by Stella Gibbons
Gladys and Annie Barnes are impoverished sisters who have seen better times. They live in a modest cottage in the backstreets of Highgate with Mr Fisher, a mild but eccentric old man living secretively in the attic above them. Their quiet lives are thrown into confusion when a new landlord takes over, a dreaded and unscrupulous 'rackman'. He installs his wife in part of the cottages in the hope that there she will recover from an unspecified malady. With a mounting sense of fear, Gladys and Annie become convinced she is possessed by an evil spirit...
This is a very strange book, difficult to describe or categorize-- humor rubbing shoulders with horror. Except for a few passages, it was not a page-turner for me, but though it took me a while to work my way through it, I found it intriguing. I wouldn't recommend this book to just anyone, as I think it would bore most-- also, I think I am unlikely to want to reread it (in the near future? ever?)-- but I'm glad I've read it once. This is an interesting story about an unusual collection of characters. The characters are the stars of the show.
Random Specifics (with SPOILERS):
-- Though I've never read the author's most famous work (Cold Comfort Farm), I've seen a film adaptation, and based on that, it's safe to say that this is a less biting work. There is humor, but it is not stringent-- and we have multifaceted, realistic characters instead of caricatures.
-- "rackman"... It must have been contemporary slang, something like a "racket" man, I guess. Obviously a rackman was a shady character involved in possibly criminal (and definitely unsavory) dealings.
-- I found it difficult to picture precisely the layout of Rose Cottage/Lily Cottage. I've got something in my mind's eye, but I'm not sure how accurate it is. I guess it was just a three-story house in which rooms (or attics) are available for rent, with a common entry-room (the kitchen? I couldn't ever really place the kitchen...) and staircase.
-- I'm not sure where the title came from. It (and the Vintage Classics cover) attracted me, but neither seem to have much to do with the book. (g) There did seem to be many scenes set at night, though...
-- "By mutual though silent consent, they said no more about the threat [of being turned out on the streets]; awful, to them, as that of any looming hydrogen holocaust." When is this set? I know it's well after WWII. I think it works out to about the same time that it was published (which was 1967).
-- At one point, there is a reference to a time "before the 1914 war", which led me to wonder if the British don't/didn't call them "World War I" and "World War II"-- and at what point Americans commonly gave them those names. Obviously before WWII, they wouldn't have called it "WWI". (I think "the Great War" was the usual name for it.) ...Anyway, nothing to do with the story-- just something I wondered about...
-- "At Belsize House, she had always been called Barnes. Housemaid. Not tall enough for a parlourmaid." Ha! I knew that height was important for some male servants (footmen? butlers?), but this is the first I've heard of height being a factor for maids. Such a strange system!
-- "...the exhausting business of commercialized Christmas only three weeks away..." So tell me-- have people always lamented the "commercialization" of Christmas? One begins to wonder...
-- "For she had, as usual, and certainly with more reason than she would have had twenty years ago, been anticipating murder." ...Yes, well, this was the 1960s, so is it even more reasonable to anticipate murder, today? Depends on where you live, what you do, and when you do it, of course...
-- "Mrs. Corbett, as was usual with Mrs. Corbett, had noticed nothing."
-- "'You always tempt us. I put on six ounces last week. Oh well-- perhaps just this once.' 'Six ounces! You'll have to "watch out", as they say.' 'I don't know why you all bother about it, fussing over ounces. Harry likes me well-covered.' Three of the old women said nothing. The one they called Madge was the last of them whose husband was alive, and she was full of triumph because of the simple fact. Every incident, every detail concerned with her hair-dressing, her clothes, her make-up, was referred to it."
-- "bestend-of-neck"-- Apparently, it's a cut of meat.
-- "Gladys minced up the remains of the previous day's bestend-of-neck (New Zealand) in the clumsy forty-year-old mincer, and, with the addition of two potatoes, well salted and mashed with half a gill of milk left from their breakfast, produced a shepherd's pie that was just not quite enough for two. But the Bovril had provided a passable foundation, and, with six staleish brussels sprouts added, there was in fact a lunch. Gladys could cook. She loved her food, and she had a most un-English talent for making something tasty out of scraps that most women would have thrown away. It is not too much to say that she and Annie would have died years ago from some illness invited by malnutrition if they had not been carefully fed. 'Quite nice, these sprouts,' commented Annie, sitting up in bed with her lunch spread out on the old papier mâché tray with its spray of Japanese flowers. 'When did you get 'em, Glad?' 'Saturday-- or was it Monday? I got a half. Pull the leaves off. Make 'em small, I hate those great lumps of sprouts. These're all right inside, even if they are old. Like me,' and Gladys went off into a great cackle, in which Annie more primly joined."
