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It seems a long time since I have read anything by Stella Gibbons. Best known of course for Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons was in fact a very prolific writer of novels short stories and poetry, she even wrote a children’s book. The Matchmaker was her eleventh novel – and it’s a fairly chunky one. There were moments when I felt the novel maybe could have been shorter – the narrative certainly slows down a little in places, but really that is a small thing. Overall, this was a novel that was a pleasure to spend time with – and what I really appreciated was that Stella Gibbons had the ability to surprise me – she doesn’t always go down exactly the route you think she will.

In the first early winter of peace, after the end of the Second World War, Alda Lucie-Brown and her three young daughters move to Pine Cottage in rural Sussex uprooted by the bombing of their family home near London. As the novel opens Alda’s husband Ronald arrives home on leave – and together they explore the little cottage that the family will move into in the following days. It’s far from ideal – and it is really a case of making do.

“Alda had been homeless for so long that she had almost ceased to grieve (or so she told herself) for the elegant homely double-fronted house in the old quarter of Ironborough which she and Ronald had been carefully, lovingly filling with furniture and books. Home, for her, was now wherever Ronald and the children and she herself could gather together in front of a fire or about a table…”

The cottage is quite remote, their nearest neighbours are the Hoadleys at Naylor’s farm, and just behind Pine cottage is a small chicken farm. With no car, and no bicycles, the youngest child just three years old getting out and about will become challenging for Alda as the winter takes hold. She is certainly used to a busier life – she’s also used to having her girls around her all day – with the move to Pine cottage, the older two girls, Jenny and Louise will be attending the convent school each day. She really needs something to do – something to liven up her life at Pine cottage.

Alda’s friend Jean arrives to stay following the death of her father. Jean is quite a wealthy woman having inherited her father’s business and having grown up in a well to do family. She is a kind, loyal friend, she adores Alda’s girls – for what Jean really wants – and has always wanted is a family of her own. At around thirty-two she is about the same age as Alda – they were friends at school. Her most recent romantic disappointment the latest in a long line. For fifteen years Alda has supported her friend through numerous trials and disappointments – offering advice whenever she can. Here, the reader begins to wonder whether Alda’s advice is always good. There is just a suggestion of the smug married here – Alda who married young for love – who could have had her pick – and went on to have three lovely daughters – surely, she must therefore be a dispenser of good, sound advice on matters of the heart. If you’re already thinking Emma Wodehouse – you’re not far from the mark.

Meanwhile, at Naylor’s farm the Hoadleys are helped on the farm by two Italian POWs – Emilio and Fabrio arrive each day from the camp. Emilio has a family back in Italy, a wife and children – Fabrio is unmarried though he sometimes gets letters from Maria who he hasn’t seen in years. Fabrio longs for his home in San Angelo. The two men struggle with their English and are viewed as lazy by Mr Hoadley. A young land-girl comes to the farm, Sylvia is eighteen, a communist with ambitions to go on the stage. Fabrio is shocked at her blowsy appearance as she strides around in trousers, her hair piled up on top of her head – she isn’t at all what he thinks of as a young lady. Sylvia is a bright, breezy breath of fresh air – and offers to teach Fabrio English.

“And Fabrio did not feel himself to be a slave. How should he? In that unbroken pride of youth which is so strong that the young man or woman who experiences it feels: I shall never die, and this warm sunny wind blows into my face while I stride against it like a lord of the earth, and then (if she is a girl) she moves her rounded neck to see her gold earrings reflected in the window of the car and feels her power, right down to the very tip of her eyelashes. Fabrio, too, was still sustained by his former close contact with the earth and the sea, though month by month, as the life of the camp held him fast, the refreshing force declined in strength.”

At the chicken farm Mr Wait leads a rather lonely life – he is a good looking man – Alda soon discovers, though very old fashioned in his views. However, old fashioned opinions aside, he is soon revealed to be a very kind man. Alda and the girls make his acquaintance soon after moving in, but with the arrival of Jean the two households begin to have more and more to do with each other.

