in the gardens come to be a reflection of the blossoming women who happily laze around in them. I’ve not read Elizabeth Von Arnim’s other famous book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I imagine something similar happens there.

The novel ends with a gorgeous description of the flowering acacias. And then:

When, on the first of May, everybody went away, even after they had got to the bottom of the hill and passed through the iron gates out into the village they still could smell the acacias.

The implication is that, having blossomed abroad, these women can return to real life still touched by the holiday. That scent of the acacias will stay with them, as will the transformative power of the Italian Spring. Mrs Wilkins and Mrs Arbuthnot have been reunited with their husbands and will go back to London feeling rather a lot happier. It’s not so dissimilar to the end of Illyrian Spring.

These are happy endings, but suggest that holidays are somewhat flimsy. Yes, of course everyone feels better after a nice long rest, but nothing major really changes. After all, the characters return to their old lives. For how long will they be able to smell the acacias?

Where Angels Fear to TreadWhat about fictional portrayals of holidays which have a more profound effect on women? In E.M. Forster’s  Where Angels Fear to Tread, Lilia Herriton remains in Italy, which has tragic consequences. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, eventually returns to England but her heart is left behind in Italy, and one feels she probably won’t end up living happily ever after. Or, take Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph: Sensible, likeable Florence goes off to The Tyrol where she lands a musician husband and tries to tame several wild children. She brings them all back to England, but rather than slipping happily into her old English life she struggles with these wild appendages and, ultimately, fails.

The Constant NymphA holiday can do us a world of good, yes, but sometimes the disjuncture between how one can be on holiday and how one can be at home persists afterwards. What if you can’t translate this new-found blossoming into your old life? What if a whiff of freedom only serves to poison your constrained future? Tricky questions which Forster and Kennedy were brave enough to ask.

Perhaps Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April after the break-up of her second marriage, was relying on the fact that at least in fiction she could conjure a blissfully happy ending. Perhaps it’s best that we aren’t left thinking too hard about what might happen next, once Mrs Wilkins is back in Hampstead and has nothing to do other than buy fish for her husband’s dinner. Instead we are encouraged to believe in the magic of San Salvatore, trusting that the scent of the acacias won’t fade.

It was certainly a novel that I relished for its enchantment. Reading it last week, as London’s Spring at last began to stir, I felt like I was on holiday just by reading the book. I hope that the revitalising effects will last. For now, at least, the husband might be getting macaroni, not fish, for dinner.

Elizabeth Von Arnim

All Passion Spent

July 3, 2012

I read Vita Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent in a completely heavenly way. I was recovering from a Friday night hangover and the husband had vanished off to lug a load of sandbags around in an architectural manner. I made a pot of coffee, a huge bowl of muesli (my Achilles’ heel, see my last post) dotted with leftover strawberries from the night before, and climbed back into bed where I lay reading All Passion Spent from start to finish, as the sun streamed through the windows and my headache gently evaporated. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday morning.

I came to All Passion Spent with a feeling of relief, of at last, finally, phew. I have wanted to read something by Vita Sackville-West for such a long time. First at university, when studying Woolf, there she was, endlessly popping up her elegant head and begging for a little more attention than there was time for. Then for my literary hen party (more details here) we had a beautiful afternoon strolling around her home, Sissinghurst. I since learnt that we were taken for a troop of literary lesbians, come to pay our respects to this ultimate literary lesbian. Apparently they get quite a few such groups, and rather fewer hen parties.

The gardens at Sissinghurst are famously beautiful, and they are definitely the most beautiful gardens I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They make the little rusty bathtub with its heroic raspberry bush on my windswept roof terrace look rather miserable, actually, but no matter. To go there is to enter garden heaven. I remember reading about Vita Sackville-West’s gardening in Alexandra Harris’s remarkable book Romantic Moderns:

To plant bulbs in the middle of a war was to assert one’s firm belief in the future. She made a point of planting a slow-growing magnolia in spring 1939, wanting to believe that there would be someone there to see it in a hundred years time.

I think it’s a wonderful – and a very feminine – way of asserting one’s defiance.

So it was with joy that I climbed back into bed with my copy of All Passion Spent and a feast of a breakfast. Every page, sentence and word were a delight to read.

