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Nightingale Wood

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Life is not quite a fairytale for poor Viola. Left penniless, the young widow is forced to live with her late husband's family in a joyless old house. There's Mr Wither, a tyrannical old miser, Mrs Wither, who thinks Viola is just a common shop girl, and two unlovely sisters-in-law, one of whom is in love with the chauffeur.

387 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1938

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About the author

Stella Gibbons

54 books337 followers
Stella Dorothea Gibbons was an English novelist, journalist, poet and short-story writer.

Her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for 1933. A satire and parody of the pessimistic ruralism of Thomas Hardy, his followers and especially Precious Bain by Mary Webb -the "loam and lovechild" genre, as some called it, Cold Comfort Farm introduces a self-confident young woman, quite self-consciously modern, pragmatic and optimistic, into the grim, fate-bound and dark rural scene those novelists tended to portray.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 238 reviews
Profile Image for Carol She's So Novel꧁꧂ .
785 reviews565 followers
August 16, 2021
Firstly I want to say - just look at the cover of this edition! Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

Light, effervescent, wonderful colour palette - would have one expecting something Woodhousian, wouldn't one?

Which this book really isn't, even though there are flashes of humour. What this book is is a study of the British Class System and social values at a time (late 1930s) when the world is starting to change.

The widowed (& nearly penniless)Viola feels she has no choice but to accept her starchy in-laws offer of a home. The Wither family (great choice of surname!) are frozen in their tyrannical father's idea of time. The rest of them are miserable! Viola, young, spendthrift and none too bright, is wondering if she made a terrible mistake leaving her friend's home in London. But then comes the Charity Ball...

I end up liking this book very much, for its wonderful social commentary in the middle. Be aware that the scene setting at the start may feel a bit tedious, but it is necessary for the events that unfold. The ending had too much telling & not enough showing for me, but what I liked was that I didn't predict the correct ending for anyone!

I am now going to be on the hunt for Gibbons best known book, Cold Comfort Farm

Profile Image for Shannon .
1,221 reviews2,133 followers
May 24, 2010
I loved Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons' debut novel (the film is also wonderful, if you haven't seen it), so I was excited to hear about this book - I never thought to look into it but Gibbons wrote quite a few novels in her day; this is her ninth. And, written and set prior to the outbreak of WWII, it was perfect for the currently-running 1930s Mini-Challenge (hosted by things mean a lot).

From the opening line, you know you're in for one of those wonderfully witty, sharply ironic stories that cast an appraising and not very flattering eye on people and society. It begins: "It is difficult to make a dull garden, but old Mr Wither had succeeded." And, just a paragraph later, comes this gem: "Mrs Wither came in, but he took no notice of her because he had seen her before." That cracked me up! This kind of dry humour, deprecating and even insulting in its ability to spotlight people's flaws and insecurities, their idiosyncrasies and petty vanities, is a sense of humour I grew up with and feel perfectly comfortable with, thanks to how much British television the ABC plays (and how much we, my family, watched).

It is the story of newly widowed Viola Wither, a shopgirl who married Theodore Wither who died of pneumonia a year later while only in his 40s. Pretty much penniless, she goes to live with her in-laws at The Eagles in Sussex: dour Mr Wither and his obsession with watching his money in the stock market; Mrs Wither, who disapproves of anyone who isn't staid, plain and "sensible" (which Viola certainly isn't); Madge, the eldest daughter who, in her late-30s, still finds men and love and all that nonsense disgusting and prefers being one of the lads up at the club and training her dog, Polo; and Tina (Christina), who is now in her mid-thirties, has tried several careers but lost interest in them all, and has a crush on the young chauffeur, Saxon.

Into this gloomy house comes Viola, who is herself not very intelligent, nor does she have great depth of feeling. But, she has always had a great crush on the Withers' neighbour, Victor Spring, a very handsome and wealthy bachelor and businessman. Victor is just as flawed as everyone else - you won't find a single character in Nightingale Wood who comes across as completely sympathetic; at the very least, they're depicted as a bit of a twit. With Victor, the object of Viola's mad love, he's less than honourable with women:

He admired women only for being pretty, docile, and well dressed. He had to pretend he admired the other achievements because everybody else admired them (or said that they did) but to himself he thought coarsely All a lot of B. And when he got with other men, who agreed with him, they would smile in a certain way, and look at each other, and mutter 'All a lot of B.' Brainy women, sporting women, arty women - all a lot of B. This may have been due to suppressed subconscious jealousy. Or it may have been due to the natural resentment of a healthy creature, existing efficiently in its own sphere, because another creature with different powers and aims was muscling in on a comfortable racket. There are the two points of view. (p.247)

Victor's fiancee, Phylis, is a very well-dressed socialite whom he's known forever - theirs is the sort of engagement that was always going to happen. Phyllis is even less of an attractive person than Victor - she reminded me of Mr Darcy's girlfriend Natasha in Bridget Jones's Diary, especially when she clicks her fingers at him to hurry along (did I get the name right?).

The ensemble cast - and there are plenty more who make an appearance and an impact on the story - make for an entertaining read. The plot is simple enough, following mostly Viola and Tina, but isn't really about plot. It's more a very shrewd, slightly caustic (in its honesty), deeply ironic look at early 20th century British society, still deeply classist, still obsessed with money and who has it, with vanities fair and foul. I half expected Victor's cousin Hetty, who scorns their flashy lifestyle and grand house with a snobbery equal to theirs, and reads a lot of poetry and other "deep" works, to be a sensible, even wise character: but no, she's held up as being just as foolish as anyone else. In a way, it makes for an evenly-told story.

Perhaps because all their flaws and vanities are held up for our laughing scrutiny, they all end up being sympathetic characters, in their way. They're also very familiar characters: we may think we've come a long way but seriously, I think it's fair to say that there are plenty of Viola's, Tina's, Mr Withers, Victor's, Phyllis's and Hetty's around today. Which just emphasises how shrewd Gibbons' eye really was. So we laugh and wince at the same time.

It did take me quite a while to read this book, because it's surprisingly dense and seemed to take forever to turn a page. There's a lot of detail here, and it's a different prose style than what is common these days. I could quote lots of passages, there's some wonderful insightful lines here and yet more wit, but you'd be better off reading the book yourself and getting the proper context. I'm certainly keen to read more Gibbons.
Profile Image for Ryandake.
404 reviews50 followers
April 12, 2013
(this review refers to the audiobook version.)

oh what fun! like jane austen with icky people.

this book tends toward a dim view of the human race, which is quite fine with me. there's the father-in-law, who wants only to get his paws on other people's money. his low-wattage wife, who must have never met an intellectual challenge she didn't run shrieking from. his eldest daughter, a spinster so cold she can love only a dog. his youngest daughter, whose chances for marriage are a candle in the wind. and the friendless young widow his family takes in, only to be mean to her.

Gibbons is a new experience for me. this is like the anti-romance novel, for the most part. but not just romance of the boy-girl kind--she writes quite clear-eyed about money and its corrosive effects; about living (or not-quite-living) in a stultifying society; about how small-town life can make a person, well, small. only the natural world gets a pass.

i'd like to listen to this again sometime--Gibbons' social critique is sharp and often very funny, and she has clear respect for her readers. the end wraps up with a wedding, but rest assured, not everybody lives happily ever after, not by a long shot.
Profile Image for Rebecca Huston.
1,061 reviews153 followers
September 26, 2014
A very funny, very smart novel about upper-middle-class life in late 1930's England. Two families, separated by a woodland where The Hermit, the town drunk and squatter lives, come together in unlikely ways when Viola, the Withers' widowed daughter-in-law, arrives and chaos starts brewing. Lots of wit, some tongue-in-cheek moments and just enough sadness to make all of the lovely bits sting just a bit more. If you liked Cold Comfort Farm you will probably like this one.

