Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

If you’ve read Cold Comfort Farm you’ll be familiar with Stella Gibbons. She wrote about 25 books, of which it was her most well known work, and though forgotten for many years, she’s having a bit of a revival lately.

Written in 1938, Nightingale Wood is a romance set in Essex. It largely follows Viola, a 22 year old penniless widow who goes to live with her miser father in law following her husbands death. He lives with his wife and two adult daughters. Viola is largely miserable, and dreams of escaping her fate. When she catches the eye of Victor Spring, the local wealthy and most eligible bachelor, she hopes for true love at last, but his intentions might not be entirely honorable…

Into this mix is thrown a chauffeur who wants to make a better life for himself, but is blocked by the poor reputation of his alcoholic parents and a young woman who has it all, wealth and privilege, but just wants to read and be left alone, amongst many others. Each character is thoroughly explored and full of colour and life, but is also skewered by Gibbons dry wit and understanding of the role of class and judgmental society in English life of the era.

No one is safe from her incisive sense of humour. In that sense, her style has a little in common with Nancy Mitford or Anita Loos, so if you like them you’ll also enjoy her. But unlike them, there’s a little of the fairytale about her stories. She likes to tie up loose ends and have it all come out right. Viola is compared to Cinderella in this book for very good reason. And it’s nice to have a bit of a romance and a happy ending. Even though her characters are funny and made fun of, they’re always sympathetic and it’s nice to see them get their hearts desire.

Writing during the era that she was, there are quite a few old fashioned attitudes to race that are outdated, to say the least. They’re not a major theme of the book, or her work at large, but I they should be mentioned all the same. It could be argued that she’s actually putting them in the mouths of her characters to show how bigoted and snobbish they are, and this may be so, but can’t be said for sure.

That said, I really enjoy her intelligent humour and social commentary. She’s from an era of Britain that’s gone forever, and one that was idiosyncratic and loved to not take itself too seriously. I also love that she throws in that little bit of fun and romance, and a happy ending. A delightful, old school read.

Read It If: you love your British humour, or an old fashioned happy ending to a romance. Sparkling with fun and wit, it’s lovely that Gibbons is having a renaissance.

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