The book opens with the death of Lord Slane, a great statesman, leaving his children, who are mostly in their sixties and perfectly ghastly, deciding what to do with their newly-widowed mother, Lady Slane. They devise a frightful scheme whereby she will be parcelled off between them, paying each of them for her keep for a few months of the year. Lady Slane, ‘the very incarnation of placidity’, quietly defies them and plants a slow-growing magnolia.

Not really. She quietly defies them and says she’s going to move into a little house up in Hampstead. Back then, in 1931, Hampstead was rather less chi-chi and rather more bohemian than it is today, and to these residents of Chelsea’s Elm Park Gardens, it might as well have been Peckham. We get a lovely scene of Lady Slane shuffling off on the underground (she is eighty-eight after all) up to Hampstead, her mind running off along little paths as the stops go by.

Lady Slane saw the house thirty years ago, but by some miracle, it is still there, waiting – as it were – for her to rent it. The eccentric Mr Bucktrout, owner and agent, is happy for her to rent it, so long as he can come round for tea once a week. So Lady Slane settles down up in Hampstead, and the rest of the book is given over to this quiet ending of her days, with the company of Mr Bucktrout, her loyal French maid, a jack-of-all-trades, and Mr Fitz-George – a long-lost acquaintance who first met her when she was the very beautiful Vicereine of India.

You’ve probably gathered that there’s not a tremendous amount of action. Most of the narrative is given over to Lady Slane’s memories, as she sifts through parts of her life, making her peace with it, looking back at who she was and what she’s become. This reflective nature of the prose allows for some interesting meanderings on various ideas. For instance, we get this on happiness:

But what was happiness? Had she been happy? That was a strange, clicking word to have coined – meaning something definite to the whole English-speaking race – a strange clicking word with its short vowel and its spitting double p’s and its pert tip-tilted y at the end, to express in two syllables a whole summary of life. Happy. But one was happy at one moment, unhappy two minutes later, and neither for any good reason; so what did it mean? It meant, if it meant anything at all, that some uneasy desire wanted black to be black, and white, white; it meant that in the jungle of the terrors of life, the tiny creeping creatures sought reassurance in a formula …

That night, I stayed up embarrassingly late leafing through a volume of my (heavenly) collection of Virginia Woolf’s letters, picking out the ones to Vita Sackville-West written at around the time of All Passion Spent. For, as well as being her lover, Woolf was Vita Sackville-West’s publisher; indeed, the Hogarth Press made quite a sum of money from both All Passion Spent and her previous novel The Edwardians, which were both bestsellers. I hoped Virginia Woolf might have written some thoughts on All Passion Spent, or offered some advice, one writer to another. But then I found the following letter to Vita on Friday 25th April 1930, sent from Monk’s House:

“I don’t think I can stand, even the Nicolsons, on happiness for three quarters of an hour” I said at 8.15.

“Well, we can always shut them off” said Leonard. At 9 I leapt to my feet and cried out,

“By God, I call that first rate!” having listened to every word.

This is (for a wonder) literally true. How on earth have you mastered the art of being subtle, profound, humorous, arch, coy, satirical, affectionate, intimate, profane, colloquial, solemn, sensible, poetical and a dear old shaggy sheep dog – on the wireless? We thought it a triumph: Harold’s too.

Evidently, Vita and her husband Harold Nicolson were on the BBC radio discussing happiness. I suspect that some of the ideas they talked about then, might have seeped into her musings on happiness in All Passion Spent. And Woolf’s litany of affectionate praise for Vita Sackville-West’s art on the wireless is, I think, apt for her writing as well.

I could go on about All Passion Spent for yonks – her thoughts on growing old, on being young, on being a woman, on frustrated dreams, on money, on family … but I shall confine myself to one last particularly lovely passage. Do forgive the very long quotation, but as Virginia Woolf said, she is ‘a dear old shaggy sheep dog’ and it is a very very long sentence which needs to be written out in full. I think it one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read:

She remembered how, crossing the Persian desert with Henry, their cart had been escorted by flocks of butterflies, white and yellow, which danced on either side and overhead and all around them, now flying ahead in a concerted movement, now returning to accompany them, amused as it were to restrain their swift frivolity to a flitting around this lumbering conveyance, but still unable to suit their pace to such sobriety, so, to relieve their impatience, soaring up into the air, or dipping between the very axles, coming out on the other side before the horses had had time to put down another hoof; making, all the while, little smuts of shadow on the sand, like little black anchors dropped, tethering them by invisible cables to earth, but dragged about with the same capricious swiftness, obliged to follow; and she remembered thinking, lulled by the monotonous progression that trailed after the sun from dawn to dusk, like a plough that should pursue the sun in one straight slow furrow round and round the world – she remembered thinking that this was something like her own life, following Henry Holland like the sun, but every now and then moving into a cloud of butterflies which were her own irreverent, irrelevant thoughts, darting and dancing, but altering the pace of the progression not by one tittle; never brushing the carriage with their wings; flickering always, and evading; sometimes rushing on ahead, but returning again to tease and to show off, darting between the axles; having an independent and a lovely life; a flock of ragamuffins skimming above the surface of the desert and around the trundling wagon; but Henry, who was travelling on a tour of investigation, could only say ‘Terrible, the ophthalmia among these people – I must really do something about it,’ and, knowing that he was right and would speak to the missionaries, she had withdrawn her attention from the butterflies and transferred it to her duty, determining that when they reached Yezd or Shiraz, or wherever it might be, she also would take the missionaries’ wives to task about the ophthalmia in the villages and would make arrangements for a further supply of boracic to be sent out from England.

But, perversely, the flittering of the butterflies had always remained more important.

All Passion Spent is in many ways a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which Woolf argues, among other things, that a woman cannot write fiction without money and a room of her own. She also writes about how the literary tradition is male rather than female and complains that the very sentence which was used so effectively by men was ‘unsuited for a woman’s use’. She argues that a woman’s experience is different from man’s, that what women want to write is different from what men want to write and so they need to find new tools of expression, ‘knocking that into shape for herself’.

Woolf wrote of the moment as ‘an incessant shower of innumerable atoms’, but I rather prefer Vita Sackville-West’s expression of it as ‘the flittering of the butterflies’, darting beautifully and playfully around the male cart which presses ever directly onwards.

And indeed we find this image of the butterfly moment appearing elsewhere in Vita Sackville-West’s writing. Here it is, in Twelve Days in Persia, which she wrote a couple of years earlier:

It is necessary to write if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clasp the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.

Fine inspiration for any writer.

Westwood

September 27, 2011

Well I said I wanted to read a book set on Hampstead Heath, so that’s exactly what I’ve done.

Westwood begins with Margaret Steggles walking on the Heath in September. So really, what with timing and location, I couldn’t be reading anything more appropriate. Bye bye Gerald Brenan and your hot Andalucian scrub, hello the Heath, ‘all gorgeous in deep colours softened by the mist’.

I have to say from the outset that this book is a sheer delight. It is rather quaint, very old-fashioned, terribly English, and marvellously funny. I began it on a train, when I managed to thoroughly irritate the fiancé with my frequent badly-stifled chortles.

‘But just listen to this,’ I said, continuing before he had time to protest…

Before the Second World War Lukeborough had a population of some seventy thousand, being smaller than Northampton and larger than Luton, its nearest comparable neighbours to the north and south. Evacuees from London and war-workers drafted into its new factories from the Midlands and the North had increased its numbers to nearly eighty thousand by the fourth year of the War, and its natural ugliness and dullness were enhanced by overcrowding in its streets and shops and cinemas, and a chronic shortage of those small delicacies that make life in war-time a little brighter.

‘Don’t you think it’s brilliant?’ I asked, as the fiancé stared blankly back at me.

‘Not particularly. Now shut up.’

Harrumph, I thought. I’d even picked a bit that was vaguely about architecture in the hope that that might engage him.

I find Gibbons’s description of Lukeborough very funny, and quite typical of her style. She is utterly dead-pan. Perfectly understated. Lukeborough’s ‘natural ugliness and dullness’. That is just the way it is. It is similar to her portrayal of the main character, Margaret Steggles (who is rather wonderfully misnomered by others among the cast of characters as ‘Struggles’ and ‘Mutt’). She is plain and bookish and she must simply make the best of it. I suppose in that respect Gibbons’s writing is quite like Jane Gardam’s, that other heroine of mine.