For the longer review, please go here:
Profile Image for Mela.
1,419 reviews175 followers
November 2, 2022
There is nothing like something nasty for bringing people together

He supposed that he wanted her so much that it was making him fond of her;

I am fascinated by Stella Gibbons' style of narrating and seeing people. She wasn't polite or nice to her characters. Sometimes she was simply harsh. So, meeting them, getting to know them can be difficult. I so wanted to like them, but Mrs Gibbons seemed to do all she could to make it hard. And, although, it often gave me the unpleasing feeling that humans are horrible (or at least ridiculous) species, on the other hand, I loved it. Reading it was like watching painful/harsh truth, that in the end gives one some kind of (perhaps a bit twisted) hope. It is hard to explain it. I remember that the similar impression I had after The Matchmaker.

I have marked many quotes showing Stella Gibbons' way of describing characters, but there is no point in writing them all here. Let's just look at one, that is rather disturbingly still valid.

The Crowd was six or seven young matrons, with jobs, and their husbands; all very smart, all very knowing, all just a little bored with the ones they were married to and wondering just a little what Jim or Roger, Anne or Chrissie, would be like to have a flaming affair with.
In fact, Jim, Roger, Anne and Chrissie would have been exactly like Tom, Archie, Irene and Connie, but as they lived in different bodies, there was at least the promise of Romance.

I am pretty sure, it isn't a novel for everyone. Everyone can try, but you really have to be a little cynic, satiric and can see the world as the writer without feeling depressed. Otherwise, I think, you will not enjoy it much.
Profile Image for Georgie-who-is-Sarah-Drew.
1,069 reviews124 followers
January 13, 2021
If this hadn't been written by Stella Gibbons, I think I'd have rated it more highly. But the power of the Brand is such that I judge NW by CCF - and it just doesn't measure up. There are some delightfully cutting remarks, and some pleasant enough scene-setting. But. Part of the problem is that none of the characters are particularly sympathetic - or, at least, every scene that might elicit some sympathy for one person or another is followed by an antidote. That can work well enough if there is a thorough-going villain against whom everyone can unite, but Mr Wither, set up initially as a domineering mysogynistic puritanical Mr Punch, is sadly marginalised. So, while this wasn't a completely wasted afternoon, I'd hoped for more.
Profile Image for Abigail Bok.
Author 4 books190 followers
August 13, 2021
Most people know Stella Gibbons only from her brief first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a book I have several times started but could never finish. So I began Nightingale Wood in a doubtful spirit. That didn’t last long.

This is a very accomplished social comedy set in the mid-1930s. It centers on Viola Wither, a twenty-one-year-old bit of fluff of a widow who has been forced for pecuniary reasons to leave London and go live with her stodgy in-laws in Essex. But Viola is such a slight and shallow character that she can’t really carry an entire novel, so Gibbons sagely widens her lens to focus on several of the women in the book, with little dips into the minds of the men. Viola’s sisters-in-law, Madge and Tina, and a neighboring girl all get their own storylines.

Whenever the words social comedy are invoked in the context of British fiction, people immediately think of Jane Austen. In the early pages of the book Gibbons indeed reveals a deft touch for skewering a character with a phrase—Tina dresses “with evident pleasure to herself”—but that gift for snark is not overindulged, as it might be in a novel about Bright Young Things. What Gibbons does indulge, to my luxuriant reading pleasure, is a concurrent gift for lyricism. Her flights of language raise this book above the commonplace level of those comedies of everyday life among the middling sorts that were pumped out in profusion in England between the two world wars. The twin gifts allow the reader to revel in the twin satisfactions of Truth and Beauty.

Speaking of a waltz at a charity ball, Gibbons says, “It was an exciting melody, slow and dreamy and strong, with the swaying rhythm beating through it like the sea under showers of foam. . . . People glanced at one another and laughed, and waded into the ocean of music as the moonlit bathers had gone out into the silver-green sea . . . and the dancers dreamed that life was beautiful, in a world toppling with monster guns and violent death.” That description drove me straight to YouTube to listen to the melody (the description was better than the tune, sigh).

Those bursts of verbal magic are most often applied to the natural world—at one point she describes spring birdsong as “the country itself singing”—and they lend the novel a touch of fairytale. Characters often have their most meaningful encounters in a wild little wood, the place echoing with the nightingale of the title, and the story arcs of not only Viola but others are redolent of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty. Several people are dreaming their way through a life that is comfortable enough materially but deeply unsatisfactory in every other way, and they must all go through painful awakenings to break through into a richer life. Some characters are never able to achieve it.

And because this is a novel of the twentieth century, and of a nation breaking old habits, not all of the awakenings lead to happiness or satisfaction. They can result in disillusion and diminishment, both figurative and literal. Some happy endings are unearned and therefore fragile. Many of the characters live in a secure context of middle-class comfort, but they are still buffeted by bitter winds (to use one of Gibbons’s recurrent images)—financial upheavals, political cross-currents, newer ideas like the psychology that disturbs Tina’s peace and makes all things possible (or threateningly unstable, depending on your perspective). The novel very much captures a moment in time, and because we know what happened a few years later, it is bittersweet.

I am very glad this book has been rescued from oblivion and published by no less than Penguin. It deserves far greater stature than it currently enjoys.
Profile Image for Hilary .
2,196 reviews399 followers
October 3, 2015
Another lovely book with some great characters. A fairytale of a book, a very happy read.
Profile Image for Mir.
4,847 reviews5,003 followers
Want to read
April 30, 2010
Recently reissued by Virago Modern Classics! Yay!

Because there isn't much plot description on GR I am stealing Robin McKinley's review from her blog until I actually get to read this myself.

Viola Thompson is a shop girl with no prospects and, having no prospects, somewhat reluctantly accepts the proposal of a dull young man named Theodore Wither, because she is not likely to have any others. Theodore, however, is so convenient, or inconvenient, as to die after a year of marriage; and Viola goes to live with her in-laws: the appalling Mr Wither, the watery Mrs Wither, the jolly-hockey-sticks Madge and the neurotic Tina in a dire, frigid, over-furnished house marooned in a bit of Essex countryside. Viola is soon lonelier and more miserable than she can comprehend; and with nothing to look forward to, and nothing to think about except the one other large house in the area, where an extremely wealthy and rather handsome young man named Victor Spring lives with his mother and his cousin, gives flashy and dashing house parties, and is the romantic fantasy of every shop girl in Sible Pelden and Chesterbourne. This is not exclusively Viola’s story; Tina, although she has ‘kept her brain exercised by reading heavyish books, which might not always be truly wise but at least were not those meringues of the intellect . . . novels’, is in love with the chauffeur, who is twelve years younger than she is and has a drunken washerwoman for a mother, but is very good-looking: ‘. . . They saw him walk past the window on his afternoon off, wearing a grey suit in which he looked as beautiful as he did in his dark uniform (differing therein from many chauffeurs, whose appearance when in mufti suggests that of escaped convicts).’ And Victor Spring’s cousin, a young woman named Hetty, hates her comfortable, enforced high-bourgeois existence, and can’t wait for her twenty-first birthday, when she is going to run off to London and live in a garret.