-- Regarding the snippet above: Ah, the cheerfully impoverished! But seriously, there's something so bittersweet and... cozy, really, about so many poor-but-getting-by characters. I enjoy reading about them, and I'm not sure how I should feel about that! Should I be ashamed to take pleasure in these things, when I'm living the well-fed life of the modern middle class? I remember having the same feeling of coziness as a child, reading about the dirt-poor Ingalls family (so excited to get a penny for Christmas! or a peppermint stick! or a little cake made from white flour and sugar!)... or the poverty-stricken town that grudgingly shared the ingredients to make Stone Soup... or the poor old man and woman in Socks for Supper. It must not be an unusual sensation. Why do we like these stories? It would be different if they were really suffering or starving. It's the fact that they are making do, living very carefully, but "getting by"... the simplicity of the characters' wants. You can't help but admire the frugality and resolve to be more consciously grateful for what you have-- more careful to make the best use of it. ...And maybe it stirs a charitable impulse, too...
-- Gladys and Annie buy their gas (for heat) and electricity through a pay-as-you-go system, it seems. They drop coins into boxes to start it up again-- like a pay phone. So very strange! I wonder how common that was, at the time.
-- "There was no sound or movement in the room beyond those slight ones made by the burning of electricity, which give a false impression of life." Yes-- and even more so now, with the humming of computers and larger appliances. You don't notice it until the power's out; everything's so much quieter!
-- "...photographs of eupeptic beauties in furs..." Eupeptic! What a word! "Of, relating to, or having good digestion"-- or "cheerful". (g) You decide.
-- "'I shouldn't wonder if it wasn't that tinned pudding, say what you like it's not natural.'" Then there are fish-sticks! I was so surprised to see fish-sticks mentioned! The modern age... I get the impression that Gibbons shares Gladys' opinion of all these "prepared" foods.
-- Then there are the references to plastic. There are quite a few of them, and generally, they feel like a negative commentary on the times. Plastic decorations for the home... Plastic balls for the Christmas tree... Plastic shoes. It feels cheap. Signs of a world that is changing-- and not for the better.
-- "...the cheap wood of the furniture, shaped into debased contemporary curves, had its usual chemical sheen."
-- "Her mind was busy with the story she had been reading; a suspense-story about multiple murder and hidden love in the Deep South of America." How amusing! She's reading about this exotic Deep South of America, and here I am in the Deep South, reading about the equally exotic (fictional) goings-on in England.
-- "Her face was beginning to fill out; a pear-shaped German face with white large cheeks and a narrow brow and small eyes blue as flax." Hm... Never heard of German faces being pear-shaped.
-- The possession element of the story is very odd. Not at all what you'd expect from a book that is firmly planted in a modern, everyday world. It's not really horror, but there are definitely a few creepy moments. They mostly come in the form of strange phrases mixed into Mrs. Pearson's dialogue. There's the "I will put my feet on the pavement" line... Then there's the bit about how she wants "just to enjoy my house... my house that I can touch and taste and smell..."
-- "'...if I hadn't such a mistrust of the psychiatric brotherhood I'd try and pass the whole thing on to one of them.' 'I'm inclined to agree with you-- but don't you give them credit for anything?' asked Gerald. 'Arrogance,' said Mr Geddes tartly. 'Plenty of credit for that. They're the new Sanhedrin. You show me a wardful of happy, or even resigned and contented people allegedly cured by psychiatrists and-- I'll give credit where it's due. To Almighty God.'" . . . "'It's lack of time that's the trouble,' Mr Geddes went on. 'Each patient really needs the entire interest of one person concentrated entirely on him or herself. It just can't be done. It's cruel to pretend it can. They find themselves clinically pigeon-holed when they need to be loved ... a perfect demonstration of "I asked for bread, and ye gave me a stone".'"
-- (Bedridden) Mrs. Pearson points to some cakes she's offering to a guest, then asks to be excused for pointing. I don't understand why pointing at an object-- particularly in one's own home-- would be considered bad manners. I understand (in theory) why it might be bad manners to point at a person-- especially out on the street. It might look as though you're talking about the person-- saying who knows what about him/her-- and it could embarrass the person, but this example seems a bit extreme. I don't see the harm in pointing at a plate of cakes. ~shrug~ (But then again, I'm not Miss Manners.)
-- The kindness and sympathy everyone seems to feel toward Erika surprised me a little, and I wondered how realistic it was. (Of course, at the time, I thought the book might be set in the 50s, whereas now I think it was set in the mid-to-late 1960s.) I know she's a poor orphan who was born well after the war and in no way to blame for it, but still... She's German, and it wasn't that long after the war, and... Well, I wouldn't have expected outright displays of hatred, but neither did I expect such easy, unquestioning acceptance. I wonder how soon this type of reaction was the norm...
-- There are four dogs (pugs? I can't recall) named (oh so creatively) A., Bee, Cee, and Dee.
-- Peggy annoys me. Perpetually bored. Above regular people. Self-absorbed. Uninterested in anyone else. ...Then later on we get her back-story, and yet, still, I don't like her. Are we supposed to sympathize with her? I can't! She's a wanna-be home-wrecker! The man she's cavorting with (Fred) is even worse, since he's the one with a wife (and children?) to think of, but there's enough disgust to go around.
-- All that said... Though I dislike Peggy and Arnold, individually, I can't help but like them together, and I wouldn't have minded reading more about them.
-- "She was twenty-two. Not, thought Arnold, a great age." Ha! I've heard people say that the teens aren't a great age-- not years you want to repeat-- but pity for the early twenties is less common. Interesting, coming from an older author... Gives me hope for the years to come. ;o)
-- "...his heart shook against his rib-cage as if it were an animal bounding from side to side and trying to get out; he had never been so aware of it, and he felt, too, what power it had, how he relied upon it, how it sent the blood that kept him alive running along his veins." It's an odd sensation, the realization of your ultimate vulnerability. If one little bit of the clockwork comes to a halt, you die. In the meantime, what magic keeps it going? Nothin' like mortality!
-- Poor Mr. Fisher. Such a sad yet dignified character. I'm not sure I "understand" his murder. It's so random. Just in the wrong place at the wrong time? (Well, kind of. It was a risk he consciously took, because he thought he might be able to save another man's life-- make a difference.) Such senseless violence... It happens, but... well, it is so senseless that it's baffling. Why? Not even greed for a motive-- just violence for its own sake.
-- Mr. Fisher's anti-war letters struck me as a bit odd... Perfect for Gerald to find them-- right up his alley-- but personally... I don't know. Maybe it was more poignant when the book was written, with the ever-present fear of the atom bomb. Or maybe it's just me... In any case, life's not that simple. As long as there are evil people in the world (and I don't see any improvement in human nature), someone has to be prepared to defend against them. That sometimes escalates into war. Innocent people die, and there is much needless loss. But what is the alternative? To surrender to those who are willing to kill or otherwise use force to get their way? Cowering under the tyrant's watch for generations? Is that kind of life any better than war, really? No, I'd rather fight.
-- "(The occupants, already late for a television programme specializing in scenes of violence, preferred to indulge their taste without risk of involvement, and ignored the girl lying in the road and the man stooping over her.)" Not a very high opinion of TV or those who watch it...
-- "Mrs Lysaght was sitting in her drawing-room, a week later. It was ten minutes past eleven, and she was sipping her coffee and reflecting that Gretl did not make it as well as a Continental girl should. Gretl was sitting in the kitchen, sipping hers and reflecting with complacence that it tasted just like that served in the London coffee bars."
-- While Gerald waits for Mr. Geddes to come help him with the possessed Mrs. Pearson, he tries to fix his mind on holy things, but... "He began to experience nothing but a detached curiosity. His moral sense told him that it was evil; yet he could feel nothing else, and the cold, crawling out from somewhere beyond the warmth of the summer evening, slowly burned into his flesh inside his clothes and began to seep inwards, in the form of this passionless curiosity, threatening his spirit." ...I recognize that feeling, or something like it.
-- I was surprised when Mrs. Pearson died (even though we're obviously meant to understand that her soul has been saved)-- and even more shocked when her husband made good on his earlier promises and proceeded to "follow" her. ...I'm still shocked by that turn of events.
-- The strangest aspect of the book, in my opinion, would have to be the curiously cold parent/child relationships between the Pearsons and Peggy. I guess Mrs. Pearson's been battling this "illness" for practically all of Peggy's life, and Mr. Pearson has been obsessed with his wife... and as a result, Peggy was mostly self-reliant from a young age. I understand that not all families are very close, but this one is so distant! Mr. Pearson doesn't even consider his daughter before killing himself-- and Peggy doesn't bother to tell her mother that she's married and going out of the country for goodness-knows-how-long! Weird... Her strange relationship with her parents might explain some of Peggy's problems and "personality quirks". Maybe her future with Arnold will be happier...
-- After the strange, sad story of the Pearsons, at least the ending is cozy. Gladys and Annie get their happy ending-- a nice place to live in the country-- a real home with family, where they'll be cherished for their remaining years. The picture of them slowly driving home through a friendly village in a pretty, twilit countryside... So soft and warm and lovely. Who could ask for anything better?