Gibbons’s language is full of words like ‘dismal’, ‘goody’, ‘shriek’ and ‘frightful’. They are woven together to create something along the lines of: ‘Oh goody,’ she shrieked. ‘With such dismal weather, we’re bound to get frightful colds.’ Terrific!

Westwood follows Margaret Steggles as she and her unhappily-married parents move from the dismal Lukeborough to Highgate, towards the end of the Second World War. Margaret happens upon a dropped ration book on Hampstead Heath and returns it to its owner, a certain Mrs Hebe Niland, wife of a famous artist, who lives in Hampstead, and daughter of a posh playwright, who lives in a big grand house – Westwood – in Highgate. Margaret manages to entwine herself in the lives of the households, befriending the German refugee maid Zita, obsessing over the posh playwright and hatefully envying Hebe Niland. But the plot is, of course, thicker than this, and there are subplots involving a lonely older man, American army officers, a kind wise lady, a school, the pretty jolly-hockey-sticks Hilda, and so on. I don’t want to give too much of it away.

One of the particularly clever things about Westwood is how Gibbons writes about the War. The War is very much part of the scenery, from the opening description of war-time London – a surprisingly cheerful city of ruins – to the frequent mentions of blackout and air-raid sirens, to the characters such as the American officers and Zita, the German refugee. But while the War is undoubtedly going on, the characters’ lives refuse to be dominated by it.

The artist Alexander Niland, for instance, spends the air-raids up on the roof, ‘wrapped up in an airman’s kit which belonged to a friend who would fly no more’ making sketches for a painting:

The noise was unpleasant and he did not like it when large pieces of shrapnel fell on the roof, but it was not possible to make satisfactory sketches of the night sky during an air-raid without such events. Hebe, who had never been afraid of anything in her life, found his new experiment as amusing as it was natural.

The air-raids have become a form of artistic inspiration for Alexander and a source of mild entertainment for his wife. For most characters they are more an inconvenience than anything else, somewhat tiresome interruptions to normal life that must be tolerated.

So the War isn’t ignored in the book, rather it is confined to the margins. None of the characters lets it creep too far into the page. This is not the War of dramas and tragedies and terror. This is a War that is annoying because of the limitations of one’s sweet ration, and the inconvenient risk of one’s torch battery dying during the blackout. There seems something peculiarly British about it.

And in her refusing to give too much attention or drama to the War, Gibbons reminds me of the poet Edward Thomas. Yes, different wars, I know, but there’s something about the way his poetry studiously ignores the trenches in favour of train stations, fields and flowers, that seems similar in its obstinacy. For Gibbons too writes about nature. There are the many beautiful descriptions of the Heath, Hampstead and Highgate, and also of the countryside, such as this scene when Margaret has to wait by a railway station – that might as well be called Adlestrop:

She crossed the road and sat down on the heavenly bank, where there were moon-daisies and buttercups growing in the long grass and a mosaic of yet flowerless green plants, ivy and ragged robin and goose-grass and many others, growing in the hedge; the main body of it appeared to be hawthorn, for there was white may-blossom showing among the rest and that faint scent, too fairylike to be completely pleasant, mingled with the scents breathed out by the other flowers and plants and just traced upon the warm air.

 Ahem…

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,

And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry …

They’re not so different are they?

For all this nature, this green and pleasant land, is, after all, what is being fought for.

So, going back to that early description of ghastly Lukeborough, with its ‘natural ugliness and dullness’, perhaps there is a fondness there for such a shabby town, not so much in spite of its shortcomings but because of them. It may be a horrid town, but it is a very English one, with its Corn Exchange and grey skies, and one that is placed firmly in Bedfordshire. Perhaps Britain needs her Lukeboroughs; for every Lukeborough, there is a ‘heavenly bank’. Just as for every plain, bookish, earnest Margaret there is a pretty, happy, jolly Hilda.

Each character is ever so different from the next, and each one is portrayed sympathetically and with a little mischievous humour that prevents one from taking any of them too seriously. And as with each character, so with each place.

What this book does as well as the best of them is portray a loving and cheerful view of war-time Britain. It is hard to read it without feeling a wistful longing for a faded world. I, for one, am going to increase my use of the word ‘goody’, try to replace the lost apostrophe in front of ’phone and indulge in that great British predilection for afternoon tea. I can only urge you to read it and do the same.