Viola is an orphan; she was raised by her father after her mother’s death. He was a passionate amateur actor, and named her Viola after his favourite heroine: ‘She liked to watch her father as he read, and to listen to the smoothly rolling tones; she felt no curiosity about what the words meant. It was only Shakespeare, and she was used to him. . . . But Viola’s father was knocked down by a young man driving a car, and died in an hour.

‘The young man was fined, and had some severe remarks made about him, and drove away from the court faster than ever because he was so cross . . .’ which is to say this is Cinderella with an edge. As Mrs Theodore Wither Viola ‘was not very happy, because after he was married to her, Teddy discovered that she was not so poetic and marvellous as he had supposed, and naturally this made him less fond of her’. Of the exciting house on the far side of the nightingale wood: ‘The telephone rang every half-hour or so. Vans from Harrods, from Fortnum and Mason and Cartier, came up to the house . . . These were for Mrs Spring, whose hobby was shopping.’

This being Cinderella, there has to be a ball, and Viola has to go to it, and meet, and dance with, Prince Charming; and there is and she does. But then the ball is over, and she has to go back to the dire frigid house where there is nothing to do—one of the things Gibbons gets bang right to my eye is the mad, frenzied, hopeless boredom of being a nice bourgeois girl of that era. Viola thinks: ‘I wish I was dead. Well, not exactly dead, but I wish I was a nun or something, or something simply marvellous would happen tomorrow.’

Being a nice girl, she cannot ring up Mr Charming and suggest they go to a film together; besides, he is already engaged to be married, to an extremely well-turned-out scion of the smart set. But—finally—and with only a tiny acceptable amount of violent manipulation, she has an excuse to write him a letter: ‘She posted her letters, keeping Victor’s until the end and pushing it slowly through the letter-box, letting it fall at last into the darkness. She heard the little sound as it landed on the other letters below. She stood for a minute, staring at the box, then turned and walked slowly home.’ And that letter arrives at a crucial juncture, and . . .
Profile Image for Ali.
1,242 reviews334 followers
March 30, 2013
Nightingale Wood is a really delightful Cinderella type tale from the author who of course is better known for having brought us Cold Comfort Farm. However I think that the novel is a little deceptive, it is not as light as it may appear, and there is a complexity and poignancy to it that is especially well done. Gibbons has captured a rural community of the 1930’s with its class divisions and restrictions, highlighting the differing social positions of her characters and the way those positions are perceived by others.
Viola Withers is just twenty one, newly widowed of a much older husband, she finds herself obliged to go and live with her in laws at The Eagles in Essex. This household of women; Mrs Withers, middle aged daughters Madge and Tina and their three female servants are all very much in thrall to Mr Withers, a strict patriarch preoccupied by the management of other people’s money. The Wither’s invite Viola to live with them, out of nothing more than a sense of duty, and Viola’s gentle soul quails rather at the coldness she finds. Mrs Withers regards her daughter-in-law with some suspicion, a former shop girl who married her son rather suddenly; her main occupation seems to be keeping her husband calm. Tina, thirty five, and secretly in love with Saxon the chauffer – twelve years her junior, hopes that Viola will bring some much needed life to The Eagles. Madge on the other hand nearing forty having never really grown up, is only concerned with hunting, fishing and dogs. Madge – famously known for “not howling”, sobbing hysterically as she begs her father to allow her a puppy, is pitifully memorable. Stella Gibbons portrays the family at The Eagles with her familiar humour, but there is a definite sharpness to it – which is very telling.
"The family at The Eagles was assembled in the drawing-room at that dreary hour when tea is long over and dinner not yet in sight. It was a tranquil scene; it would have annoyed a Communist. Five non-productive members of the bourgeoisie sat in a room as large as a small hall, each breathing more air, warmed by more fire and getting more delight and comfort from the pictures and furniture than was strictly necessary. In the kitchen underneath them three members of the working class swinked ignobly at getting their dinner, bought with money from invested capital. But perhaps this is not a very interesting way of regarding poor Mr Wither and the rest….
Not far away from The Eagles, and another rung or two up the social ladder are the Springs, Mrs Spring, her bookish niece Hetty and her son Victor, handsome and full of confidence, he is the undisputed Prince Charming of the neighbourhood. Victor is unofficially engaged to Phyllis a rather hilariously awful character that Gibbons is so good at creating. Victor Spring may be the Prince Charming of the piece, but he certainly appears to not be in any way a hero. At a ball which serves to bring some much needed distraction to the inhabitants of The Eagles, Victor first really notices Viola, despite having already given a lift to her and Tina when caught in a rain storm – his intentions however are anything but honourable.
“Yes..of course, she was a widow. He had forgotten that. She looked the very image of innocence, she talked like a schoolgirl, but widows were not innocent. However young and simple a widow might seem, you could not get away from the fact that widows, presumably, were not…Well this girl was actually more experienced than old Phyl.”
What I really enjoyed about Nightingale Wood – aside from the humour and the wonderful characterisation – are the several different plot strands which weave together so nicely. Tina’s relationship with her unlikely seeming lover Saxon, Viola’s romantic infatuation of Victor Spring, Victor’s unsatisfactory relationship with the eminently eligible Phyllis, manage to be wonderfully satirical and touching. Without giving too much away – in the resolutions of these fairy-tale stories Gibbons is ever so slightly subversive. It all makes for a hugely readable and engaging novel – maybe less of a classic than Cold Comfort Farm –it is still well worth reading.
Profile Image for Vicki.
674 reviews16 followers
June 19, 2015
I read this book when on a Stella Gibbons kick, after reading Cold Comfort Farm. She's a really interesting figure to me, Gibbons, because she wrote SO much, but is pretty much only known for Cold Comfort Farm, which is, of course, delightful. But she was a prolific writer, and just jumped all over the place with her books. That's cool. Most people don't do that.

In Nightingale Wood, we have the story of class clash in a small English town. That's what this book is all about: class, interest, keeping money in your family, or at least keeping your nobility, and coldness. The coldness of a hard family, and how the characters try to find love to warm them up again. Really interesting.
Profile Image for Patricia.
72 reviews27 followers
December 8, 2013
I really enjoyed this book.
If (like me) you've been a long time fan of Cold Comfort Farm, then you'll love this one as well.

If you've never read Stella Gibbons before then the best description I can come up with is that it's like Jane Austen but about 120 years later, with a very dry/wicked sense of humour and just a little bit of sex.
It was written in 1938 and it's a story about people, their social position, manners and relationships.
There's also an interwoven social commentary about the different roles and stereotypes of women at the time.
I loved the humour in the book and laughed out loud several times.

