Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 21, 2022

Here Be Dragons, by Stella Gibbons

Nell’s own temperament, with its roots in the liberal tradition […] had combined with the shortage of labour and the decay of the class-system in England to produce a situation too complex for the privileged children of the new proletariat to grasp, and they felt only an uncomfortable mingling of embarrassment, superiority and mockery. (p. 165)

This paragraph is the nub of Here Be Dragons.  First published in post war Britain in 1956, it’s a mid-career novel by the English author Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). Wikipedia tells me that Gibbons never repeated the success of her comic novel Cold Comfort Farm, (see my review) and I’ve read a couple of disappointed reviews of this one reissued by Vintage in 2011, but I like it better than Cold Comfort Farm. I think its depiction of the tectonic changes in postwar English society is horribly, brilliantly perceptive.

And I am always interested in reading about the society my parents chose to leave when we set off for warmer climes.  (Plus, there’s a passage about the London fog that nearly killed my mother that is chilling to read, if a reader knows that it killed thousands of people.)

Here Be Dragons is an allusion to the dangerous and unexplored regions of the uncharted areas of medieval maps, and the novel explores uncharted territory in the brave new world of postwar Britain.  The imperial map of the globe was starting to decolonise, and there were massive shifts in British demographics along with the pain of postwar austerity which contributed to an exodus of people who could leave for economies in better shape.  Stella Gibbons nails this upheaval through the character of Nell, who is whisked out of her dull life in Dorset when the Church ejects her father Martin from his living because he has lost his faith.  Penniless, the family moves into a grace-and-favour flat lent by Aunt Peggy, and since neither Martin nor his stalwart wife Anna have ever had a job, it falls to Nell to support them.  Aunt Peggy, who has a new career as a ‘personality’ at the BBC, steamrollers Nell into a dreary job in an office.  For Nell’s parents the idea of ‘work’ for someone of their class is anathema, but they agree to Nell’s badly paid and boring employment because they have no choice, and it is, at least, ‘respectable’.

Gibbons doesn’t labour the point, but the ensuing years have demonstrated the cruelty of churches to their errant clergy.  After years of unpaid labour, they are cast out of their communities with no money, no job, no home, no provision for their old age and no fitness for other kinds of employment.  Remember Margaret Hale’s father in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854) and the upheaval caused by his dispute with the church, and how Gaskell used it to expose the schism between new 19th century industrial wealth and old money?

Nell’s demoralised parents do not know, of course, how awful her office work is.  She is stifled there not just by the smoke-filled room but by her employer’s patronising, gendered and anachronistic assumptions.    Nell is smart, hardworking and blessed with untapped initiative, but she has no future at Akkro Products until some other hapless woman who is trapped there leaves to marry. Women’s work and the labour of the working classes, which was essential to the wartime economy and materiel production, has resumed its prewar limitations, as if nothing had changed.  But it has. People of Aunt Peggy’s class can’t find staff willing to work under the oppressive conditions of domestic service. Nell isn’t willing to work for a pittance either. Not for long.  She gets herself a much better paid job in a tea-room, and before long has savings to put towards opening a tea-room of her own!

Nell’s parents also do not know about the Bohemian, squalid, aimless crowd that Nell has fallen in with.  The flat that Aunt Peggy has lent them is, despite her wishes, also inhabited by her ex-husband Charles (a hack journalist with one great novel long behind him) and his new wife Margie, plus her son John Gaunt lives upstairs as well.  (This ‘flat’ is one of those large London houses that’s been subdivided but Aunt Peggy kept it vacant all through the war, despite the critical housing shortage because of the blitz.  And she’s in a position to lend it to family, rent-free.)

Everyone else is hard-up.  This is austerity Britain, and apart from Aunt Peggy who relies not on her old money but her new celebrity money to afford a chauffeur, people use candles because they can’t afford electricity, and when they’re not actually going hungry, they eat bread and butter and eggs.  It is Nell’s old school friend Elizabeth  whose pantry is a portent of the new: she invites the friends around for a supper of spaghetti. Elizabeth is a deb freshly prepped at a finishing school on the continent.

John develops a strange fixation on Nell, who also fancies him, even though she knows he is idle, impulsive, foolish and unemployable — and he expects her to be at his beck and call.  Like the rest of the Coffee Dishers crowd he has pretensions towards creativity…

[Nell’s] dislike for the grandiose schemes and hopeless laziness of the Coffee Dishers helped her in reaching the conclusion [that her employer Miss Berringer sometimes had to be tough.]  The job that was lost because someone preferred to sit arguing rather than go out and keep an appointment, the lofty remarks about freedom which ended in borrowing from someone in regular work, the devotion to art resulting in grubbiness, disorder and, sometimes, dishonesty—were they really better than the Berringer attitude towards money and work?

