Stella Gibbons has enjoyed something of a revival this year with new editions of several of her novels from Vintage Classics & this volume of short stories, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Only the title story is set at Cold Comfort Farm & a miserable place it is, especially at Christmas. The story takes place some years before Flora Poste arrives to sort everyone out. The Christmas pudding is full of not charms but curses. Whoever gets the coffin nail will be dead within the year. Why anyone had any desire to eat that pudding, I have no idea. Aunt Ada is fulminating against all her kin as always & Adam’s attempts to fill the Christmas stockings with treats like turnips & swedes are not appreciated. Luckily Dick Hawk-Monitor saves the day, at least as far as Elfine is concerned.
The other Christmas story, The Little Christmas Tree, concerns a woman who decides to spend Christmas alone in the country. She refuses all invitations & is just starting to find herself feeling a little lonely & bored when two children arrive & her day ends very hopefully. In To Love and To Cherish, a woman decides to leave her husband. She writes him a farewell letter, takes a train to London for a job interview but gradually realises that her boring, comfortable life has left her unfitted for any other.
More Than Kind is about a very modern second marriage. Ian Wardell’s first wife, Sophie, comes to stay so that the children won’t be traumatised by their parents’ separation & his new wife, Lillian, is expected to welcome her with open arms & without jealousy. The fact that no one, not even the children, really enjoy Sophie’s visits, is immaterial. They’re behaving in a modern, sophisticated way as all their friends would expect them to do. Sophie upsets the servants & causes Nanny to resign when she upsets the children’s routine. She visits Ian in his room which makes him uncomfortable & Lillian resentful. Finally, the explosion we’ve been waiting for comes & modern morality is shown to be a facade with all the old emotions seething underneath the polite small talk.
My favourite story, apart from the visit to Cold Comfort, was Sisters. Elaine Garfield is a kind, middle-aged spinster living in a village. She decides to employ a young girl who has been ostracised because she’s had an illegitimate baby. At first, Elaine is irritated by the girl’s clumsiness & her annoying chatter. But, gradually, she becomes accustomed to Ivy’s presence &, as they become more intimate, Elaine tells Ivy about her own great secret. The result is not what she expected. What this story does so well is explore the chasm between the classes, between Elaine’s kind but patronising efforts to help Ivy & treat her as she would wish to be treated herself & Ivy’s working class family’s strict moral code which they apply to everyone, including Elaine.
These stories were originally published in magazines such as The Lady & Good Housekeeping and, as Alexander McCall Smith says in his Introduction, they come from a period when a story had a tale to tell & told it straightforwardly with maybe a twist or two before the resolution. Literary effect was not as important as plot. All these stories are about an England that would be changed by the Second World War. The moral attitudes, some of the class consciousness, the formality would be swept away. I enjoyed these stories for that picture of another England & for the touches of dry humour & satire that Stella Gibbons is so good at portraying. Hopefully now that Vintage have reprinted some more of her fiction, Gibbons’s reputation as a one-hit wonder will be gone forever.