To sum it up - typically English, quirky and fun.
Profile Image for Elinor.
Author 3 books164 followers
August 14, 2021
Why have I never read this book before? It concerns British life just prior to the Second World War, when people were still terribly class-conscious and unmarried women led miserable, meaningless lives. Yet the author, best known for one of my favourite books, Cold Comfort Farm, draws her characters with great charm and scathing wit. Even Tina and Viola, the women for whom we feel the most sympathy, do not escape her sardonic honesty. I actually laughed out loud a few times. The writing is lovely and almost lyrical in places, especially when describing the natural world. And, I hope this isn't considered a spoiler alert -- however unrealistic, the novel ends happily for all concerned! That alone makes it one of my favourite reads of all times.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,850 reviews554 followers
October 9, 2011
From BBC Radio 4 Extra:
On either side of Nightingale Wood through one idyllic year in the late 1930s, hearts beat and minds scheme, as the dowdy Wither family tries to compete with the glittering Springs. Bookish Tina Wither is in love with Saxon, her father's handsome and aloof chauffeur. Her shopgirl sister-in-law, Viola, has fallen for Victor Spring, the lord of the manor. And Madge is in love with a dog.
Profile Image for Girl with her Head in a Book.
612 reviews180 followers
September 10, 2018
For my full review: https://girlwithherheadinabook.co.uk/...

I first read Cold Comfort Farm aged sixteen and fell in love.  It was hilarious.  Instantly, it became one of my all-time favourite books.  I noted vaguely that Stella Gibbons had written a number of other novels back in her day but that they were all out of print.  This was unfortunate but otherwise of little interest.  Flash forward ten years and they started to be republished.  I was delighted, expecting more Starkadder shenanigans.  But no.  Westwood was incredibly depressing.  I could not complete it.  While Starlight was a Gothic wonder, I felt similarly let down by The Yellow Houses and The Matchmaker.  I wondered, could it be that there was - horrors - a reason why Cold Comfort was the only one of Gibbons' books to have remained popular for all these years?  Fearing another disappointment, I approached Nightingale Wood cautiously but within the first few pages, I was breathing a sigh of relief.  As Sophie Dahl describes in the introduction, this is one of those rare books which is 'an unadulterated delight'.

Stella Gibbons set out in 1938 to write a version of the Cinderella fairytale which was 'right up to date'.  For the modern reader however, it has become instead an enchanting period piece.  The story revolves around Viola, 21 years old, newly widowed and cajoled into going to live with her in-laws.  The Withers are a buttoned-up and repressed middle class family consisting of money-obsessed Mr Wither, spiritless and dispirited Mrs Wither and their two middle-aged spinster daughters, Madge (wants a dog) and Tina (wants the chauffeur).  None of the Withers were every very convinced by son Theodore's choice of Viola as bride; she was so much younger than he and a common shop-girl to boot.

Truth be told, not even Viola had been particularly keen but with no other prospects on the horizon, she was persuaded into saying yes and not entirely grief-stricken when he died a year later.  In having Viola come to live with them, the Withers felt dutiful and Mr Wither had high hopes of getting his hands on his son's money.  To his horror, there turns out to be no money to be had.  Nearby but a world away are the Spring family, revolving around Victor Spring, the local Prince Charming, his uppity mother and his unhappy cousin Hetty who loathes their social butterfly lifestyle and longs for her twenty-first birthday so she can throw it all in and go to live in a garret.  Flitting in and out is the fantastically ghastly Phyllis, Victor's unofficial fiancee and all round Bright Young Thing.

It would have been very easy for the story to centre on Viola meeting Victor, following the standard boy-meets-girl trope.  Viola has pined after Victor from afar (far afar) since her shop-girl days, but never with any expectation of actually speaking to him, let alone becoming acquainted.  However, Gibbons shows early on that she is taking her Cinderella in her own direction and not afraid to poke some holes in the illusion.  Her version of the story emphasises the contemporary social barriers enforced by class divisions, snobbery and gender inequality.  Even when Viola and Victor dance together at the Infirmary Ball, it is not so simple as love-at-first-sight.  Victor's intentions are not necessarily honorable, since Viola has a past which makes her ineligible as a bride but which just might make her fair game for a seduction: 'Yes..of course, she was a widow. He had forgotten that. She looked the very image of innocence, she talked like a schoolgirl, but widows were not innocent. However young and simple a widow might seem, you could not get away from the fact that widows, presumably, were not…Well this girl was actually more experienced than old Phyl'.  This Prince Charming is not quite the gentleman.

Gibbons makes her point further however through her strong supporting cast.  There is Madge who is about to reach forty and still cannot get her parents' permission to get a dog.  The scene where, despite being known for 'not howling', she nonetheless breaks down and cries while begging for one is truly pathetic.  Then we have thirty-five year old Tina who lusts after Saxon the chauffeur despite him being from an utterly inappropriate social class and twelve years her junior to boot.  Madge and Tina both fulfill the Ugly Stepsister (or sister-in-law) role within the story but Gibbons makes it clear how powerless they are as unmarried women, still having to go cap in hand to their miserly father.  For them as for the unworldly Viola, there is no obvious escape.  Gibbons captures the mindless boredom of the bourgeois female with merciless accuracy; Viola returns to the Withers' home thinking 'I wish I was dead. Well, not exactly dead, but I wish I was a nun or something, or something simply marvellous would happen tomorrow.'  All she seemingly has ahead of her are more days and days and days of the same.

Even Hetty Spring, apparently in a far livelier household, is unable to make her own choices.  She reads voraciously, hates parties and is mocked and infuriated by Victor's mean fiancee Phyllis.  By contrast, she finds the gloom of the Withers' house strangely appealing.  Further down the social scale, Viola returns to visit the shop where she once worked (and which her late Shakespeare-loving father once part-owned) and frets as she realises that her elderly erstwhile supervisor is very probably going to get the sack, with no income at all to fall back upon.  As Viola's best friend Shirley points out tartly, for 1930s women, things may have moved forward but despite 'Vote, Marie [Stopes], perms, and all, we can’t do anything.'

Biting observations have always been a key Gibbons trademark and Nightingale Wood is no exception.  Where other authors can easily jar the narrative by breaking the fourth wall, Gibbons always manages to do so with aplomb.  The contrast between Cold Comfort Farm and Nightingale Wood could hardly be more extreme; the former has an earthy setting transformed into absurdist farce while the latter is a fairytale made resolutely earthbound.  Despite Gibbons' determination to take her Cinderella story into the real world, she does still show a remarkable tenderness for her cast.  Saxon the chauffeur sets out to make a quick buck from seducing Tina and blackmailing her father afterwards but is caught off guard by developing feelings of his own.  Their love story forms the secondary plot and adds a greater depth and dimension to the novel as a whole.  It would be too much to call this a feminist retelling but while one would expect a book following the Cinderella story to be predictable, Gibbons repeatedly defies stereotypes around class and gender and even age relations.  She never dismisses or diminishes the obstacles that these divisions can form, but like the fairy godmother herself, she does allow her characters a means of overcoming them.

Nightingale Wood allowed me to remember how much I enjoy Gibbons as a writer.  Even with her books that I have failed to connect with, there have always been passages that I had to go back over and reread because her gift for expression is truly unsurpassed.  A particular favourite in Nightingale Wood was her description of how the bookish Hetty ''was eating, rather than reading, large slabs of a very thin book of contemporary verse each page having a thick wodge of print, without capital letters, starting at the top and running nearly to the bottom.'  As a Cinderella retelling, Gibbons has taken the story in a slightly cynical direction, perhaps requiring the qualification 'they lived happily enough ever after' in its conclusion, but her version still has a wit and a sparkle all of its own.  Clearly destined to be one of my comfort reads for the future, Nightingale Wood was pitch perfect from beginning to end.
Profile Image for Sherwood Smith.
Author 156 books37.5k followers
June 21, 2012
This is a charming book that isn't quite my idea of a comfort book.