Alda is soon on full interfering alert – she decides that Mr Wait will do perfectly well for Jean, and silly little Sylvia really could do a lot worse than marry Fabrio. The trouble is Alda makes really rather too many assumptions about people – and thinks she knows what is best for them. If that isn’t enough, Jean’s last romantic entanglement – hearing of her father’s death – comes looking for her.

Not quite everything is tidied up neatly – just like life – which I rather liked – and Stella Gibbons really allows her characters to be flawed. There are no road to Damascus moments with people suddenly realising the errors of their ways and swearing to do better – something else that never happens in life. Alda is annoying – Mr Wait needs to be brought up to date, and Sylvia can be stubborn and selfish. Some hearts get terribly bruised thanks to Alda’s interference – but the ending is something of a joy – but perhaps not the one many readers would be expecting.

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1944 club

Karen and Simon’s 1944 club starts today – a week in which lots of you no doubt, will be reading books first published in 1944. I am afraid I have already failed this time around – I usually love to join in with these club events – but I haven’t quite got my act together this time. Unfortunately, I have already ticked off 1944 in my A Century of Books – and as I seem to be reading so slowly I was already wondering if I could squeeze in another duplicate. I had three to choose from Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp on my kindle, Liana by Martha Gelhorn a green VMC but the book which was calling to me loudest was Berlin Hotel by Vicki Baum. When I finally located my tiny little hardback in my tbr stacks, thinking it might not take long to read, I saw that the print was very tiny, and I was completely put off reading it (I may have to source another copy one day). So, I am bowing out this time, but looking forward to seeing what everyone else is reading.

However, I have read a few books published in 1944 before – and so here is a little taster of some of them.

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The Bachelor by Stella Gibbons was the book I ticked off 1944 with in my A Century of Books earlier this year. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Set during the war, the Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. An elderly cousin lives with them, and in the coming months they are obliged to take in various other house guests. One of these is Vartouhi Annamatta, a refugee from the fictional country of Bairamia, who comes to Sunglades as a kind of ‘mother’s help’. After her arrival, nothing is quite the same again.

Earth and High Heaven by Gwethalyn Graham re-issued by Persephone books is a wonderfully poignant love story. Gwethalyn Graham explores the divisions and deeply entrenched prejudices which existed in Canadian society, through the story of Erica Drake and Marc Reiser who meet and fall in love. Set in Montreal during World War Two – Graham shows us its very divided society.

Love on the Supertax by Marghanita Laski. This is a novel that Persephone books have (so far at least) decided not to publish, and while I enjoyed it, I can understand why they haven’t. Described as a comic novel, I saw it more as a satire. I thought there was a lot in the novel that is in fact quite clever, savagely witty. There were moments when it felt a little Mitfordesque. Characters and the society in which they live, examined with Laski’s critically observing eye. I can’t help but wonder whether some modern readers would entirely ‘get it.’ Although, since reading this I have read Tory Heaven (1948) and really this could be a kind of companion piece to it. Laski’s use of language is brilliant. In this novel the impoverished, struggling aristocracy are to be pitied and the valiant working classes are intelligent and worldly with plenty of opportunities.

Our Hearts were Young and Gay by Cornelia Otis Skinner. I have two more books by Cornelia Otis Skinner tbr and I really must get around to them, because this little volume was an absolute joy. Cornelia Otis Skinner, an American actress, writer and screenwriter co-wrote Our Hearts were Young and Gay with her good friend Emily Kimbrough, a memoir about their travels in Europe in the 1920’s. It is difficult to see where Kimbrough’s collaboration is exactly as the book is written in Skinner’s first-person narrative. None of that seems important however as the book is full of charm and humour, and both women come across quite hilariously full of adorably lovable quirks and eccentricities.

The Ballad and the Source by Rosamond Lehmann – A complex novel, but one that is beautifully written. I read it quite a long time ago, and my review is so short as to be practically non-existent. The story of Sibyl Jardine is told mainly in three long conversations, between Rebecca – who is ten at the start of the novel, and Tilly a sewing maid, Sibyl herself and later Maisie, Sibyl’s granddaughter. Sibyl; both saint and sinner is a fascinating figure, and one Lehmann was to revisit in her novel The Sea Grape Tree.

