“If Cold Comfort Farm is Stella Gibbon’s Pride and Prejudice, then Westwood is her Persuasion,” says Lynne Truss, in her introduction. The observation is acute. It is intended as a positive comment, but I am not sure it does Gibbons or Westwood any favours – Persuasion is a book it is hard to love, the characters being largely unengaging and unsympathetic, all the more so when contrasted with the earlier work which inspires such devotion. Once the first bright flare of Cold Comfort farm had faded away, what was Gibbons to do – keep silent like Harper Lee, or earn a modest living churning out uninspired and uninspiring stories that have dated horribly and never hint at the heights of achievement CCF achieved. There is some amusement in spotting traces of the DNA of Mr Mybug in the characterisation of Gerard Challis, the pompous and horny playwright gleefully exposed to his family as a “cad”, but the principal character, Margaret Steggles, is just the kind of self absorbed young woman whom Flora would have kindly said “yes dear” to and then got away from as quickly as possible. Her dilemma – of being a young, clever, but plain young women in a world where men are in short supply, and likely to continue thus, is one women of the time would be identified with, but today makes us just sigh with relief. Some reviewers have claimed that the description of a post blitz London provides some interest – Westwood was published in 1946, and the story takes place in London just after the Blitz; – but this is not enough to support the interest of a 21st century reader.
I quite understand the idea of mining the Gibbons back-catalogue – Vintage must have done quite well out of it, and have done the job respectfully, assembling some nicely designed editions with thoughtful introductions. But I can’t resist the thought that once the flurry of interest has died away these books will fade back out of print until the next rediscovery.