It is a modern Cinderella tale, but there are these spiky little reminders of dive bombers and deadly artillery and violent war . . . and when I looked at the pub date, 1938, I got one of those chilly nerve flashes.

That might not bother anyone else, and they are very rare.

Outside of that, the characters are charmingly complex, with good and bad qualities, sometimes understanding one another, sometimes thinking they understand, but missing. Unlike Cinderella, in which there is only a happy ending for the central couple, here, everyone finds what they want. Even if what they want seems peculiar to anyone else. I loved that.

Hetty's character didn't quite come into focus (and the genetic implication seemed too pat), yet she was the most interesting one in the story. Definitely one for the reread shelf.
Profile Image for Arpita (BagfullofBooks).
63 reviews62 followers
March 19, 2015
Such a wonderful introduction for me into the work of Stella Gibbons. I loved the storytelling in this book. Apart from the Cinderella like romance developing in the centre of the story there were many side plots and interesting emotional connections. Gibbons has a talent for describing a scene in the most poetic of terms and then abruptly bringing the reader very sharply down to earth with a comic observation.
What was also very pleasing was the tidying away of all the little subplots in satisfying conclusion towards the end of the story. Cannot wait to read more from this author.
Profile Image for Lady Drinkwell.
466 reviews26 followers
January 18, 2016
This is my first review on Goodreads rather than Shelfari so lets see how it goes! NIghtingale Wood is very different from Cold Comfort Farm, not as funny, but a lovely little read with an wonderful story. It is an excellent "pick me up" book for those suffering from set-backs -- such as Shelfari closing down and past reviews not moving to Goodreads.
Profile Image for Susan in NC.
856 reviews
August 16, 2021
4.5 stars, I really enjoyed this, read with the Retro Reads group. It was a bit slow for me for the first bit, until after the big ball - the cover and description of my copy make it seem kind of like a Cinderella retelling, with the poor, young widow (Viola) wanting to meet her handsome prince (Victor, the wealthy businessman/playboy with his own estate near her rigid in-laws). But, like life, so much more happens after the ball…

At first I was hard pressed to like any of the characters, from the boring, rather desiccated Withers family (Viola’s in-laws, who feel obligated to offer her a home when their son dies), to the rather drippy Viola, and her rather oafish, pleasure-loving swain. Modern readers need to know this was written in the 1930s, so there is casual racism, anti-semitism, sexism on display among the characters. It’s very much a picture of gentry rural life between the wars in England. But there is much more going on here, and the characters are so interesting and flawed and well done that they grow on the reader, and one becomes invested in them.

Gibbons can be snarky and witty and satirical about their foibles, yearnings, prejudices and obsessions, but she’s never vicious, and she kept me smiling and even chuckling in a few parts. Her writing is lovely, with beautiful descriptions of the Essex countryside, the seasons, and the inner lives and thoughts of her characters.
9 reviews2 followers
December 5, 2012
Holds its own with Elizabeth Taylor at her most wry. Gibbons has an appealingly unsettling style, always on the knife edge between sentimentalism and cynicism or even nastiness. The gruesomeness and pathos of the Withers household and its tyrannical patriarch only slowly become clear as the novel builds; Mr. Withers at first glance appears as a cartoonish miser, though the novel develops his character along with the others in ways that belie his reduction to mere "type." At the moment her characters appear to tip over into caricature, Gibbons retrieves them for complexity and sympathy. This is not to say that Nightingale Wood does not entertain with a rousing caricature or two: "Madge [the Withers's elder and very butch, very athletic daughter] described all the natural development of love between men and women, when its expression passed beyond the handshake, as 'beastliness'. It was possible, of course, to have a man pal without any slop. In moments of emotion, when he had just done something pretty super at some game, you might bang him on the back; in return, he might slap you between the shoulder blades. That was all right; that was the decent friendly expression of deeply felt emotion. There were one or two young men up at the Club whom Madge enjoyed banging on the back on somewhat slight excuses." But to my view the best parts of Nightingale Wood are those moments of amused resignation its author directs to the limits everyone runs on the altruistic circuit: "But Viola rather spoiled her chances with Catty and the Aunts by pretending that she was so happy at The Eagles. Before they saw her, so cheerful in a new hat bought that day in Chesterbourne, they had been prepared to offer her comfort, advice, and even a home for life if she needed one. But she made it so clear that she had a pleasant home already, and did not need advice or comfort, that the Aunts and Catty lost a little of their interest in her. Happiness can never hope to command so much interest as distress. She’s all right, thank goodness, thought the three old women, a little relieved at not having to give up what spare rooms they had, but also a little disappointed because now none of them would be able to say ‘... and so I gave the poor child a home; what else could I do?’" Nightingale Wood is a more mature outing than Cold Comfort Farm, and brings it with the satisfactions of a more developed, more generous eye than Gibbons's more famous novel.
Profile Image for Elizabeth.
222 reviews6 followers
April 9, 2015
I wish I had the time to write a longer review, because there's so much I loved and want to share about Nightingale Wood...but I don't. So I'll just say that I simply loved it. It was funny, wistful, goofy, thoughtful...pretty much everything I want in a book. Well, some fisticuffs would have been nice. There are some, but they mostly occur off-stage. I'll also note that this book is not just about Viola. Hetty and Tina are main characters in their own right, and I enjoyed their stories tremendously, Tina's in particular.

Written and published just before the outbreak of WWII, there's also a sort of defiance to Nightingale Wood, as if Gibbons is daring the reader to fault her for writing something so charming while the world is beginning crumble. It's a fascinating glimpse into the times, and a type of lifestyle that the reader knows is breathing its last.

[Warning: Expect, however, a few bits and pieces of material that will raise modern eyebrows in terms of what we consider racist, anti-Semitic, etc. I don't judge Gibbons too harshly for these, as she was clearly a progressive woman for her time. I imagine she would never have written such things if such prejudices weren't so ingrained into the era in which she lived. I also think it's possible she was satirizing prejudice, but I don't think I can tell for sure.]

Highly recommended, and I will certainly be adding Nightingale Wood to my Comfort Book rotation of re-reads.
Profile Image for Anmiryam.
770 reviews132 followers
December 10, 2016
Effervescent and charming. A glittering British country life adaptation of Cinderella that satirizes the class divisions of pre-WWII English life and blithely demonstrates the forces that began to erode the bulwarks even before the onslaught of the war. I only wish it wasn't marred by characters expressing the casual anti-Semitism and racism that was so typical of the era. Luckily the references are slight and, given the overall ironic tone of the novel, not nearly as offensive as Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.
Profile Image for Susannah Sanford mcdaniel.
34 reviews1 follower
August 26, 2013
I read this because I'm crazy about Gibbons's more famous novel: Cold Comfort Farm. Seriously, I'm in love with that book.

This one I liked quite a bit, but it wasn't nearly as outright satirical and laugh-out-loud-in-public funny as Cold Comfort Farm. Nightgale Wood is entertaining, well written, a bit cliche, but Gibbons took the stereotypical novel and gave it a bit of self-awareness. The story knows it follow the standard storyline, and the voice points out its own silliness.

Very entertaining. Didn't love it quite as much as CCF, but still enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Mariano Hortal.
717 reviews175 followers
August 30, 2013
Publicado en http://lecturaylocura.com/100-titulos...