If you’re are still looking for inspiration for what to read this week – then here are a few more titles I have read before.

No More than Human by Maura Laverty
Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton
The Headmistress by Angela Thirkell
Death Comes toward the End and Towards Zero by Agatha Christie (two I read pre-blog and have no memory of at all).

So, are you joining in with the 1944 club? Tell me what will you be reading?

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mde

What took me so long to get back to Stella Gibbons. I chose The Bachelor because I do love a World War two novel – especially when it was written during the war rather than after. It adds an extra dimension to know the author couldn’t know exactly what might happen or when, though perhaps by 1944 the writing was on the wall.

During the war owners of large homes in the country were obliged to take in lodgers from the bomb besieged towns and cities – putting the homeowners under some strain. The Bachelor of the title – Kenneth Fielding, and his sister Constance own Sunglades; a large seven-bedroom house not far from London, though far enough to protect them from the worst of the bombing. They are a middle-aged pair, Constance in her early fifties, Kenneth around forty-seven, a little set in their ways things have gone along unchanged for years. With them lives a spinster cousin Frankie Burton, who nurses the memory of her one romance when she was a young woman, as a woman once jilted, Frankie is the household expert on matters of the heart. Miss Burton has a little voice in her head – that she thinks of as The Usurper – who is sometimes responsible for a tart remark or a little mischief. Frankie was definitely my favourite character in the book, she often seems the kindest too. Kenneth too once had a romance, and Constance who considers her brother unsuited to marriage is thankful that nothing came of it.

Constance is a complex character; a woman of high ideals, known for filling the house with foreign lodgers and promoting international understanding. More recently the household had a small family evacuated from London – who had proved rather a trial – and it might not be long before another family take their place. Constance is also a pacifist, and disapproves strongly of the war, much to the disgust of her daily woman Mrs Archer.

“Miss Fielding, of course, would have preferred to take no notice of the raids. She was without imagination and was not afraid of bombs. She thought of the Luftwaffe as Misguided, like the rest of the German nation, but felt no personal rancour towards it: she ignored it; she mentally brushed it aside like a tiresome fly and looked vaguely forward to the day when English and Germans would enjoy a hearty laugh together over the time when they were silly enough to bomb each other’s towns.”

Kenneth is a rather lovely man, gentle, old fashioned and principled himself – his greatest happiness was when he was in the army, he served in the first war. Now a middle-aged solicitor, Kenneth serves with the Home Guard – one of many things pacifist Connie must ‘close her eyes to’. He is harried somewhat by his older sister, and when he can, he escapes to his little walled vegetable garden with its ancient greenhouse taking pleasure in his hard work.

To prevent being landed with more strangers from London, Constance decides to fill up her empty bedrooms with people of her own choosing.

The first of these is Vartouhi Annamatta, a refugee from the fictional country of Bairamia, who comes to Sunglades as a kind of ‘mother’s help’. She is a picture of pure youth, and goodness – smiling, capable and not afraid of hard work. Soon enough we see her differently, quick tempered and self-serving, she’s a bit of a minx – (her broken English becomes a bit wearisome – but it’s a small gripe). Stella Gibbons, however obviously thinks that Vartouhi’s faults (of youth, brought with her from another culture) can be tempered if she were only to settle down with the right person – hmm!

Betty Marten; an attractive widow in her mid-forties, an old family friend has written to Constance asking if she could possibly put her up. Betty, a widow since the First World War, is the old flame of Kenneth’s which worries Connie a little, still better an old friend than a stranger. Soon Betty is installed and soon after her son Richard joins the household, twenty-five, a handsome young actor ruled out of war service by his health. When local party girl and world weary cynic Alicia Arkwright accidently runs over Richard’s foot, he is obliged to take advantage of the Fielding’s hospitality for several weeks.

