Ooh, I’m well away, aren’t I – book 3 in my 20 Books of Summer (intro post here), and I’m now reading my fourth and fifth ones. As with “The Half-Crown House”, Heaven-Ali gave me this one as part of my LibraryThing Virago Group Not So Secret Santa gift for Christmas 2020; the two I’m reading now were both from that Christmas, I can’t remember when Elton John arrived but he wasn’t a Christmas present, and then we somehow hop to May 2021 in the TBR, which is quite exciting.

As well as getting one of my TBR challenge books done and dusted, this one fits into the LibraryThing Virago Group’s monthly challenge: a book by a Virago author not published by Virago (it’s a Vintage edition). Win-win-win!

Stella Gibbons – “The Bachelor”

(25 December 2020, from Ali)

Miss Fielding enjoyed arguing, though she had a habit of suddenly ending the battle at its height by remembering the Good Principle and saying with a smile, ‘But of course, Truth is a jewel with a million facets, as the Jains say, so why dim those facets by arguing?’ and leaving her opponent maddened but helpless. (p. 66)

Published in 1944 and set at about the same time, the war is lingering on but at Sunglades, a newish house in the Home Counties, it’s not having too much of an effect – Miss Fielding is so anti-war she refuses to believe in it, they’ve got rid of their evacuees and plan to fill the house with nice foreigners so as to avoid having any more, some servant or other will do the queuing for shops and Mr Fielding continues to work as a solicitor and tend his garden, bullied into acquiescence by Miss Fielding. She is like their mother without having the kindness and work ethic, everyone fears he’s like their father. They’re in their fifties, living with a slightly older cousin, Miss Burton, and nothing is set to change.

Then into the household burst, variously, Vartouhi, a pert and steely young refugee, come as a general help but with strong views on how to run a household, Betty, a widow for years who once broke Kenneth Fielding’s heart, and her son Richard, delicate in the lung but strong in mind and principles. As the story goes along, local girl Alice, who is secretly sick of racketing about but doesn’t know how to stop, the Fieldings’ father, a rather rackety chap himself, and a man from an unknown country for whose letters Miss Fielding lives and who she secretly must surely love.

As the men and women meet and interact, loves and love triangles set themselves up. This is all fun and fine, and the setting is great; the thing I had a problem with is that Vartouhi is from an invented country that seems oh, too much like the blasted Mixo-Lydia of Angela Thirkell’s novels – so a vehicle for a rather nasty xenophobia and opportunity to laugh at funny foreigners and their funny ways. We have scenes set in “Bairamia” which exhibit exoticism, orientalism and just plain laughing-at-funny-foreigners, Vartouhi has rather irritating artless broken English and it just seems unnecessary; she could have been from somewhere real or just an English girl of a different class. Gibbons has written unreadable satire elsewhere (“Conference at Cold Comfort Farm“, I’m looking at you) but also lovely cheery multiple character studies (“A Pink Front Door“) and while I can see she’s satirising peace makers in a comfortable position who wage war in their own houses, the xenophobia seems just that. So I’m a bit ambivalent about this one, although I did enjoy seeing the couples match up and lovely Kenneth get out from under the thumb a bit.

This was number 3 in my 20 Books of Summer 2022!

This was also TBR Challenge 2021-22 Quarter 3 Book 10/41 – 31 to go.