Es motivo de celebración que una editorial pequeña independiente consiga llegar a la friolera de 100 títulos; entre otras cosas, porque hoy en día cada vez es más difícil publicar (y tener éxito), al menos para las editoriales que abogan por unos catálogos distintos y muy alejados de los best-sellers mainstream que llenan mes a mes las librerías y centros comerciales gracias a Espasa, RHM y similares.
La verdadera baza de estas es, entonces, conseguir ganar una clientela fija mediante la elección de unos títulos muy reconocibles para esos clientes y mantenerse fieles a esta filosofía y, si da la casualidad, pegar un bombazo que te aúpe a un número mayor de potenciales. En el caso de Impedimenta (su web está por aquí y podéis echarle un vistazo), podemos encontrar todas estas características:
-El catálogo es perfectamente reconocible, su base, literatura británica preferiblemente (Bennet, Spark, Gibbons, Woolf, Nobbs… etc…) aunque podemos ver publicados otros títulos de diferentes nacionalidades como polacos (Lem), rumanos (Catarescu), japoneses (Soseki) y un largo etcétera, el único requisito es la calidad de las obras. De hecho también abogan por novelas contemporáneas de autores españoles como Fernando San Basilio o Pilar Adón. El resultado es variado y, desde luego, de un alto nivel cualitativo.
-“La hija de Robert Poste” de Stella Gibbons supuso un bombazo, un espaldarazo a su labor; no en vano, el número de ediciones de esta obra ha crecido gracias a la recomendación casi unánime de sus lectores. Era el éxito que necesitaban para poder llegar a más lectores de lo habitual en estos casos.
-El diseño y la edición, imprescindibles, por dos razones: las portadas son atractivas y por ocasiones bellas, llaman la atención para los neófitos de la editorial; ese tipo de diseño es evidente que se ha convertido en un sello distintivo.
La filosofía de la editorial resume sin dudas su actitud:
“Publicar lo más valioso de la literatura clásica y moderna es nuestra más firme intención, en ediciones que nos satisfagan a nosotros en tanto lectores exigentes. Obras inspiradas por el ideal de calidad que queremos que sea nuestro inconfundible distintivo como editorial.
Impedimenta, fundada en el año 2007 en Madrid por Enrique Redel, aspira a recuperar y redescubrir aquellas obras literarias esenciales para poder disfrutar de nuestro largo camino como lectores: obras que se lean, que se disfruten y que se guarden.”
Voy a aprovechar este post para recomendar tres títulos de la insigne colección y que, desde luego, pueden ser buenas opciones para conocerla:
El primero de ellos se trata, como no podía ser de otra manera del título que ha supuesto el número 100, y no podía ser otra la elegida que su bandera y una de las artífices de su éxito: Stella Gibbons. El libro en cuestión es “La segunda vida de Viola Wither” y reúne una de esas tramas tan características suyas en la que Viola Wither, la protagonista, se casa con alguien a quien no ama y al enviudar va a vivir con su familia política teniendo a partir de ese momento la posibilidad de conocer a un magnate soltero que se parece a Gatsby y que se caracteriza por su superficialidad. Esta trama le sirve como pretexto para montar todo tipo de situaciones cómicas, con una sátira que siempre se mete con el orden y costumbres imperantes y te lleva en volandas con su prosa elegante sin olvidar momentos entrañables. Nada nuevo a lo que ya nos tenía acostumbrados en sus otras novelas, bien hecho, sin deslumbrar, pero siempre de manera interesante. Es una buena recomendación, sobre todo para el verano.
enterradoenvidaLa segunda novela que quería traer era la fantástica “Enterrado en vida” del también británico Arnold Bennett y lo voy a introducir gracias al postfacio a esta edición que realiza José C. Vales
“Decía en una carta privada Virginia Woolf a su amiga Lady Cecil “Me deprime el astuto realismo del señor Bennet”
“A muchas obras de Arnold Bennet, alejado de las exquisiteces intelectuales de Bloomsbury y sus alrededores clasistas y esnobs, no tardó en aplicárseles el distintivo potboilers. La palabra deriva de la expresión boil the pot, literalmente “hacer hervir la olla” y figuradamente “buscarse la vida”. “¿Es que voy a quedarme ahí mirando cómo alumnos se embolsan dos guineas por historias que yo puedo hacer mucho mejor? Por supuesto que no. Si alguien piensa que mi único objetivo es el arte por el arte, siento decirle que está lamentablemente equivocado”. En definitiva, se acusó a Arnold Bennet de escribir para ganarse la vida, de ser un mercenario de la sintaxis, un mercader del párrafo y un fariseo de la literatura.”
Lejos quedan para nosotros en estos instantes las agrias polémicas que surgieron en la época entre dos formas de entender la literatura: la modernista introspectiva de Virginia Woolf y la más pragmática y tradicional, anclado en lo decimonónico, de Arnold Bennet. Desgraciadamente, con el tiempo, la figura de la primera se ha agigantado en detrimento de la segunda y Bennet, está bastante denostado por los lectores en general. Lo bueno de verlo es perspectiva es que nosotros podemos disfrutar de ambas formas de literatura sin tener que tomar partido. Como Woolf va a venir en los próximos años con mi proyecto literario, mi lanza de hoy va en favor del gran Bennet. Este “Enterrado en vida” es una muestra de su buen hacer, con un comienzo plenamente dickensiano no podemos evitar disfrutar de uno de esos personajes que nos recuerdan a la más firme tradición británica: Priam Farrl. Un tímido elemento que no dudará en fingir su muerte para desaparecer de la vida moderna aunque luego no le resulte tan fácil la nueva situación. Todo se convierte en una comedia de enredo con dobles identidades y situaciones que, inevitablemente, nos sacan una sonrisa y, por momentos, carcajadas. Una pequeña maravilla que arrancará el deleite de los que se atrevan con él.
Y para acabar con una de esas sorpresas que a veces te encuentras: “La promesa de Kamil Modracek” del checo Jiri Kratochvil con traducción de Elena Buixaderas, de la que voy a poner los textos que vienen a continuación.
lapromesakamilY es sorpresa porque nos encontramos con una novela donde se mezclan mucho mejor de lo esperado la culpa y el castigo, ficción y realidad, una venganza cargada de humor negro: la venganza del arquitecto Modracek por la muerte de su hermana en un interrogatorio y su alter ego investigador el peculiar Dan Kocí alias Stanley Pinkerton, cuya única arma era el flash: “Para cuando usaba el flash la pareja adúltera ya sabía que la diversión se había acabado.”
Lo que parece inicialmente una novela policíaca checa, trasciende el género para presentar además, elementos metaficcionales, solo tenemos que observar la propia presencia del escritor en la obras, como vemos en el interrogatorio a Modracek:
“Escuche, Modracek. Enfrente de usted viven unos tales Kratochvil, ¿no es cierto? (Y miró otra vez sus papeles.) Anezka Kratochvil y sus hijos Kiri y Josef.”
Las fronteras entre ficción y realidad se vuelven difusas y Kratochvil aprovecha para discutir sobre ello:
“Así que al principio quise entender que lo que le interesaba era averiguar la proporción entre “verdad y poesía” en un texto literario. Pero me equivoqué. Por alguna razón incomprensible para mí, le interesaba saber si lo que está escrito, lo que existe en principio solo como texto literario, en un relato por ejemplo, puede luego ocurrir en la vida real. O como lo diría y: si la realidad puede copiar a la ficción, igual que la literatura suele copiar a la realidad.”
No es casualidad que Nabokov se convierta entonces en un personaje imprescindible para el avance de la trama:
“Bien, el Le Corbusier es suyo si en una semana, es decir, en ciento sesenta y ocho horas, es capaz de resolver usted el único problema en dos movimientos de Nabokov que tengo en casa.”
Juega con el flujo de pensamientos y el monólogo interior, se producen continuos cambios de perspectiva, llegando a confluir en una novela policíaca netamente postmodernista que destaca por su originalidad y que no esconde un microcosmos que se puede extrapolar como alegoría a la realidad que vivimos:
“Es curioso cómo hasta una sociedad tan pequeña (qué son veintiuna personas a fin de cuentas) después de un tiempo acaba tomando la estructura de una mucho más grande. En la gente debe haber algo como un gen social que les lleva a aceptar ciertos roles y, en coordinación con los demás, a modelar una sociedad de estructura estadística similar.”
En definitiva, una novela completísima que nos ofrece mucho más de lo habitual y que se me antoja imprescindible dentro del ya completo catálogo de esta fantástica editorial. Gracias a Impedimenta y a su editor Enrique Redel por traernos estas propuestas distintas y, afortunadamente, retadoras por su calidad.
Profile Image for Marija.
332 reviews36 followers
April 8, 2011
Nightingale Wood is like Barbie and Ken meet Cinderella. Viola and Victor are so pathetic, yet you can’t help but be entertained by their banter. Here’s a sampling:

