Saturday, 22 February 2003

Stella Gibbons: The Matchmaker (1949)

Edition: Longmans, 1950 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1145

Stella Gibbons is overwhelmingly best known as the author of the hilarious Cold Comfort Farm; so much so that I was surprised to discover the existence of another novel. (It was in a furniture shop, one of a number of old second hand books used to make bookcase shelves look less bare; the shop assistant offered it to me when I picked it up and started looking through it.)

There are many stories about how people endured hardship during the Second World War; less well remembered (as less glamorous) is that life continued to be difficult for many people for some years following its end. In Britain, it was the first war accompanied by massive destruction at home for centuries (since the Civil War in England, or the Jacobean rising in Scotland). Many families were bombed out, and food rationing continued for years. The Matchmaker is about one such family, driven from a middle class existence to a poor cottage in the country, and the people that they meet in the neighbourhood.

The father of the three girls is still in the army, on duty in occupied Germany, so the main focus is on their mother, Alda. She is the incorrigible matchmaker of the title, continually trying to pair people up. (This isn't apparent until the second half of the novel; up till then, Gibbons is describing how Alda and the girls settle in and establishing the characters of those around them, including the Italian prisoners of war working on the neighbouring farm.)

No one who reads this novel now, as forgotten as the aspect of post-War Britain it describes, is likely to be unfamiliar with Cold Comfort Farm. This makes it virtually impossible to read without constantly comparing the two. There are obvious links - both being about the English countryside, portraying it without the sentimentality that pastoral themes often evoke (Cold Comfort Farm is in part an attack on this tendency) - but at first there seem to be more differences. For a start, The Matchmaker doesn't seem to be funny. It is only towards the end, when Alda is shown up as being so bad at fixing people up that the novel begins to amuse, and even then the fun is tempered by the realisation of how much damage this sort of manipulation can do to people. It isn't a parody, but its publication date is close enough to the date at which it is set for it to require knowledge in the reader, just as a parody does; if it were a historical novel published now, The Matchmaker would contain a great deal more explanation. It is a competent and enjoyable novel, and yet it is easy to see that the spark of outrageous humour present in Cold Comfort Farm is missing; that is why one novel has been remembered while the other is forgotten.

No comments: