Thursday, 14 December 2006

Beyond the woodshed

I just noticed a clipping from the Guardian Books section, Life after Flora, an interesting article about Stella Gibbons. Lynne Truss, who has written the introduction to the recent Penguin Classics reissue of Cold Comfort Farm, sums up the key problem of Gibbons' career: "The enduring popularity of ... Cold Comfort Farm eclipsed her 23 later novels and left her forever labelled 'middlebrow'".
      CCF is a wonderful pastiche of the rural novels - such as those of Mary Webb - of the late 19th and early 20th century (as Gibbons put it, "the kind of story in which peasants have babies in cow sheds and push each other down wells"). It also takes a dig at DH Lawrence and, judging by the biographies, the melodramatics of Gibbons' own family.
      An intriguing and little-known aspect is that it's not set in the real world 1930s, but in an alternate future of around 1950, of which the biggest giveaway is the videophone. When Flora phones a young man, Claud, we're told: "Claud twisted the television dial and amused himself by studying Flora's fair, pensive face. Her eyes were lowered and her mouth compressed over the serious business of arranging Elfine's future. He fancied she was tracing a pattern with the tip of her shoe. She could not look at him, because public telephones were not fitted with television dials". The same Claud has served in "the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46", and in the book aeroplanes are ubiquitous for personal travel and even postal delivery.
      This SF background plays virtually no role in the plot. It is, however, a glimpse into her writing interests in other genres, which sometimes go well into the territory of fantasy: Ticky, for instance, is set in a Gormenghast-like Victorian regimental club, riddled with strange rituals and perpetual feuds, and so large that its towers are in the clouds and its officers travel about inside it by horse-drawn tram.
      You can read more about CCF's background and her other works at the now-defunct Stella Gibbons Website run by Reggie Oliver, her nephew and biographer, who also wrote a 1998 print biography, Out of the Woodshed.

Addendum: more on this at Further beyond the woodshed.
- Ray