‘Pure Juliet’ tells the story of Juliet Slater, a working class girl from London, who just happens to be a mathematical genius. It is one of an increasingly popular genre, the lost novel. Originally written by Stella Gibbons in the 1970’s, it was not published in her lifetime (she died in 1989) but was recently “discovered” by her family and has been marketed by the publishers with this narrative, rather than “the author didn’t think this was quite good enough yet but never got round to revising it” which is probably closer to the truth.
Cultural references set the first section of the novel, in which Juliet completes her A levels and leaves home to stay with an adoptive aunt, Miss Pennecuick, in her isolated country house in rural Hertfordshire, in the late 1970’s – punk rock, Friends of the Earth, and Star Wars are mentioned. Once settled she works on developing her theory on the laws of coincidence. Her peace and quite, essential for allowing her the time and space to concentrate on her ideas, are disturbed by various visitors, not least Miss Pennecuick’s nephew, Frank. Frank has an awkward habit of falling in love with long haired pre-Raphaelite type beauties who are entirely unsuitable for him, and of ignoring Clemence Massey, a family friend who has been yearning for him unnoticed and unrequited for years. A drunken proposal sorts all this out, Frank and Clemence marry and start producing children, but not before they decide to adopt (effectively, if not legally) Juliet, who they provide with a house and the space she needs to work on her theory. Years pass, older characters die, Frank and Clemence’s family grows, and eventually Juliet produces the theory of coincidence that only a few people in the world can understand, vindicating Frank’s belief in her genius all these years. A Nobel equivalent award follows, but once produced Juliet seems exhausted, and with little more to interest her in life, slowly fades away.
The debate about whether Stella Gibbons’s family should have rescued the novel from her papers and had it published, an issue which occupied several reviewers at the time of publication, is not one of them. It is such a sterile discussion, echoing that over ‘Go Set a Watchman’ a few months earlier. As far as I am concerned if publishers are prepared to release a novel then let them do so, and let the readers decide if the book is to run into further edition. Stella Gibbons’s reputation is not going to be enhanced by this novel, but it is hardly going to be diminished either.
There are, inevitably given the publishing history of this novel, some issues. The country house setting, populated with elderly aunts, young men pursuing arcane hobbies and long haired beauties, is positively Wodehousian. Characters are shocked when Juliet says “What” instead of “I beg your pardon?”. A Spanish waiter pulls Juliet’s hair. People drink a lot of tea, and cycle into the village to make a telephone call. The rural 1970’s setting can just about explain this all away, but later sections are set decades later, into a future beyond the uncertain but surely late point of the novel’s original composition. It is all just highly unconvincing, even allowing for the reader’s subconscious willingness to ignore most anachronisms. To me, the novel shows distinct signs of being a near final but nevertheless incomplete draft, never more so when Juliet travels to Cambridge from Hertfordshire via Norwich – from which I infer that Gibbons originally located the Pennecuick’s home in Norfolk, and when at some later point relocated it to Hertfordshire never got round to tidying up the journey to the university. This is an insignificant detail in the scale of things, and most other parts of the novel are fully worked through. Whether the author decided to not publish this novel in her lifetime (she kept the draft, so could not have been completely dissatisfied with it) or simply set it aside for another day we will never know, but again, at the risk of repeating herself, it is published now, and we need to respond to what it is, not what it could have been.
I found ‘Pure Juliet’ an easy, diverting read. At her worst Stella Gibbons is still a far better writer than most. I found the central character less irritating than some reviewers, and found the theory (propounded widely in other reviews) that she has a form of high functioning autism very convincing. It was touching the way Frank and family accept Juliet for what she is, make no real effort to change her, but welcome the small steps of progress (showing affection towards a family pet, for example) as and when they are taken. Kindness towards those who are different from ourselves is an unrated virtue. I have read that this novel was originally entitled “An Alpha”, and the current title may not have been chosen by the author. ‘An Alpha’ is clumsy and awkward, like Juliet herself, but I prefer the ambiguities of ‘Pure Juliet’ – on one level just a description of her lack of interest in relationships with men, but also describing the fact that she is devoid of pretence or deceit.
One last thought – if this novel, or indeed this review, leads to one more person letting the joy of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ into their lives, then it would have all been worthwhile.