The setting: an intimate dinner between Victor and the innocently pure widow Viola after a chance meeting at a hotel. Victor asks Viola, who’s been polishing off half a bottle of champagne:

Victor: Aren’t you afraid of getting tight?
Viola: No, I’ve got a very good head.
(Victor roars)
Victor: You have, have you? What do you usually drink?
Viola: Oh well, lemon and barley at The Eagles, but of course I’ve had cocktails and gin and lime and sherry and all those things, and none of them made me tight. I’m very fond of drink…
(Victor lifts his drink, silently laughing across at her, saying nothing…)

Setting: After dinner, Victor’s taken Viola out for a drive, wanting to apologize for his rotten behavior at a former party.

Victor: You know… I’ve been wanting to say I’m sorry about what happened in the summer. I’m afraid I hurt your feelings.
Viola: Well, you did rather, but it’s all right now.
Victor: Sweet of you…
(Viola wonders when he’ll start kissing her again. Desperately hopes that he will.)
Victor: You—er—you—I suppose you heard—?
Viola: About your being engaged? Oh yes….
(a pause)
Victor: Violet, darling, what’s the matter? Don’t cry. Here, have mine.
Viola: It’s Viola, not Violet. You always get it wrong (sniff) and you always make me miserable and I think you’re a beast. I was quite all right until you started about getting married. And you don’t even know my name properly, either. It’s (a kind of wail) an insult, that’s what it is.
Victor: I’m sorry, darling. There, there…
(Viola blows her nose)
Victor drives her back to the hotel. He thinks to himself, “[before] he wanted her so much that it was making him fond of her; a weekend [with her would] soon put that right…only in this case there could be no weekend, and he dimly felt that it might be some time before he could risk passing long hours winding wool alone with Mrs. Wither.”

Isn’t that wonderful? ;) I just love that last line! Priceless.

The back cover of my edition has a quote from Harper’s Bazaar stating, “Stella Gibbons was an expert in comic absurdity.” That’s so true! Viola, actually, isn’t really a likable character. She’s a true curly haired blond Barbie... looking down her nose at everyone she meets, especially her in-laws who are “Oh, so old.” But Gibbons by the novel’s close somehow manages to get the reader to root for her, hoping that one day she’ll get her Ken/Victor. The satire, for this section of the story, is beautifully done.

However, that’s not the only Cinderella tale Gibbons includes in her novel: she also offers an inversion of it. The reader’s given the story of the beautifully handsome chauffeur, Saxon, who has come across hard times and is trying to earn his way back into society. It’s lovely that Saxon’s able to find his best friend, true happiness and love all in one person. But, while he does get everything he desires in the long run, there’s a slight shadow that darkens part of this happy ending picture for him…. Yet, in terms of comparison with all of the endings in this novel, as a reader, this particular ending works and is indeed satisfying.

The one ending, though, that upset me was Hetty’s story. Her story begins with such promise: a level headed girl desiring to be free from her overbearing aunt, wanting to go to university, to meet and make some learned friends and get an apartment in Bloomsbury, lining the walls with her collection of books. But then Gibbons takes that line from the Robert Burns’ poem, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…” graphically illustrating how far they can go awry. In a way, Hetty becomes a Marianne Faithfull type thrown into the midst of Edward Albee’s play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It’s an awful ending, almost chilling, making the best of it and loving as she can love in such a situation. And there’s no hope in sight. Even though this novel is essentially a social commentary, I truly believed this character deserved so much better.

The little side stories and vignettes do make up for this, however. They’re quite entertaining. The Hermit’s tale is a riot. The story about Saxon’s mother is bittersweet, but fun as well; there’s a good ending for her. I also rather enjoyed Phyllis and her fastidious nature. But honorable mention must also go to the cameo appearances of Dr. Parsham’s dog, Chappy. ;)

The one aspect I truly loved about this book was how Gibbons gave her readers the chance to see into the thoughts of every character that appeared in her story. It’s a rare talent for an author to be able to give each of her characters a distinct voice that never once slips. Gibbons does this very well. Her transitions from one perspective to the next, and from one story to the next are also masterfully done. They’re quite subtle, easily melding from one paragraph to the next, with no need for a page or chapter break. As a reader, you won’t get lost.

All in all, I really enjoyed this novel, and do want to read Gibbons’ other two fairytale retellings: White Sand and Grey Sand, which borrows from “Beauty and the Beast” and My American, which is influenced by "The Snow Queen"—my favorite fairytale, both of which will be reissued by the end of the year.
Profile Image for Katrina.
821 reviews24 followers
October 5, 2021
Another example of wondering why on earth I've let a book sit unread on a shelf for a decade, taking up space...except this time, I'm disappointed in myself for not realizing earlier how much I'd enjoy it.

Like many others (judging from the introduction), my only familiarity with Stella Gibbons is from her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, which I haven't actually read; I've just seen the movie a few times. I liked this cover, though, and the summary sounded interesting enough, so I snagged it from a library book sale despite its slightly ratty condition, and proceeded to cheerfully not read it for many years.

Now I'm eager to try more of her works and am annoyed that they seem a little difficult to find - largely out of print, or with new editions by publishers I've never heard of (this one, by Penguin, has that beautiful cover and the perfect page feel, so I was hoping they'd done a full reprint series).

Gibbons isn't perfect, of course. This has all the pitfalls of a story written and set in 1938 England, mostly centering around the snobbery and economic/romantic difficulties of the upper class. Gibbons has a bit more bite to her writing than that, though, and pokes quite a bit of fun at the gentry rather than simply sneering at the lower-class folks - who are poor due to circumstances of birth, not intrinsic value. Money certainly makes things move, and commands respect, but it isn't in itself a mark of morality or source of virtue.

Technically, Viola is the main character, particularly if you consider this a Cinderella story, but the cast is much larger than that, and the narrative benefits quite a lot from expanding past the narrow worldview of a sweet but simple-minded former shopgirl.

