Review of ‘Nightingale Wood’ by Stella Gibbons

I’ve had a strange experience with this book. The first time I read it (2012) I thought it was marvellous. The second time (2016) I was disappointed and couldn’t understand why I’d liked it so much! The third time (2024) I have a more balanced view of this imperfect but witty novel, which is like a mixture of Cold Comfort Farm, Cinderella and a Virginia Woolf.

Book cover shows illustration of couples dancing in period costume.

The story, which is about 100 pages too long, follows several characters who live in an Essex village. Viola, former shopgirl and now a young widow, goes to live with the uptight Withers family. Mr Withers is a tyrant, his wife is timid, one middle-aged daughter, Madge, is obsessed with dogs and the other, Tina, fancies the chauffeur. Viola falls in love with the awful Victor Spring but he’s engaged. Victor’s cousin Hetty is bored of her privileged life and longs to be in a garret reading poetry. Meanwhile, the lecherous Hermit causes problems and everyone is obsessed with class. There is a really interesting edge to the book, which was first published in 1938. The younger generation are marrying whoever they please, they want careers and they’re influenced by the movies. Some people continue to have polite garden parties and pretend that all is steady in the world, while others have a sense of doom from the political atmosphere. No one states that there’s going to be another war, but the feeling is there in the writing.

The main flaw in the book, for me, is that there is no one to root for because they’re all so bigoted and unpleasantly unlikable. Viola and Victor, the Cinderella and Prince, are respectively drippy and chauvinistic. They deserve each other, I suppose, but the author doesn’t try to get us to like them, which is admirable in a way. She even notes that the characters are not real people. The book is sometimes fun but sometimes a chore. Generally I enjoyed it but I think her books from the 1940s and 50s were better.

This edition published by Virago, 2009, with an introduction by Sophie Dahl.

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