Oh dear. If you have read anything I have written previously about Stella Gibbons it will be immediately obvious that I rate Cold Comfort farm as one of the best books ever written. Hyperbole? perhaps, because I would recognise the book is not without its flaws, but if I had to chose one book for a life time of desert island living this would be it. It is by far and away the book I have reread the most in my life. But sadly nothing Stella Gibbons ever wrote approached the genius of CCF. In bringing her catalogue back into print Vintage have done us a mixed blessing – while it is exciting to read anything she wrote, the disappointment is inescapable. I will keep reading her to try to capture the magic of CCF, but with steadily decreasing expectation and hope.

The Bachelor is a perfectly decent romantic novel of manners set in 1940s wartime London and the Home counties (a thinly disguised St Albans).  The romantic entanglements of the lead characters and supporting cast is handled well, but it isn’t where the interest of the novel resides. To be honest it was the strangely detached description of the war and its impact on the lives of the characters was were I derived my most interest in this novel. The war is a fact of life, a backdrop to pretty much everything the characters do – rationing, the blackout, characters missing on service, the Home Guard, refugees, prisoners of war and evacuees are all there – but everyone just gets on with their lives as if it was a temporary piece of nastiness that sooner or later will pass, which of course it did. The novel was published in 1944 and I suspect written near then, because the threat of invasion or defeat is not even hinted at. The portrayal of the middle class characters who oppose the war and appear to treat it as a case of a misunderstanding between countries taken too far was interesting – these are not conscientious objectors or pro-German or pro-Nazi supporters, more ideological pacifists who think the conflict can be talked away. This pacifism is tolerated as an eccentricity rather than disloyalty or treason.

Towards the end of the novel the war comes more into the foreground. Kenneth the bachelor of the title is in London looking for Vartouhi, the feisty refugee who is less than half his age, (this is not seen as a problem by anyone) who has left his employment after a row with his sister Constance, and is working in a milk bar. He tracks her down in a depressed, bombed out part of London similar to the streets where “Starlight” is set, albeit twenty years later. The extent of the bomb damage is depressing if not to say upsetting, and through this landscape comes Vartouhi, followed by her “boyfriend”, a Canadian soldier with the unlikely name of Raoul who is clearly well on the way to being a psychopath. Although Vartouhi is cheerfully unafraid of the menacing Raoul, Kenneth quickly realises he is dangerous, and sees him off with a show of bravery that seems to draw upon his years in the trenches in the Great War. This section of the novel stands out as a compelling piece of narrative compared to much of the sleepiness of the rest of the book.

So why he “oh dear”. Well first this novel is the reason for my prolonged absence from this blog – it was incredibly heavy going. More than a few pages a night would send me off. The plot consistent solely of the predictable romantic affairs which resolve themselves as expected from the beginning, but take over 400 pages to do so. Very little else happens. The major plot incidents involve an argument about a bedspread – albeit a bedspread loaded with sexual symbolism – and a Christmas visit from an aged relative.
Gibbons handled romance with a delightfully light touch in CCF – the relationship between Flora and Charles is covered in a few lines of text – but when she says “This is forever isn’t it darling?” and he says something romantic about how nice her hair smells, it is utterly convincing. The relationships in the Bachelor are believable enough, but the characters take a very long time reaching the same point as Flora and Charles.
I remain Gibbons’s ardent admirer, and won’t give up on her back catalogue, but now for something completely different….