Viola had lived a happy, quiet life with a father who, interestingly, is presented as far less than perfect: he was impatient and had a temper, but Viola only ever seems to remember the good parts. Mainly, the comfort of her little home and a job with friends who treated her like an equal. Then there were the evenings with her father reading Shakespeare aloud - something he was inordinately fond of, and which she loves because of its connection to him, but cannot read or understand very well on her own. Viola isn't stupid, but she's not brilliant, either; she's a fairly pretty, rather sweet, generally average girl. And men...well, many men do tend to find that attractive.

Her first husband, whom she didn't love in the slightest, came along when Viola was twenty years old and badly in need of stability. Her father had just died, leaving her with no inheritance, and she was dubious about her ability to make her own way in the world. Again, she's not a terribly bright or proactive girl, but she does have a tender and impressionable nature, so it wasn't difficult for her aunts and acquaintances to convince her to accept the proposal.

When this husband died after a year, also leaving her with very little, Viola was strong-armed into moving to her in-laws' house in the country, which is where our story begins.

There's more of a wicked stepfather in this case, although Mr. Withers isn't exactly cruel; he's simply old and set in his ways - obsessed with money, and with controlling everything and everyone around him as much as he can. As the story went on, I felt a bit sorry for him, which is something Gibbons is quite good at; you don't necessarily grow to like the dislikable people, but you do understand more of where they're coming from and why they're so unhappy.

The eldest "stepsister," Madge, only cares about three things: sports, dogs, and a soldier who went off to India with a young pregnant wife - although this last bit is something you discover through oblique bits of text, since Madge would never admit to such nonsense, and we don't spend a lot of time in her head. She is, and remains, one of the most unlikable characters in the book - with few excuses to be such a miserably unkind person, considering how different her sister, Tina, is.

Tina, and her slow, sweet romance with Saxon the astonishingly beautiful chauffeur, ended up being my favorite part of the book - and an entirely unexpected one. All of their scenes are lovely, but not overly saccharine - there's a realism to how their relationship builds, and I absolutely loved how mutual it ultimately was. Saxon attempts to be mercenary at the beginning, but kind, thoughtful, interesting Tina entirely wins him over.

Tina, at 35 to Saxon's 23, had been treated like a dull, dried-up spinster by her family and the village as a whole, and it's wonderful to see her blossoming into her true self once she finds a kindred spirit who will listen to her and treat her like an equal. Their relationship is described, at several points, as friendship - they're in love, but Tina remains Saxon's best friend for the entirety of their lives, which may sound dull to some, but which I find to be the height of romance. That sort of thing lasts after the attraction fades, and I was so grateful to flip through the rapidly dwindling pages to find that they do last.

There is darkness in this book, much more than in a Jane Austen novel. Gibbons writes with a worldliness and wry skepticism that reminds me quite a lot of Dodie Smith (whose writing I love). People are many shades of grey, and even the ones you like the most have some selfishness and stupidness and pettiness to them. There's also a constant undercurrent of violence and war beneath all the parties and frocks and weddings. Gibbons wouldn't have yet known the full breadth of the upcoming war at the time this was published (a year before WW2 officially began), but the ripples were already being felt in England, and it spills into Mr. Withers's worries and some of Madge's sorrows.

But to my immense relief, this is an ultimately happy book. Not everyone gets blissful endings, at least not in the standard sense - for example, Hetty's "happy" with being able to live the life she wanted, with all the turmoil and poverty and misery she'd dreamed of from her poetry. And poor Phyllis, whose primary issue was that she was too headstrong to be a demurely affectionate wife to the Prince Charming she'd known since childhood, got rather the short end of the stick by participating in a story that never revolved around her.

Tina & Saxon, Viola & Victor, Hetty & her books, Madge & her kennel, even Saxon's mother and the Hermit...each of them found their own brand of contentment, doing their best to live happily in a world that doesn't always go the way you wish. A central theme of the book came about a third of the way through, dropped quietly at the end of a paragraph:

"Tomorrow we die; but at least we danced in silver shoes."

Gibbons doesn't shy away from the emptiness of money- and society-driven existence; each character feels it, in their own way. My favorite part of the story was, once again, to do with Saxon - the windfall with Mr. Spurrey is handled in such a complicated and interesting way, and I never expected to feel so sad about such a seemingly dreadful character. But there you go - that's Gibbons's skill.

There's an awful lot of depth to this story, and so much that would make it worth revisiting. I'm interested in her other works, and I hope some are as thoroughly engrossing as this was.
Profile Image for Jan.
890 reviews5 followers
February 6, 2016
Okay, this is not a serious read, but just good fun. I love the author's sense of humor- this modern (published in 1938) take on the Cinderella story is full of quirky characters and plenty of subtle laughs. Her "Cold Comfort Farm" is one of my faves, and this was more of the same.

A few samples-

"No one was surprised to hear that Saxon and Tina had been carrying on ever since the summer. People had been using their eyes, putting two and two together, comparing notes. Besides, everyone had expected it. The first person who had seen Tina having a driving lesson in the summer had gone home to his wife and said that if something didn't happen there, his name wasn't what it was."

"Twice in half an hour, Hetty had held up Miss Barlow's plans, and prevented her from moving as quickly as possible on to the next pleasure. Miss Barlow liked her life to be a steady movement towards pleasure. While she was having one, she was thinking about the next and what she should wear while she had that."

"When the excitement had died down a little, the chief feeling at The Eagles was one which may be described as righteous indignation. It was generally felt to be A Bit Too Much."
Profile Image for Charlotte.
19 reviews10 followers
July 22, 2014
More a two and a half than a three- It passed, but barely. Stella Gibbons' cleverness is evident here -her biting, honest descriptions of her characters' personalities and habits are this novel's saving grace- but the plot meanders and drags, too many characters seem pointless, and others would have benefited for more screen time that could have been achieved through sacrificing the less important ones (Hetty, while not exactly likable, was at least interesting and sympathetic- Much more so than Viola herself, whom I merely pitied, and her all-too-rare appearances were a bright spot in the often gratuitously dreary narrative). By the last 1/4 of the book I could sense Stella Gibbons running out of steam, and a certain important event that occurred toward the end seemed like it only happened because she had no idea where the story was going and needed something to shake up the plot- But then nothing came of it, and some characters' fates and the choices they made in relation to them didn't seem to match up with what was said of them earlier in the story. 'Nightingale Wood' was ultimately a disappointment- Entertaining at times, but I'd hesitate to recommend it.
Profile Image for KrisAnne.
257 reviews6 followers
March 2, 2016
Just delightful modernized Cinderella story set in the mid-30s, if Cinderella had been written by a snarkier and less earnest (and less sympathetic) George Eliot. Or maybe just Jane Austen if she'd had a different life. Full of gems of passages that made me laugh out loud, such as:

"‘Oh dear, I am so tired.’ Mrs Wither patted away a yawn and ruefully bent to rub her evening shoe, wherein a faithful corn was undergoing martyrdom."

But right alongside the snark there is lots of beautiful and sincere writing about the natural world. If you only know Stella Gibbons because Aunt Ada Doom "saw something nasty in the woodshed," you should definitely check this one out.

(There are instances of casual racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny that are very specific to the period but very jarring, FYI. The misogyny is definitely related to the characters expressing it--you see both how the men are blinkered by their concept of what a woman is/should be and how the women themselves are hemmed in by this--but it's harder to tell with the racism and anti-semitism.)
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