Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stella Gibbons: Pure Juliet

Stella Gibbons. Pure Juliet. Vintage, 2016. Taking my usual look through our Penn Libraries new book shelf, the name Stella Gibbons caught my eye. I associate Stella Gibbons with my childhood viewing of Cold Comfort Farm and the wonderful Alistair Sims. and my later reading of the novel, which I enjoyed even more than the 1971 (original broadcast date according to the Master Piece Theater Archive). Gibbons's Cold Comfort heroine, Flora Poste, is independent, optimistic, and pleasant but never deterred. She does get married in the end, or at least fly off with someone you think she might marry, but still, I think Flora is an early role model for independent women.

You might say there is some cultural hegemony in her approach to the farm residents, a bit too much of an imperialist mind set, or you might think of Flora as representing the still fairly new 20th Century and its slow but inevitable incursion on the remnants of the old century. You can think of none of that and simply enjoy Gibbons' wonderful style and humor. It is a book that sits well in the pantheon of British humorous novels. I'm not an expert, but I think of Wodehouse, and, another childhood favorite (thanks to my mother's love of books and reading), Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat. These are all writers that I keep by my bed for late night rereading.

But, I digress! This is about Pure Juliet. As I was saying, the name Stella Gibbon caught my eye.  I picked up the book to investigate, and read that the manuscript "was brought to light by her family in 2014" and the 2016 Vintage edition is its first publication. A new Stella Gibbon novel! Gibbon was a fairly prolific writer, something, I am sad to say, I wasn't aware of until reading the inside cover of this volume. Pure Juliet  would appear as the 17th in a list of Gibbons novels. There is no date given as to when this manuscript was written, and the novel itself does not include references to any dates, but I'm guessing it is set sometime in the 1970s (Gibbon died in 1989). The character Juliet is another independent young women. She is determined and too intent on her single focus to be deterred. But she is very different from Flora Poste. Juliet lives in a world of mathematics and is in pursuit of the essence of coincidence. Today we might say that Juliet has Asperger's Syndrome, but Gibbons portrays her character without any mention of syndromes. She does not fit in and cares little for social niceties or making conversation.

Pure Juliet is a book of coincidences. Juliet happens to meet a rich old woman in the park who offers Juliet a place to stay after she leaves the comprehensive because Juliet's father won't allow her to go to University.  Juliet is intent on following her coincidences, and slips out of the house to go live with the old woman. An only child, Juliet knows enough to make a good case for herself and tells the old woman that she has no father and four siblings. While Juliet is not kind or loving to the old woman, she gives her enough attention to maintain her place. The old woman's nephew happens to be a kind man who takes an interest in Juliet's peculiar nature. Unlike most people he is interested in nurturing her genius and, unlike most people, accepts Juliet's lack of interest in men and romance. When the old woman dies, he makes sure that Juliet has a place to live and work. As the story takes its course, there are a few more coincidences, enough to lead Juliet to winning an important honor from an oil rich, math loving nation with a young open minded ruler. The ruler convinces the scholars at the ancient university to overlook the detail of Juliet's sex and to recognize her great work.

So, I've given a bit too much away, but this book is a pleasure to read. The writing style is understated and engaging. You see the coincidences as an after thought--Gibbons doesn't bludgeon the reader over the head with them. Her portrayal of Juliet is straight forward but tender. Juliet's nature is a gift and a curse. Gibbons' narrative suggests that it might take having what looks like Asperger's Syndrome for a woman to achieve a work of genius. In the world of this novel,  a woman is confronted with pressure to have boyfriends and children, to meet parents' expectations or to take on certain kinds of jobs.  Even in the world outside this novel, women don't tend to marry adoring men who make sure that all of their needs are attended to, but we know plenty of examples of men having just such a partner. Juliet, though, finds a benefactor who makes sure she remembers to eat.

In Pure Juliet, Gibbons also looks at difference. Juliet is an extreme example, but Frank, the rich old woman's nephew, is avidly opposed to unnecessary consumption, maintains a spartanly decorated house, is a dedicated vegetarian, and other than Juliet (and is large family), his interest, fortune  and time go toward promoting edible grasses. There are other quirky characters, characters who are less than satisfied, characters who are set on one thing or another, if not to the level of Juliet's single mindedness. She is the example at the top of graph and the others create the downward slope.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thoughtful and kind book. I am pleased to have the words of Stella Gibbons floating in my head, and to contemplate her nonjudgmental, unlabled look at the peculiarities, but also tendernesses inherent in human nature.

Let us hope her optimism and belief in kindness manifests itself in our 21st century and decade as well. We need a lot of kindness.

Read on.

No comments: