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Nightingale Wood

August 8, 2011

As a birthday present, my imaginary friend FreshHell sent me a new copy of an old book I’d never read before, Stella Gibbons’ Nightingale Wood.  (Gibbons is better known as the author of Cold Comfort Farm, which I’ll be discussing in November with the Imaginary Friends Book Club.)  And I had a very good time reading Nightingale Wood, which turns out to be the kind of book that it’s fine to pick up and put down frequently.

I knew I was going to like it when I saw that the introduction to the reprint is by Sophie Dahl, Roald’s daughter.  She says it’s a kind of Cinderella story, and that’s true, but Viola, the main character (yes, named after a Shakespearean heroine and with a haircut to match by the second half of the story) drifts languidly into having her wishes come true, rather than picking up her own lentils, being beloved of birds who will do it for her, or even having a fairy godmother come to help her out. It makes the story a bit satiric, because even though it’s fun to see Viola and Victor, her Prince Charming, end up happily, they don’t particularly deserve their good fortune.

From the very first page, readers are made aware that this is not a typically romantic tale, as Mr Wither is introduced and then:

“Mrs Wither came in, but he took no notice of her because he had seen her before.”

And there are plenty of other reminders along the way, like this one:

“The weather, the sky and woods, grew steadily more lovely as the spring deepened, with its exciting feeling of promise that ends in the black-green trees and almost silent birds of August. But none of the people in this story could be satisfied with perfect weather and landscape; they wanted other things.”

Even a comment on what Prince Charming looks like when naked is subject to the narrator’s deft hand with faint praise:

“No one saw Victor naked, except the masseur at his Turkish baths and certain obscure persons upon whom he chose to bestow that honour; and the masseur had no thoughts except that Mr Spring was in very good shape, while the thoughts of the other persons are not relevant to this story; but it may be said that Victor, naked, looked simple, warm-natured and kind, which (except when anyone missed a train or neglected to prune the roses) is exactly what he was.”

I always love a reminder, in these days when people congratulate themselves for reading at all, about what a degraded activity novel-reading was thought to be, prior to the twentieth century:

“She had 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, those mental brandies-and-sodas—novels.”

In addition to the main romantic leads, Viola and Victor, there’s a supporting romantic story in this novel, and it’s the comic-because-sedate story of Viola’s old maid sister-in-law, Tina, who takes up with the family chauffeur relatively late in life and is afraid to let her family know that she has actually married him:

“Her meetings with him since their return from Stanton had also been romantic, taking place in damp autumnal dells and remote tea-shops on the outskirts of Chesterbourne but both he and she had stopped feeling that they were romantic. It was a confounded nuisance to have to lurk around like someone in an Eberhart thriller when you had the legal right to sit by the fire calling bits to each other out of the books you were reading and sucking toffee.

The feeling between Tina and Saxon, in short, had changed from romantic love to married love.

(It would take too long to argue, and explain, and illustrate the difference. Everybody knows there is one. One love is as worthy of support as the other. It just depends which you prefer.)”

I’m particularly amused by this passage, by the way, because I’m writing this on the twenty-ninth anniversary of my own wedding.

As a bonus, I was greatly amused to read that one character has gone downhill, “having taken at forty to lovers, drugs and necromancy.”

This is a delightful book, and one I would recommend to anyone who feels a particular need to spend time with a charming and slightly catty friend.  The narrator of a Stella Gibbons novel can fill that role admirably.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. August 8, 2011 8:17 am

    I adored this book, and I’m ridiculously excited that Vintage has, as of last week, made most of Gibbon’s back catalogue available again. I pre-ordered two of them and am itching for them to arrive. If Stella Gibbons can’t get me out of this reading slump, I’m not sure what can. Anyway… I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this one. A very happy anniversary to you and Mr Non-Necromancer!

    • August 8, 2011 9:05 pm

      as of last week, you say? That’s a lot of catty enjoyment newly available!

  2. FreshHell permalink
    August 8, 2011 9:13 am

    Whee! Yes, definitely going on my list. So glad you liked it!

    • August 8, 2011 9:06 pm

      I really loved it. She wrote 25 novels, so I figure I have 23 novels’ worth of enjoyment in the next decade or so!

  3. August 8, 2011 3:38 pm

    Oh, I love what you say here:
    I always love a reminder, in these days when people congratulate themselves for reading at all, about what a degraded activity novel-reading was thought to be, prior to the twentieth century.

    So true!
    I have heard so many good things about this book and I admit that the new covers I’ve seen are SO cute and tempting, too 🙂

    • August 8, 2011 9:08 pm

      I’m still fascinated by the 16th-century accusation that novels are “lies.”

  4. August 8, 2011 10:12 pm

    I’m sad it does not yet exist on Kindle, which is the only way I’m buying books at the moment (there’s an audible version, but I prefer words). Sounds like great fun.

    • August 9, 2011 8:04 am

      Yes, I would definitely prefer words in this case, too. The audible version would be fun for more of an audible learner, I think, but I would miss some things, and that would be a shame.

  5. August 9, 2011 8:53 am

    This looks fun and suggests the author ‘s entire works will be just as wonderful? How fun to see YOUR word pop up in a story. Like when I run into PIE, I suppose. (Pie being so much nicer than necromancy!)

    • August 9, 2011 10:08 pm

      Pie is nicer than necromancy. So is almost everything.

  6. August 9, 2011 7:33 pm

    Happy belated anniversary! I hope you had a lovely day!

    I’ve been slow about getting to this, but I should really hurry up if her entire oeuvre is going to become available! That’s a lot of wry social comedy to get through.

    • August 9, 2011 10:13 pm

      It is a lot–enough to give me that nice feeling I remember having last when I had some Sherlock Holmes stories I still hadn’t read.
      Our anniversary celebration had some obstacles, like a chess tournament in Cleveland and the fact that I managed to splash water on Ron’s laptop. But we did enjoy my lovely card about “anniversary gifts on the off years”–the 27th is liposuction, and the 43rd is ferrets. I said I’m really looking forward to the 43rd, because I’m kind of famous for bringing home animals. But I suspect Ron knows that I’m really not partial to ferrets; I don’t think they properly conform to my rule that any animal I bring into our household has to wash itself (they may wash, but they still smell).

  7. August 9, 2011 8:23 pm

    I just fell in love with the excerpts you shared. I need to read this author!!

    • August 9, 2011 10:14 pm

      The excerpts are by no means the only good parts. I can see you really enjoying Stella Gibbons novels.

  8. August 10, 2011 6:09 pm

    Sounds wonderful! what a nice present to yourself!

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