A Return to Stella Gibbons


Starlight by Stella Gibbons

Two elderly sisters live in a surprisingly quaint but completely impoverished cottage in London. Their quietly eccentric lives are disturbed when a ‘rackman’ buys the house for his wife, whose mysterious illness is diagnosed as an evil spirit.

I love Vintage for reissuing Stella Gibbons’ classics beyond Cold Comfort Farm. Firstly for her fantastic writing and secondly for the beautiful covers. I also really like the look of Westwood and – because tis the season – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm.

Most of the action takes place in one house. I loved the way Gibbons uses this house to represent all the classes in society. I know the Georgians had the idea that the further up in the house you lived, the lower class you were: I suppose there are lots of servants in attics throughout literature (and history!) and that is definitely the case with Starlight. The well to do wife lives on the ground floor, the sisters are in the middle, and the ancient sometimes starving but not quite begging possibly a war veteran lives alone in the attic. Gibbons has a great ear for dialogue and accents and really does justice to all the different characters she creates. I can see everyone so clearly but not once do I remember Gibbons ever directly writing what somebody is like. As soon as I read the first paragraph I was completely immersed, it was literally like opening the door to someone’s living room.

Starlight was published in 1967, and the story seems to be set roughly during the early sixties. It is quite timeless at first, taking a while to announce the period it is set. For example the war and its consequences seem very much in the foreground. The buildings still seem bombed and it wouldn’t have felt out of place for any of the characters to suddenly start talking about rationing. There is, however, some tension between this old world and the new values coming from the changing times. A lot of this seems generational; the relationships of some younger characters seem quite modern. Overall there is a real sense of not quite knowing what to do with yourself that I suppose was very characteristic of England at that time.

This book surprised me because of its dealings with evil spirits. It is much more literal than I had expected – there is even an exorcism towards the end of the book. I thought this was quite unusual for Gibbons because (based on Cold Comfort Farm) she is so grounded. What she writes is very true to life, particularly the people in her stories. I’m not convinced we are supposed to believe in the evil spirits, but it is a part of the book that I haven’t quite worked out yet.

I would definitely recommend Starlight for its atmosphere, characters and place in history. Plus it is a fantastic opportunity to better acquaint yourself with Stella Gibbons.