Monday, 6 April 2015

Easter Bonnet: Starlight by Stella Gibbons



published 1967


Starlight Easter 2



They walked to Saint James’s through streets parked with pale blue, scarlet or pink cars, like a mechanized age’s version of the spring flowers. Such owners as had not started early for the coast were busy with hose and oil and rags, tending their treasures. Erika’s thoughts were vaguely occupied by the new coat and hat she wore, Easter presents from Mrs Pearson. Gladys marched them up to her usual seat, nice and near the front where they could see and hear all that was going on, and proceeded to instruct her charge; kneeling, clasping her hands and covering her closed eyes, praying. ‘How what you mean, Glad, praying?’ breathed Erika, looking sideways at her mentor under the coquettish hat with floating ribbons. ‘Praying – good gracious, don’t you know what that is? – here, where’s the Ourfather –’ Gladys grabbed at the prayer-book and pointed with a black-gloved finger. ‘Read it. Then shut your eyes and say it, girl.’ Erika bent her head and tried to do what she was told…

She was fully occupied with balancing her hat on top of her head and in admiring the church’s festal white and gold, and the many flowers.  Erika cautiously settled the hat, looking unseeingly at the ladies moving slowly ahead of her. Her face was beginning to fill out; a pear-shaped German face with white large cheeks and a narrow brow and small eyes blue as flax. That hat, thought Gladys, kind of comical on her. But looks all right, somehow. Wish she could get a bit of colour in her face…

Erika looked up from under the hat brim, flat as a plate, and smiled. Her scarlet ribbons fluttered slightly in the spring wind.



Starlight Easter


observations: Starlight follows roughly the course of a church year, with stops off at Christmas and Easter: there is an uneasy relation with religion throughout it. The book is set, you would guess, sometime after the second world war – not as late as the publication date of 1967. Erika is a refugee, a displaced person, quite possibly Jewish, working as an au pair/companion for the rich Mrs Pearson. Mr Pearson is what Gladys (his tenant) calls a rackman: ie a terrifying slum landlord. (A Rachmanesque figure appears in Linda Grant’s The Clothes on Their Backs, and the journalist and interviewer Lynn Barber knew the original Rachman, and wrote about him in her book An Education, subsequently turned into a film.)

Mrs Pearson is living in one of his properties: a pair of connected cottages she shares with the elderly Gladys and her sister Annie. (I have to say, I didn’t at all understand the layout of the two cottages and how they linked up, even though it is quite important to the plot.) Her husband isn’t there most of the time. Her daughter lives with another older rich woman, and is her companion. There is a random tenant upstairs, an older man who changes his name every month and would be called special needs these days.

The local vicar and curate become involved with all these people, just as if this were a Barbara Pym book: there’s a good moment when a parishioner is expressing her long-winded ‘doubts’ to the vicar and he asks if she is going to become RC:
‘Are you thinking of “going over”?’ Mr Geddes experienced some satisfaction at the thought. Let her try on this kind of thing with a Roman Catholic priest and see what she got.
But this is a lot more gritty and sordid than a Pym book, and the area is described as a slum. But there is goodness in the story: Gladys, above, would be an immensely annoying character – her incomprehensible mode of speech would drive you mad – but she is kind to Erika. Meanwhile, Mrs Pearson helps Annie, and most of the characters are helped by someone else.

It’s a most unexpected book: if I read it blind I would never have guessed it was Stella Gibbons. It is funny at times, but is also quite disturbing and disquieting, and in the end goes in a quite shocking and unlikely direction. The book it reminded me of most was – improbably - Hilary Mantel’s strange book of modern London, Beyond Black. It’s as if the satire of Cold Comfort Farm has become real. There is an unattributed epigraph: ‘The fated people – the worshippers and poets, the magicians and lovers – who live by the light of the stars.’ But that didn’t convince me – ‘Starlight’ is a most unsuitable name for the book.

The top picture is from the US magazine Ladies Home Journal, in the 1940s. The second one is from Kristine’s photostream.







14 comments:

  1. Interesting, isn't it, Moira, how a book can be unsettling, but still have those moments of pleasantness. It sounds like a very unusual sort of read: part 'slice of life,' and part dark and gritty. I'm glad you thought it worth the read. Not sure myself about the title, to be honest...

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    1. Margot, I do think a title should bear some relation to the content, and this one really doesn't, and is positively misleading. But still worth reading....

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  2. Fascinating Moira - I only know Gibbons for COLD COMFORT FARM, which is certainly a very unusual performance by any standards of the day.

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    1. Sergio, I love Cold Comfort Farm, one of the best and funniest of books. I'm slowly working my way through her other books, which are quite different from each other and from CCF - and I don't think she ever quite equalled that one.

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  3. I'll let you read these ones for me I think.

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    1. So I guess that means you don't have a hat like that? Disappointing.

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  4. "Make an attractive collar out of old curtain rings..." The only other Gibbons I know is The Matchmaker. Not what it appears at first sight.

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    1. I read that years ago, and it put me off non-Cold-Comfort Gibbons for years: but I think I might see it more sympathetically these days, I must try it again. I found the snobbishness excruciating, but would now see it more as a contemporary foible.

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  5. The central character seems to have it all - looks, charm, handsome husband, three lovely children. But she despises the poor girl with the blonde pompadour, and wants her friend to marry her rich suitor, not a decent chicken farmer. The snobbishness is all hers - she's a monster.

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    1. Off to order or download this right now....

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  6. I have not read anything by Stella Gibbons. This one sounds interesting. This would be a "maybe someday." I agree with you on titles having some relationship to the book, even if it is obscure.

    Lovely illustration at the top.

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    1. I wouldn't start with this one as your first Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm if you want something funny and satirical, Westwood for a good novel about relationships...
      Yes, I loved that hat...

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  7. Thank you for this, it's fascinating - I have to read the book now. The only non-Cold-Comfort Gibbons I've read is the equally badly titled Westwood (also known, I think, as The Kindly Ones). 'The book is lovely and memorable and nothing of this is conveyed by the word 'Westwood'; maybe she just wasn't very good at titles.

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    1. Oh I do agree about Westwood, I think it's a great book. I wondered if I was unfairly prejudiced against the title because it has become the name of a shopping centre - but actually I think you are right, it's just a bad name. It doesn't for a moment suggest the deep pleasures of the book (I did a couple of blogposts, with lovely utility clothes from MoI/IWM). Cold Comfort Farm is such a perfect title - she must have used up all her book-naming compartment with it!

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