John would have said, yes.  Nell never hesitated to say, no, except when she was listening to him. (p.190)

Also amongst the cast of characters is Nell’s co-worker, an awful American girl called Gardis, and her lover Benjamin in a permanent state of misery because she treats him so badly. Gardis seems no match for her eventual rival Elizabeth: when she brags about the 15 bedrooms and staff back home in America, elegant, sophisticated Elizabeth merely smiles, secure in the knowledge that the others all know about the 30 bedrooms at her family seat that they’ve had for 300 years.  But Gardis, for all that she lacks ‘class’, also represents the new reality, that the US (having waited to enter the war until Britain was bankrupt) was displacing Britain’s pre-eminence on the world stage.

The rigid class distinctions are also exposed by the love affair of Nerina (old country money) and Chris (a gardener’s boy, who wants to be a painter).

All the young men are haunted by their upcoming national service.  The war that blighted their childhoods hasn’t brought peace for them.

Gibbons exposes the casual racism, the snobbery, the sectarianism and the class distinctions that persist despite the changes in society.  At the same time, she shows that there’s a human face of the people experiencing them.  Aunt Peggy’s discomfiture is comic, but Nell’s mother Anna is a poignant victim.  She grew up excluded from realising her dreams and ambitions, only to find that the world has changed and with no skills and experience and the dead weight of respectability around her shoulders, there’s no place for her in it.  And unlike Miss Lister living out her days in a cottage at the end of the garden, she isn’t even a consoling presence for those who might need her.

Readers expecting the lively satire of Cold Comfort Farm would have been disappointed by Here Be Dragons, but I think this novel shows a mid-career Gibbons to have been a perceptive observer of her society worthy of further interest.

Update 23/11/22:

Thanks to the generosity of Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home, here’s a list of reviews of Gibbon’s other books:

The Bachelor (1944)
A Pink Front Door (1959)
Westwood (or The Gentle Powers, 1946)
Starlight (1967) and
Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, (1949) which she doesn’t recommend!

Author: Stella Gibbons
Title: Here Be Dragons
Publisher: Vintage Classics, (Penguin Random House) 2011, first published in 1956
ISBN: 9780099529361, pbk., 374 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Tim’s Bookshop Camberwell, $12.95


Responses

  1. This sounds for more appealing to me than Cold Comfort Farm, in which I was very disappointed. But I usually don’t get on with satire unless I’ve been led by the hand through why it’s considered funny!

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    • I am not sure that this book would have much resonance for Australian readers unless they have a connection to Britain; it’s a book very dependent on context and on its readers knowing the subtexts.
      For example, the thread about the English debutante and the American heiress… you’d have to know how Americans and their money were held in contempt because they didn’t know the unspoken rules of the upper classes. No matter how much money they had they could never have a lineage in Debrett’s.

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  2. I actually think I would like this. I’ve never read Cold Comfort Farm, although it’s been in the TBR for years (the TBR currently mid-transit from London and now in Singapore!)

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    • It’s on its way at last, I bet you’ve got the champers on ice already!

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  3. Interesting, Lisa! I loved Cold Comfort Farm, but it *is* a bit slapstick really. But this sounds like quite a subtle dissection of post-War Britain. And worryingly, quite familiar to us nowadays…

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    • I sometimes think that we Australians (even hybrids like me) read things quite differently to British readers. I never even thought about parallels with Brexit even though I now realise that, regardless of which side they were/are on, it would be front-of-mind with British people reading it now.
      With jaunts overseas off our agenda until the pandemic is really over, Britain seems much further away than it used to.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have enjoyed the non-CCF Gibbonses I’ve read, I have to say – different but very good on the nuances of Englishness. I haven’t read this one but I certainly would!

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  5. I’ve never read Cold Comfort Farm but I suspect the less comic nature of There Be Dragons would hold more appeal.

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    • Yes, I tend to like my satires subtle. But also, Gibbons was a more mature writer by the time she wrote this, and it shows.

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  6. I really enjoyed reading your review – I don’t remember much about the novel except that I felt lukewarm about it, but your discussion brings out so many interesting details.

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    • Thanks, Simon, this is one of the reasons I love the litblog world. We get reminders of the books we read a long time and barely remember.

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