‘Westwood’ turned out to be a bit of a reading journey for me - it looks quite innocent but at 448 pages there’s a lot in there to think about. First published in 1946 but set during the latter years of the war this is, apparently, the book that Stella Gibbons was proudest of. Lynne Truss has championed it for some years first as a classic serial for radio 4 and now through the introduction of this Vintage reprint and in at least one recent newspaper feature – in short it came with some expectations attached.
The first page was promising, Gibbons trademark descriptions of nature, in this case reclaiming bombed out London streets, are deeply evocative and for me at least irresistible but after that I stalled a bit. There were a couple of references to ‘the second world war’ which with some other bits and pieces of phrasing felt clumsy, almost stilted, and stopped me really falling into the plot as much as I wanted to. However when all the scene setting and introducing of characters was done with the distracting feeling of too much explanation disappeared and by the end of the book I could see why Gibbons was so proud of it – which is rather what happens with the heroines character so perhaps it was all deliberate...
I suspect that the other problem I had with the first half of the book was Hilda, again I had high expectations of Hilda the down to earth beauty who sees through all the pretentious nonsense that her friend Margaret falls for but she doesn’t seem quite real. Bought up on a diet of Mary Wesley with suspicions confirmed by Marghanita Laski’s ‘To Bed With Grand Music’ Gibbons often repeated descriptions of Hilda as a chaste forces sweetheart are oddly unconvincing, I can appreciate that in 1946 this was the kind of girl we would have wanted to imagine but the frequent affirmation that she never goes too far with her string of service boys makes me feel that the lady doth protest too much. That she only spends time with the rather horrible Gerard Challis because she feels sorry for this decidedly middle aged playwright is however entirely believable.
Margaret Steggles – the heroine of the piece- is an entirely different thing though. She is a masterpiece and definitely earns Gibbons the right to be compared with Austen. When the book opens Margaret is 23, a teacher, unhappy with her life and in London with her old friend Hilda looking for a house for her parents to live in. The Steggles home is not a happy one due to Mr Steggles wandering eye and Mrs Steggles bad temper. Margaret herself is a passionate, impressionable, and very awkward young woman. She longs for Art and Beauty and possibly a little romance but unfortunately is a little to plain and a bit too high brow to be attractive to men.
The chance finding of a ration book brings her into contact with the Niland’s and Challis’s – intellectuals in the form of painters, playwrights and glamorous women. Margaret is smitten despite these people being pretty awful – Hilda wouldn’t be fooled for a moment – and taking every opportunity to dump their children on her and generally impose on her infatuation. As a way to get closer to the Challis’s Margaret strikes up a friendship with Zita, a Jewish refugee who lives with them at Westwood. Zita is rather a figure of fun throughout the book, but in the end it’s she who really transforms Margaret.
For example it’s Zita who takes Margaret to concerts properly introducing her to music, Zita who goes to the theatre with her, who helps her become more chic, and who shows that a physically plain woman can yet be attractive to men. I don’t think I’ll spoil much by saying that as the book ends Margaret is happier, more confident and far surer of herself and her personality, all of which makes her more attractive and a much nicer person for the reader to be with.
What really sets this book apart though is the very end where Gibbons describes her gentle powers – Beauty and Time and the Past and Pity and Laughter. These are the things that will help Margaret come what may; if she can’t find earthly love she will at least find comfort in work, duty, friendship and the arts. I find it remarkable because it’s rare to be told that a woman can be happy and fulfilled without some form of physical love. (I think Margaret will have her romance, she’s been kissed by the last chapter and not just once or by one man – I feel sure there will be more). There’s no pretence that an unmarried life would be an easy or desirable one for her, but a reminder that there will always be consolations for disappointment if you’re prepared to make the best of what you have. It’s good to have a happy ending where the girl doesn’t need to get the boy.