Richard takes one look at Vartouhi and falls head over heels. Alicia can’t help but cast her jaundiced eye over Richard – despite having been badly hurt following a scandalous affair with a married man. Vartouhi is more impressed with Kenneth’s medals than Richard’s handsome young face while Betty and Kenneth quickly re-establish their old easy friendship. Kenneth begins to find some solace in the company of Vartouhi, he appreciates her simple old-fashioned qualities, and is able to calm her rages with kindness, and enjoys indulging her with pretty gifts. Constance views all of this with great disapproval, while worrying over the non-appearance of letters from Gustave Stocke – who she has been writing to for over a decade. Suddenly into the household comes old Eustace Fielding, Constance and Kenneth’s disreputable old father. Seventy-six, and still involved in nightclubs, the man who left their mother years earlier, has a definite twinkle in his eye – a eye that comes to rest on Betty.

Miss Burton watches all these possible romantic machinations with amusement and understanding. She likes Vartouhi and defends her to Constance when the girl incurs her wrath, she also believes that Kenneth should start defying his domineering older sister. Kenneth is a quiet man, but he is just about ready to start doing just that.

We are reminded of the devastating impact upon London and other cities when Kenneth pays a visit to London.

“He walked quickly down the High Street, past the ruinous gaping spaces where houses had been and the little shops showing gaudy dresses in brief brilliant display of colour and light before the black-out came down. Low grey clouds scudded over the sky and the wind was freezing. It was a city of shabbiness and ruins, battered, scarred and dismal beyond belief; and he did not see the honour and pride and courage that covered it like the violet blue veil of the spring dusk. To Kenneth, cheap shops were cheap shops and ruins were ruins, and a beastly evening was a beastly evening. Except during the 1914 war, his life had been passed in pleasant places and he had never had to look for beauty in the heart of squalor.”

Despite its 420 pages The Bachelor is a really quick read, deeply engaging, with its wonderful cast of characters, it is a compelling read. I loved the wartime details – eating Maltesers in the shelter Kenneth had defied his sister to build, everyone wrestling with the blackout – Mrs Archer taking the day off work to celebrate her son’s medal.

I recently got very confused with which Stella Gibbons I had read and which I hadn’t (I got Westwood and Nightingale Wood mixed up). The recent examination of my tbr revealed I have Here be Dragons, The Matchmaker and Westwood tbr – I anticipate them eagerly.

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nightingale wood

Nightingale Wood is a really delightful Cinderella type tale from the author who of course is better known for having brought us Cold Comfort Farm. However I think that the novel is a little deceptive, it is not as light as it may appear, and there is a complexity and poignancy to it that is especially well done. Gibbons has captured a rural community of the 1930’s with its class divisions and restrictions, highlighting the differing social positions of her characters and the way those positions are perceived by others.
Viola Withers is just twenty one, newly widowed of a much older husband, she finds herself obliged to go and live with her in laws at The Eagles in Essex. This household of women; Mrs Withers, middle aged daughters Madge and Tina and their three female servants are all very much in thrall to Mr Withers, a strict patriarch preoccupied by the management of other people’s money. The Wither’s invite Viola to live with them, out of nothing more than a sense of duty, and Viola’s gentle soul quails rather at the coldness she finds. Mrs Withers regards her daughter-in-law with some suspicion, a former shop girl who married her son rather suddenly; her main occupation seems to be keeping her husband calm. Tina, thirty five, and secretly in love with Saxon the chauffeur – twelve years her junior, hopes that Viola will bring some much needed life to The Eagles. Madge on the other hand nearing forty having never really grown up, is only concerned with hunting, fishing and dogs. Madge – famously known for “not howling”, sobbing hysterically as she begs her father to allow her a puppy, is pitifully memorable. Stella Gibbons portrays the family at The Eagles with her familiar humour, but there is a definite sharpness to it – which is very telling.

“The family at The Eagles was assembled in the drawing-room at that dreary hour when tea is long over and dinner not yet in sight. It was a tranquil scene; it would have annoyed a Communist. Five non-productive members of the bourgeoisie sat in a room as large as a small hall, each breathing more air, warmed by more fire and getting more delight and comfort from the pictures and furniture than was strictly necessary. In the kitchen underneath them three members of the working class swinked ignobly at getting their dinner, bought with money from invested capital. But perhaps this is not a very interesting way of regarding poor Mr Wither and the rest….

