Book Review: Stella Gibbons, The Matchmaker (1950)
Stella Gibbons (1902-1989)
In 1995, Kate Beckinsale appeared as Flora Poste in a television adaptation of Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm, and in the following year starred in the title role in a television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. The casting of Beckinsale in these particular roles may have been fortuitous, or it may have been a clever attempt at intertextuality. Stella Gibbons herself wrote an introduction to an edition of Emma (1964), and the character of Flora Poste is similar in many ways to Austen’s Emma Woodhouse. Like Emma, Flora thinks she can successfully arrange other peoples’ lives.
The Matchmaker (1949) is Stella Gibbons’ postwar take on Emma, with Mrs. Alda Lucie-Browne in the role of the meddling Emma Woodhouse. After their home has been destroyed in an air raid, the family—Alda and her three young daughters—find themselves living in a bleak cottage in Sussex, with a middle-aged chicken farmer, Mr. Waite, as their nearest neighbor. Alda’s husband, Ronald, is absent for most of the novel as part of the occupying force in Germany. Once settled at Pine Cottage, Alda immediately sets about attempting to pair off her unmarried acquaintances in the neighborhood.
It has been suggested that there is a colonial subtext in Flora’s efforts, in Cold Comfort Farm, to improve the lives of the backwards, rural Starkadders. There is a sense of the “white man’s burden”—or rather, upper class Englishwoman’s burden—in the attitude of not only Flora Poste and Alda Lucie-Browne, but of Emma Woodhouse herself. This is not to suggest that Emma is an overt critique of British colonialism, but it certainly seems to understand the frame of mind behind colonialism—the idea that a certain type of English person should be given the task of sorting out the rest of the world. One can imagine Tony Blair, blundering into Iraq with George W. Bush, as a kind of geopolitical Emma Woodhouse, confident that he can arrange a marriage between Islamic tribalism and Western liberal democracy.
Gibbons' novel is full of lovely descriptions of the Sussex landscape, of the passing seasons, and of rural English life. Clearly, Stella Gibbons was a meticulous observer of the English countryside. When she describes one of the characters sorting though seeds and placing them into labeled envelopes—“the large curved seed of the marigold; and the poppy seed small as dust; the flat yellow grain in which dwells the wallflower; and the large, blue and purple, marbled seed of the runner bean”—I imagine the seeds before the writer’s eye, spread out on the desk as she writes. The descriptions of the landscape, too, have the vivid freshness of something seen just outside the window.
It’s a shame that The Matchmaker has long been out of print. On Amazon.com, there are only three second-hand copies available, starting at just over $94. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters walks through a small meadow, surrounded by coppices, and crosses a small stream; Gibbons comments:
Meadow, coppices and stream covered not more than five acres of land and were only two miles from the main road: but they proved, as they lay there under the grey evening sky in deep solitude, how small England is, and how secret still: in spite of holiday camps, and motor coaches and the horrifying increase in our numbers, how secret still!
I have had that feeling, as I’ve walked the footpaths this year, that England is still full of small, secret places, still holding onto their unspoiled beauty. And English literature is still full of small, secret treasures like The Matchmaker.