I was aware that Vintage were publishing some previously unknown novels by Stella Gibbons but hadn't thought much about what they'd be like. At her best ('Cold Comfort Farm' - obviously, 'Nightingale Wood' if you want some charming romance) she's brilliant, but of the handful of titles I've read there have been a few that have underwhelmed me. I hadn't really meant to read these new ones, found in manuscript form by her daughter. Then I was asked if I'd take a look at 'Pure Juliet' for Shiny New Books and decided to say yes.
It's a strange book, one that almost certainly wouldn't have seen the light of day if Vintage (and to a lesser extent Virago, who reprinted 'Nightingale Wood' which certainly sparked my interest in reading more Gibbons) hadn't already done so much work to resurrect her reputation and build a new following for her.
'Pure Juliet' is broken down into three parts. In the first section we meet Juliet, a frustrated, ungainly, teenager considered weird and creepy by family and teachers - she has no friends. What she does have is an uncanny gift for maths and physics. At 17 she's also achieved 5 A levels in these subjects at her local comprehensive, but her father has decided she'll be leaving to find work as a secretary and not going to university. For Juliet, obsessed with working something out neither option holds any attraction. Instead she runs away to the country to live with a rich and elderly woman she met by chance in a park, and who wishes to adopt her. Here, she believes, she will find the peace she needs to work out the maths of something that seems to matter.
Juliet is so socially withdrawn and inept, and so gifted when it comes to maths and physics that it's tempting to assume she's autistic (at least it is now when it's a label we're all familiar with) but that doesn't seem to be what Gibbons has in mind. This Juliet just has something important to do, so important that any distraction is an inconvenience to be resented and there's simply no time or energy for anything but the work. The first book sets this all out and introduces Juliet to the people who will shape her life, especially Frank - the nephew of her would be guardian and the man who decides to make her his protégée. It's his intention to nurture her genius and teach her to be human at the same time. There is also Clemence, the woman who loves Frank (he hasn't noticed) and her reaction to his interest in Juliet.
The second book makes clear just how difficult Juliet finds normal human relationships, her work really is all that matters to her. Even death is an inconvenience. She's oblivious to the animosity she raises in others and remarkably single minded, it ends with her being accepted into Cambridge, much to Frank's satisfaction.
The third book is where it falls apart a bit, Gibbons makes it clear that she doesn't think much of women who don't want a family. Juliet is unnatural not because of her intelligence but because she's not interested in sex and everything sort of fizzles out into a somewhat underwhelming conclusion, and a lot about Frank and Clemence's children who turn up to late to feel relevant or interesting.
Gibbons is spectacularly good at describing the English countryside, she finds and shares the beauty in a field or a hedgerow that makes her as good as any nature writer I've ever read, and it's a skill she puts to good use here. Mostly though this is a book for fans, It's not going to win over any new readers, and there's an underlying snobbery, as well as that dismissal of women who don't have a husband and children that's problematical. It's interesting to see what Gibbons is doing at the end of her writing career, paths first book especially is compelling, and I never lost interest, but there's also a not quite finished feel about it. Recommended but with reservations