In England, Stella Gibbons is a national treasure. In the United States, she’s known mainly by people who were only required to read one of her books, COLD COMFORT FARM, in British Lit 101 class. Typically, if you’ve heard of Stella Gibbons, you are one of three things: English, a bookseller, or a devout hunter of sublime, hilarious, midbrow, midwars lady British writers.
I know, it seems very niche, but Gibbons’s works—there was not one, but more than 20—has somehow escaped the American eye when we are a culture fascinated by “Downton Abbey” and Tom Hiddleston. Hiddleston, coincidentally, would be the perfect fit for a charming lead role in any of Gibbons’s books.
Gibbons is funny. Really, terrifically, laugh-out-loud funny. She is at the top of her humor game with COLD COMFORT FARM, that’s true, but another one of her bell ringers is NIGHTINGALE WOOD, a 1920s-era retelling of Cinderella: Viola Thompson is a somewhat plain shopgirl who marries the dull and soggy Theodore Wither, whose family has money. And a big house in the country where the family obligingly invites her to live without meeting her first.
Viola quickly becomes lonely and depressed at her future life filled with her eccentric in-laws—her father-in-law is appalling and excruciatingly cheap, one of her sisters-in-law is a mean-spirited brute, and the other is having an affair with the chauffer. It’s no wonder, then, that Viola begins to wander. She finds a crazed hermit, a slew of secrets, and a dashing young man at a neighboring estate house—and his shrew of a fiancée.
I think you see where this might go. Except for the hermit. I won’t spoil that. But let’s just say that he makes an unforgettable appearance at a garden party.
This is a charming, lovely book that contains just the right amount of wickedness to keep the story from becoming acid, moves it forward with an edge, and, in the end, wraps everything up with some expected turns and some surprises. Don’t think you know the ending; you won’t, but it is typical of Gibbons to add that one final, laughable twist.
Stella Gibbons is a superior storyteller, one worth investing in, and if you read her in college, you already know that. But feel comforted by knowing after you’ve finished NIGHTINGALE WOOD or one of her other masterpieces, there is a lot more waiting, and you’ll want it.
Laurie Notaro is the author of CROSSING THE HORIZON and twelve more books of fiction and nonfiction.