Not far away from The Eagles, and another rung or two up the social ladder are the Springs, Mrs Spring, her bookish niece Hetty and her son Victor, handsome and full of confidence, he is the undisputed Prince Charming of the neighbourhood. Victor is unofficially engaged to Phyllis a rather hilariously awful character that Gibbons is so good at creating. Victor Spring may be the Prince Charming of the piece, but he certainly appears to not be in any way a hero. At a ball which serves to bring some much needed distraction to the inhabitants of The Eagles, Victor first really notices Viola, despite having already given a lift to her and Tina when caught in a rain storm – his intentions however are anything but honourable.

“Yes..of course, she was a widow. He had forgotten that. She looked the very image of innocence, she talked like a schoolgirl, but widows were not innocent. However young and simple a widow might seem, you could not get away from the fact that widows, presumably, were not…Well this girl was actually more experienced than old Phyl.”

What I really enjoyed about Nightingale Wood – aside from the humour and the wonderful characterisation – are the several different plot strands which weave together so nicely. Tina’s relationship with her unlikely seeming lover Saxon, Viola’s romantic infatuation of Victor Spring, Victor’s unsatisfactory relationship with the eminently eligible Phyllis, manage to be wonderfully satirical and touching. Without giving too much away – in the resolutions of these fairy-tale stories Gibbons is ever so slightly subversive. It all makes for a hugely readable and engaging novel – maybe less of a classic than Cold Comfort Farm –it is still well worth reading.

stella gibbons

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The second book in my month of re-reading.
One of the dangers of re-reading something that you loved the first time around is that it doesn’t live up to the memory. I remembered gulping down Cold Comfort Farm many years ago (early 90’s maybe) and thinking it hilarious. Having read Christmas at Cold Comfort farm in December – short stories by Stella Gibbons, and then Starlight a few months later – this was a book that had found itself back on my TBR. My month of re-reading therefore has given me the perfect excuse to read it again. I did enjoy reading this one again – big relief – finding it gently funny and utterly charming. I really rather love dear Flora Poste – interfering girl she may be – but she is very good at it.
For those who don’t know the story – Flora Poste finds herself at the age of twenty orphaned and without any visible means of earning a living. While staying with a friend Mary in London Flora hatches a plan – to live off the kindness of one of the various relatives she has scattered around the country. With this in mind she writes to all the candidates. Her cousin Judith Starkadder from Cold Comfort farm replies hinting darkly of an injustice done to her father – and how Flora should come and claim her rights. Her interest piqued Flora sets off for Cold Comfort Farm. It is a world rather different to the one she was living in London.

“The farm was crouched on a bleak hillside, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away. Its stables and out-houses were built in the shape of a rough octangle surrounding the farm-house itself, which was built in the shape of a rough triangle.”

The Starkadders are a peculiar bunch tied to the farm they are feel they are unable to leave – because old Ada Doom would go mad if they did – she once saw something nasty in the woodshed. There’s Rueben who wants to run the farm – but Amos who loves nothing better than to go preaching to The Brethren – won’t yield it too him. Then there’s Seth Flora’s brooding handsome cousin who can think of nothing but the talkies. The hired girl Meriam is again in the process of giving birth – an annual event. The beautiful Elfine is promised to her much older cousin Urk – but has been spending time with local toff Richard Hawk-Monitor. Flora soon begins to get the measure of things at Cold Comfort – and decides to take things into her own hands. Flora’s interfering has startling results for everyone. Flora takes everything she sees and hears in her stride – she is wonderfully practical, sweeping in to Cold Comfort farm she sets about turning everything on it’s head.
One passage left me stunned. Only because I was amazed I hadn’t remembered it. It is so bizarre.

(Flora is on the telephone with her friend Claud in London)
“”Claud twisted the television dial and amused himself by studying Flora’s fair, pensive face……She could not look at him, because public telephones were not fitted with television dials.

