Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons

Stella Dorothea Gibbons (5 January, 1902, London—19 December, 1989, LondonJill Neville, "Gibbons, Stella Dorothea (1902–1989)", rev. "Oxford Dictionary of National Biography", Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2006 [ accessed 7 Aug 2008] ] ) was an English novelist, journalist, poet and short-story writer.

Her first novel, "Cold Comfort Farm", won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for 1933. A satire and parody of the pessimistic ruralism of Thomas Hardy and his followers, the "loam and lovechild" genre, as some called it, "Cold Comfort Farm" introduces a self-confident young woman, quite self-consciously modern, pragmatic and optimistic, into the grim, fate-bound world those novelists tended to portray.

Early life

Gibbons was the only daughter and eldest of three children of Telford Gibbons and his wife Maude Phoebe Standish Williams, and grew up in Kentish Town where her father, a medical doctor, had his practice. She was initially home-educated, then attended the North London Collegiate School for Girls.

Gibbons's own family was suburban and middle-class, but in some of its psychological dimensions is said to have been "not dissimilar to the Starkadders" described in that novel. []

In her autobiographical novel "sic|hide=y|Enbury Heath" she describes her family life with two younger brothers (Gerald and Lewis) in the third person: "She grew up in the wreck of hope and the slow, strange living-death of love, but because she was conceived in love, she was the happiest of the three, and she never forgot it." [Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A life of Stella Gibbons, (Bloomsbury, 1998, pp.9-10)]

Her father was a "bad man, but a good doctor". Stella's mother Maudie was a retiring woman not able to stand up to the domineering spirit of her husband Telford. Stella's father worked in a poor area of London and was a sympathetic doctor who would not charge patients that could not pay. Nevertheless, he was prone to violent outbursts against his wife and was a womaniser who was unfaithful with a number of governesses. In a fit of rage he once threw a knife at Maudie, and often resorted to whiskey and later laudanum to deal with his inner demons.

Stella's turbulent upbringing was to play a significant part in the creation of her most noted work "Cold Comfort Farm".

When Stella was eleven her father threatened to commit suicide. Stella's father begged her to stop him:

As the ranting went on Stella noticed that Telford had a slight smile on his face and was deriving a secret pleasure from the scene, much as an actor might do from tearing a passion to tatters. She was appalled. To suffer from a fit of despair was one thing; but actually enjoying causing a scene was quite another.
[Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. (Bloomsbury, 1998, p.19)]

Early Writing

Stella Gibbons took a two year diploma in journalism from 1921, and secured employment with the British United Press in 1924 after a year without work. It was during this time that she began a relationship with Walter Beck, a relationship that was to form the basis of characters in her second novel "Bassett".

In 1926 Stella’s mother died, aged 48. During the funeral service Stella’s father, probably drunk, was heard to say of his wife: “Oh, she was a bitch! She never cooked properly! What I had to put up with!” Stella’s father died later in the same year, a death that was not regretted by his daughter. [Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. Bloomsbury, 1998.]

From 1927 Stella lived with her two brothers in Vale Cottage near the highest point in Hampstead Heath. Stella was the main breadwinner at this time and somewhat resentful of her brothers for their spendthrift, dissolute ways. She also felt that her domestic efforts were taken for granted and unappreciated.

Gibbons later worked for the "Evening Standard", and then the "Lady". It was in 1928, while working for the "Standard", that the novels of Mary Webb enjoyed a resurgence in popularity thanks to the advocacy of the then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. It was Gibbons' job to summarise the plot of Webb's novel "The Golden Arrow", which was being serialised in the newspaper, for those readers who had missed the previous installment. Stella Gibbons was not a fan of Mary Webb.

In 1930 "The Mountain Beast" was published; a collection of Stella Gibbons' poetry. The collection was dedicated to Stella's mother who had died some years earlier. Her most widely known poems from this collection are 'The Giraffes', and 'Coverings'. The former being admired by Virginia Woolf. Although her poetry collection attracted considerable positive attention at the time of publication it, like much else in Stella Gibbons' body of work, has now fallen into obscurity.

"Cold Comfort Farm"

Stella Gibbons will forever be associated with her first and most successful novel. "Cold Comfort Farm"'s success was immediate (although it was banned in the Irish Free State because of its endorsement of contraception) and long-lived and its legacy has over-shadowed all of her other writing both while Stella Gibbons was alive and after her death. In 1966 she wrote:

"Cold Comfort Farm" is a member of my family; he is like some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore.
[Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. (Bloomsbury, 1998, p.123.)]

It is a novel that, amongst other things, satirises the somewhat overwrought novels of authors such as Mary Webb whose work Gibbons encountered whilst working at the "Standard".

