Saturday, 6 June 2009

Bassett, by Stella Gibbons

I first tried Stella Gibbons when I was at school, but Cold Comfort Farm left me, well, rather cold. However, at the suggestion of Elaine at Random Jottings I tried again, finding a copy of Bassett in the Camden libraries reserve collection.

Gibbons was a Hampstead writer, attending North London Collegiate and, after the death of her parents, living in Vale Cottage near Hampstead Heath with her two brothers.

Bassett is a very fine novel indeed. Miss Baker has an inheritance but until she is made redundant from her job never has to think about how to use it. Circumstances drive her into the company of Miss Pardoe, who has a run down house in the country but no money. Having first rescued Miss Pardoe from her tyrannical servants, Miss Baker turns the house into a profitable boarding house, thus liberating both women in the process and changing their lives entirely. This would be enough of a story for most novels but, not content with this, Gibbons weaves another plot (or rather two sub-plots) across it. The latter is largely auto-biographical, dealing with her own real life affair with a man called Walter Beck, whom she met on Hampstead Heath and with whom she used to go away on a regular basis to spend weekends in hotels under an assumed name (much more daring than this might appear today). As in real life, the affair did not end happily, though Gibbons later married an actor called Webb with whom she was very happy. After his early death from cancer she largely withdrew from the world for the last thirty years of her life.

On the evidence of Bassett, Gibbons is a very accomplished writer. Her characters are well sketched. We even find the man who treats her so badly, and his mother whom we hardly know, likeable and sympathetic. Of course we disapprove of what he does, but we understand the inner weakness which drives his actions. Somehow we sense that he will never find anyone finer than the woman he rejects, yet though Gibbons clearly identifies herself with the character of Queenie, she plays fair by her readers. We know that Queenie is seeing her lover through rose-coloured spectacles. We know that he is fickle and weak. We know that he is likely to give her up on a whim. Yet at the same time there is a power in the writing which enables us to share Queenie's sense of the perfect moment as she drives off into the early morning on an illicit outing with her lover in his open-topped car, while appreciating that probably even she in her heart knows that this pleasure is transient, yet none the less valid for that.

Sadly, in common with many fine books, Bassett appears currently to be out of print, but please do take the trouble to track it down in second hand bookshops. It will be well worth the trouble, I promise you.

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