Saturday, 17 September 2016

THE BACHELOR by Stella Gibbons

I'm an enormous admirer of Gibbons' classic COLD COMFORT FARM, a book about how not to take yourself too seriously, but I had this idea somehow that she was a bit of a one-hit-wonder, and so had not tried any of her other books. Last year I attempted so tried WESTWOOD, which was good, but not exactly a wonder; and now have tried THE BACHELOR, which while not close to her classic, was really pretty great.

THE BACHELOR tells the story of a brother and sister in their forties who have settled into their life in rural England and are gently rotting there, until the second world war brings with it change and - unexpectedly - romance. Most of the joy of this book is in the comedy. Here we are on a young woman who has been involved in a scandal:
Young men, on hearing that a young woman has been betrayed do not clench their fists and call the betrayer a villain. If they are good young men they make a note to avoid the young woman as a possible bore and if they are bad young men they make a note of her telephone number. While we are on this painful subject it may be added that a recitative on her sufferings from the young woman's own lips to a new young man is about as favourable to her hopes as if she had proffered him arsenic

Or here's a description of a woman:
Mrs Feilding had been the possessor of one of those personalities like an enormous old fashioned battlepiece, all over rearing horses and hussars hauling cannon out of the mud and soldiers expiring in the arms of their comrades with Napoleon or somebody of that sort in the middle of it; no one can ignore it, although it exhausts everybody to tears, and weaker spirits simply avoid the room where it hangs

Or there's a bus, that's since the war has been able to vary its schedule and is now so erratic it "generally behaves more like a medieval baron than a bus" Brilliant description of public transport everywhere (except in Switzerland, or so I'm told).

The book does have it unusual side, in showing a young woman actively planning to seduce a young man - rare in books of this period, that typically assume, with ISIS, that woman are utterly free of sexual interest. It also has its serious side. The brother has long been dismissed by his mothers and sisters as rather a lightweight, and he has tended to laugh along with them, and agree. They have also typically tried to disrupt his romantic endeavours, so at 45 he is unmarried. He's not unhappy; or perhaps he is. That's part of the interest: even he is not really sure.

He ends up engaged by the end of the story, but it's interesting how near a thing it is; how close he is to not really caring one way or the other. As Gibbons puts it: "Another ten years, even another five, and Habit and Comfort and Humorous Self-depreciation, the great stones that lie on such roots and bleach and dry them, would have done their work." It's interesting that such a funny book should be so interested in the dangers of comedy.

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