In 1934 Stella Gibbons made a speech accepting the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse at the Institut Français in London for "Cold Comfort Farm". She received ₤40 and the opprobrium of the previously complimentary Virginia Woolf: "I was enraged to see they gave the ₤40 to Gibbons.... Who is she? What is this book?"Fact|date=July 2008

Sequels to the book, published in 1940 and 1949, “did not have the same topicality or literary astringency as the original,” nor the same popularity. [Todd, Janet (ed.) Dictionary of British Women Writers. (Routledge, London, 1989)]


Stella Gibbons admired Jane Austen and Keats. Both writers are directly quoted in her first two books. Austen features as the epigraph to "Cold Comfort Farm" and "Bassett", and Keats is quoted in "Bassett": ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections.’

Three of Gibbons’ novels rework fairy tales. "Nightingale Wood" (1938) adapts Cinderella, "My American" (1939) adapts The Snow Queen, and "White Sand and Grey Sand" (1958) takes on Beauty and the Beast.

Ouida was another influence on the writing of Gibbons. One critic thought "Ticky" (1943) was a parody of Ouida as "Cold Comfort Farm" had been a parody of Mary Webb, but she denied this. Indeed "Ticky" is more of a tribute to Ouida. "White Sand and Grey Sand" (1958) may also have been inspired by a Ouida novel.

Other writing

While Stella Gibbons is now known, if at all, as the author of "Cold Comfort Farm" she, “In fact, [was] the author of twenty-five novels, three volumes of short-stories, and four volumes of poetry – most of them refreshing, original, and good enough to reward re-reading.” [Schlueter, P. & J. (eds). An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. (Garland Publising, New York, 1988).]

Gibbons’ body of work earned admiration from many respected writers and intellectuals, and she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. Most of her novels sold solidly and received positive reviews.

Gibbons herself claimed to be a poet rather than a novelist, “to lack interest in people (as opposed to ideas, nature, and the ‘possible existence of God’), and to be handicapped for fiction by a distaste for emotional ‘scenes’. Irony may lurk in such claims.” [Virginia Blain, Patricia Clement, Isobel Grundy. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. (Batsford Ltd, 1990)]

Stella Gibbons’ novels show a fine eye for the awkwardness and conflicts when different social groups come into contact. She “writes of young love with that mixture of sensibility and romance unique to those who lived through both World Wars…. Gibbons also shows the condition – it is not dire enough to be called a "plight" – of middle aged women with uncertain financial futures.” [Schlueter, P. & J. (eds). An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. (Garland Publising, New York, 1988).]

World War Two had a profound affect on Gibbons, and she was an active writer during this period. Many of her books from this time are published in “full conformity with the war economy standard”, and it is this period of austerity which she writes about particularly well. Novels such as "The Bachelor", "Westwood" and "The Matchmaker" “capture England’s grim winter existence during the last years of the war. Gibbons is at her best describing the painful ordinariness of life under siege.” [Schlueter, P. & J. (eds). An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. (Garland Publising, New York, 1988).]

Gibbons had a “rare ability to enter into the feelings of the uncommunicative and to bring to life the emotions of the unremarkable.”Her short stories are generally regarded as slight “much in the style of Katherine Mansfield but too often without Mansfield’s incisive characterization”, while her poetry tends “toward classic, even archaic, dictum, and only occasionally [does it] show flashes of the novels’ wit.” [Schlueter, P. & J. (eds). An Encyclopedia of British Women Writers. (Garland Publising, New York, 1988).]

Stella Gibbons first book after "Cold Comfort Farm" was "Bassett" (1933). The book deals with the nature of relationships, sexual and non-sexual. Two people of the same sex, apparently quite incompatible, find fulfilment together, while two young lovers do not. Linking both stories is the paradox that those who recognise their need for another are frequently more fulfilled and mature than the seemingly self-sufficient. [Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. (Bloomsbury, 1998)]

The book is partly based on a relationship Gibbons had with Walter Beck between 1924 and 1928, and the Shelling family in the novel is strikingly similar to Beck’s family. “ [Walter Beck] was good-looking and rich, and he and Stella first met on the Heath. Beyond that, the facts available are scanty. Stella was engaged to Beck, and told her sister-in-law Renee that she committed herself sexually to the relationship and would go away with him to hotels at weekends. They would sign the register under false names and she would have to put on a wedding ring, an act she found peculiarly humiliating. Because Stella was deeply in love she tried to pretend that she found it all daring and exciting, but such a light-hearted attitude was alien to her.” [Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. (Bloomsbury, 1998)]

Stella ended the relationship in 1928. In the novel it is the Beck-figure that ends the affair.

Published in 1935 "sic|hide=y|Enbury Heath" is Gibbons most autobiographical novel: “only the thinnest veil of fictional gauze covers raw experience and transforms the book into a novel.” [Oliver, Reggie. Out of the Woodshed: A Life of Stella Gibbons. (Bloomsbury, 1998)] Although the book lacks a strong narrative it describes the author’s upbringing and her relationship with her two brothers in a way that Gibbons clearly felt was true for her.

In both "Bassett" and "sic|hide=y|Enbury Heath" Gibbons shows her skill at capturing the nuance of class conflict in day-to-day English life:

“If this interview had been taking place thirty years ago, Miss Padsoe would have been interviewing Miss Baker as a prospective house parlour-maid, and Miss Baker would have been m’ming her. The War, a bared sword, lay between 1903 and 1933, but Miss Padsoe had never quite taken in the War, somehow. She missed the m’ming.” Bassett.

“Maysie tells me you write poetry,” said Mrs Kellett. “Do have another tomato.”

“Yes,” murmured Sophia. “No thank you.”

“That’s very clever,” said Mrs Kellet, rather as a missionary might congratulate an aborigine on his skill at throwing the boomerang. Enbury Heath

Gibbons' 1956 novel, Here Be Dragons, revolves around the intertwined fates of Nelly Sely, newly arrived from the country, and her cousin John, who is fully entrenched in London's bohemian underworld. Nell's father is a clergyman who has suffered a wobble of faith, her mother a brainy but frustrated housewife. John's parents are self absorbed media types. Also of interest are Nells debutante friend Elizabeth, John's bohemian associates, particularly the poet Benedict and his American girlfriend Gardis, and the young lovers Chris and Nerina, as well as the elderly Miss Lister and her cat Dandy. With its themes of bohemianism, post war readjustment, estraged families, national service, and changing family roles, Here Be Dragons paints a vivid picture of Britain's Forgotten Decade of 1945 to 1955, post war, pre rock'n'roll. []

Family life

Gibbons married actor and singer Allan Bourne Webb in 1933. They moved to a house on the Holly Lodge Estate, Highgate, where Gibbons was to live for the remainder of her life. They had one daughter. Webb came from a family with a strong religious background and although not a practicing Christian at the time she wrote "Cold Comfort Farm" Gibbons was to become one after her marriage.

In October 1935 Stella gave birth to her only child, Laura. Later that year she published her only children’s book "The Untidy Gnome" which was dedicated to her daughter.

Stella and Allan’s daughter married in 1957. The marriage produced two sons.

In 1958 Stella’s husband Allan was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in July, 1959.

Final years

After 1972 Stella Gibbons published no further work. In the years up to her death in 1989 she wrote two unpublished novels: "The Yellow Houses" and "An Alpha". The death of her husband in 1959 had gradually brought Stella to withdraw from the public sphere and concentrate on her grandchildren.

Stella Gibbons died in December, 1989. She was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to her husband Allan. Her nephew, Reggie Oliver, read two of Stella's poems at the funeral: "The Bell" and "Fairford Church". Only a scattering of friends and family attended.

At the time of her death, "The Observer" commented: "It ought not to be forgotten that Miss Gibbons is a poet as well as a novelist... She handles sky, bare trees, and rough fields with the same quiet sutlety as people. She sees idiosyncrasy in nature and humanity, and makes both live". [Here quoted from the Penguin Books ad published in the back pages of other books publishhed by them, e.g. the 1934 edition of Ignazio Silone's "Fontamara"; the precise date of the Observer review was not given.]

Since her death, Stella Gibbons’ reputation has continued to rest on "Cold Comfort Farm", her only book still in print. Many of her other novels however deserve to be read. Reggie Oliver, in his biography of his famous Aunt, particularly puts the case for "Nightingale Wood", "The Bachelor", "Westwood", and "Starlight". "Ticky" also has its fans.


1930 "The Mountain Beast" (poetry)
1932 "Cold Comfort Farm"
1933 "Bassett"
1933 "The Priestess" (poetry)
1935 "sic|hide=y|Enbury Heath"
1935 "The Untidy Gnome" (for children)
1936 "Miss Linsey and Pa"
1937 "Roaring Tower and Other Stories" (short stories)
1938 "Nightingale Wood"
1938 "The Lowland Venus" (poetry)
1939 "My American"
1940 "Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm" (short stories)
1941 "The Rich House"
1943 "Ticky"
1944 "The Bachelor"
1946 "Westwood"
1949 "The Matchmaker"
1949 "Conference at Cold Comfort Farm"
1950 "Collected Poems"
1951 "The Swiss Summer"
1953 "Fort of the Bear"
1954 "Beside the Pearly Water" (short stories)
1955 "The Shadow of a Sorcerer"
1956 "Here Be Dragons"
1958 "White Sand and Grey Sand"
1959 "A Pink Front Door"
1962 "The Weather at Tregulla"
1964 "The Wolves Were in the Sledge"
1965 "The Charmers"
1967 "Starlight"
1968 "The Snow Woman"
1970 "The Woods in Winter"


External links

* [ Stella Gibbons] - old official site, via Internet Archive, by Reggie Oliver

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