I was floored – Cold Comfort Farm was written in 1932! (Not that such things exist now even) I found the answer by flicking forward. At the front of the book we are told that the story takes place in the near future. Of course reading it now – there is nothing else very futuristic in it – some mention is made of Clark Gable films being 20 years in the past – but that is all. I’m amazed I hadn’t remembered this futuristic element – as it does jar a bit – it seems pointless and I wondered what Stella Gibbons objective was in doing this. That is a minor gripe though. I must say that Cold Comfort farm is good comfort reading. I am so glad I gave myself the time to re-read it. I now very much want to read Conference at Cold Comfort Farm – which I have seen mixed reviews of.

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‘Stella Gibbons was an acute and witty observer, and her dissection of the British class system is spot-on’ Mail on Sunday
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 cottage 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…

I really thoroughly enjoyed this novel from Stella Gibbons, which was undeservedly out of print for many years before Vintage brought it back for us. It is fair to say that it is quite a strange, dark novel rather different to Cold Comfort Farm which is what most people associate Stella Gibbons with.
Gladys and Annie are elderly sisters living in two rooms in one half of a pair of dilapidated cottages in a quiet back street of London. Annie is bedridden while Gladys attends church and cleans at a local Cypriot café. Above them in the attic lives Mr Fisher – who changes his name once a month and is now nearing ninety. The Simms family who live downstairs leave when the cottages are sold to a local ‘rackman’ – the sale plunges the inhabitants of the house into fear. Gladys immediately turns to the vicar for advice, and it is in this way that the Curate Gerald Corliss and the Vicar Mr Geddes first become involved with the inhabitants of the cottages in Rose Walk. The dreaded rackman Mr Pearson moves his wife and her young German au pair into the vacant flat – Mrs Pearson is a fragile faded beauty suffering from an unspecified illness. Mrs Pearson has her part of the cottages done up a bit, and soon the residents of the cottages settle down nicely together. However Mrs Pearson describes herself as a medium, and appears to be possessed by some sort of evil spirit. The story of Mrs Pearson’s possession makes for a quite a chilling climax to the story, as the clergy gather to rid her of the spirit.
Mrs Pearson’s daughter, Peggy, meanwhile gets herself a job as a companion to an elderly wealthy woman, who has four little dogs, called A, Bee, Cee and Dee. Animal lover Peggy, is nursing her own sorrow, and quickly comes to the notice of her employer’s slightly oily middle aged son.
One of the things which came across mostly strongly for me in this novel is the descriptions and sense of time and place. The run down streets of London still scarred by the war twenty years earlier, the sad little rooms inhabited by Gladys and Annie, the empty church on a dark and windy evening are all beautifully evoked. Each character is well drawn – their voices distinct and strong. Although there is much in this novel that is dark, the narrative is shot through with poignant humour too. Stella Gibbons was obviously a wonderful observer of human beings, and the places they inhabit.

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A glorious collection of stories from the author of Cold Comfort Farm. The title story tells of a typical Christmas at the farm before the coming of Flora Poste. It is a parody of the worst sort of family Christmas: Adam Lambsbreath dresses up as Father Christmas in two of Judith’s red shawls. There are unsuitable presents, unpleasant insertions into the pudding and Aunt Ada Doom orders Amos to carve the turkey, adding: “Ay, would it were a vulture, ’twere more fitting!”

I have been looking forward so much to reading these stories, although I approached it nervously as I had read some fairly luke warm reviews. If anything I was disappointed in the title story – it was too short I wanted more, the only other Christmassy story was charming though. Overall I so enjoyed these old fashioned stories, and it has made me want to read more Stella Gibbons. I of course read Cold Comfort farm years and years ago, and it is now time for a re-read I think. I also have Westwood and Starlight on my ever expanding TBR. Theses new Vintage editions are very attractive looking books. Stella Gibbons’ stories are obviously set in a world that no longer exists, they are about bored housewives, aging Bright Young Things, “modern” career women, spinsters in country villages and librarians. Often the endings are not much of a surprise, but they are generally just what the reader wants, and this makes them wholly satisfying. In his introduction to the new Vintage edition, Alexander McCall Smith writes about the short story as an art form. His description of the modern short story made me smile – and nod in agreement. These short stories come from a different time. They were written before it was fashionable to create a mood or to leave the reader artistically hanging. The modern short story are just the kind I usually hate. These lovely stories however, are just the kind I love.

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