Stella Gibbons and Highgate

by Laurence Forbeson

This year sees the 25th anniversary of the passing of arguably Highgate’s most famous, and greatest, modern writer, Stella Gibbons. She is world-renowned for her first novel “Cold Comfort Farm”, a classic comedy which, even today, over 80 years on, will have you on the floor laughing. (Tip: skip the two page letter from the author to a fictional publisher at the very beginning. It’s an inscrutable, dated, “in” joke and puts many people off, this correspondent included. It would be 20 years before I tried the book again, this time skipping the letter, 20 years of being denied a heck of a laugh.)

Comedy’s relative of course, and anything touted as funny often isn’t very funny. Isn’t there an air of desperation when something’s blurbed “I laughed til I cried”; “Absolutely hilarious”? Somehow you know it’s as funny as a walnut. But “Cold Comfort Farm” hits parts few books can. It’s difficult to define, but it’s very modern, and very acute at sending up utterly chronic people without being unduly cruel. The tone of the book is what really does it, there’s something so freeing about it. A book written quickly by a sharp, brave, independent working woman of 30 in 1932 suddenly having the time of her life, flinging open cupboards of universal social torment and letting the contents burst out as comedy gold about the human condition.

Within a few years she hated the book, mainly because no one ever talked about anything else. This really rankled because she was very hard-working, producing a novel every 18 months for 45 years. “Cold Comfort Farm” became a taboo subject among her family and friends, referred to only as “That Book”. Were she to see the title “Stella Gibbons and Highgate”, only to see hundreds of words about “Cold Comfort Farm” instead, Stella Gibbons might well be wearily annoyed.

Stella Gibbons lived in Highgate most of her life and many of her books are set here, and on the Heath and in Hampstead. In her book “The Charmers”, the setting is even a fantasy hybrid of all three. “The Charmers” is very odd for those who live locally; set in a house in South Grove (apparently, though I thought it might be Pond Square) but instead of Highgate Hill it is almost certainly Downshire Hill NW3, and instead of the High Street an uphill walk to a tube station, as in Hampstead.

“Westwood” (recently reprinted by Vintage) is another Stella Gibbons classic, a brilliant satisfying read set in Highgate in wartime, in a large house just off Southwood Lane. Other Stella Gibbons books specifically set in Highgate, Hampstead and the Heath are: Enbury Heath, Miss Linsey and Pa, My American (with a memorable opening at Kenwood) “Here Be Dragons” (an intoxicating evocation of 1950s north London Beatnik life), A Pink Front Door, Starlight, and her last of 27 novels, The Snow Woman.