First published in 1944, this charming and unusual novel brought a little romance to the British reading public during the Second World War. It’s not one of my favourite Stella Gibbons books but I like it a lot. Character-driven, the book explores the conflicts between a group of unmarried people of different generations who all live in, or are connected to, the same house. The story is mainly set in rural Hertfordshire and London.
The ‘bachelor’ of the title refers to Kenneth, a warm-hearted man in his forties who never had much luck with women, partly due to the stern influence of his older sister, the moralistic Constance. They have an embarrassingly wayward father. Then there’s Frankie, their elderly cousin, who is secretly a bohemian type. The tension in the house is increased by the arrival of an enigmatic young woman, Vartouhi, from an Italian-occupied Balkan country, who’s employed as a servant and attracts the men. Richard, an idealistic young economist with socialist leanings, plus his mother, the attractive and independent Betty, are added to the mix. Finally we have Alicia, practical and sophisticated, who works hard and plays hard. There are perhaps a few too many characters but they are all fascinating, although some of them have xenophobic views consistent with this era.
Being a social comedy with a helping of down-to-earth romance, The Bachelor focuses on the lighter side of life in Britain during the Second World War, but it does have interesting commentary on the times. Particularly evident is the generation gap between people who were or were not around during the First World War. I don’t know when these wars began to be designated as the first and second, but in this book they are referred to as The Other War (or the 1914 War) and the Nazi War. There are also evocative descriptions of bomb-damaged London.
One thing that puzzles me about this book is Gibbons’ inclusion of a fictional country, Bairamia. From the descriptions of the place and culture it seems to resemble Albania. I can’t help thinking that a fictional country doesn’t quite fit into the story’s otherwise realistic setting.
My edition was published by Vintage in 2012.
This was a re-read.