Westwood by Stella Gibbons

published 1946  chapter 4

[Margaret has found a rationbook belonging to Hebe Niland, and is going to return it]

Margaret walked quickly, wondering if her clothes were suitable, and then scornfully telling herself that even if she did see Alexander Niland he wouldn’t notice what she was wearing, and then remembering that he was a painter and would naturally notice everything. She had tied her hair with the velvet bow and put on a dark-brown suit with a yellow and crimson handkerchief knotted under her chin, and her shoes and stockings were heavy and good, as were the shoes and stockings of most girls in England in those days. Her heart beat faster than usual and she was almost trembling; so much of her craving for a more beautiful and satisfying life took the form of wanting to meet interesting people that the possibility of meeting one, however briefly, excited her painfully…

Hebe must be his wife, or perhaps his sister? No, she seemed to remember that he had painted several portraits of his wife. Hebe Niland. It was a strange name and Margaret thought it a beautiful one. Someone with that name started with an advantage lacked by someone named Margaret Steggles.

observations: Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs (entry last week) reminded me of this book – Margaret, leading a limited life in wartime London, is pulled into the lives of the Bohemian, arty and very grand Niland and Challis familes, through the chance of finding the rationbook. She is totally exploited by them – they are absurd, pretentious and selfish, but they are all too clear-eyed about Margaret. Everyone is horrified when Gerard Challis says that one of the servants has a slave mentality ‘she has enjoyed giving her life to us, you know’, but really their attitude to Margaret is much the same. And the truth is that – like Nora in The Woman Upstairs, like Frances in Alys, Always – she wants a way in to the family, and if helping out means she gets it, then fine by her. (Though Nora and Margaret could learn a thing or two from Frances.)

You can’t help feeling that poor Margaret’s plight would have been much eased if television had been available to her. Her home life is awful:
Mrs Steggles settled down with some fancywork …. and the daughter read in silence. A great dreariness filled Margaret’s heart.

If only they could have watched Strictly together in those long uncomfortable evenings, Margaret would not have had to go out stalking. She and her new friend Zita are sooo turning into Barbara Pym heroines by the end of the book (see here on the blog for Pym’s stalkers in nice cardis and comfortable shoes).

The book is so intriguing that it’s going to need another entry, later this week.

Links on the blog: Hebe Niland wears a hat that is ‘nothing but a huge black and white flower.’ New York hat fashion at the time was obviously exactly the same: see this entry for details.

The picture is from the Imperial War Museum’s wonderful collection of photos from the period – this is from the Ministry of Information, showing utility clothes.


  1. Moira - It certainly seems that way. What a way to describe their assumption about the servant too. I've always thought it was fascinating the way people can be drawn like that to people who exploit them. I'm looking forward to your next post about this. I really like the 'photo too.

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