The last two years have been stressful and bewildering, as we endeavored to grasp the concept of a pandemic and were shattered by the realization that travel cannot take us out of Covid's bounds. Chronic depression has also set in: many bloggers report a change in their reading habits due to anxiety. If the book isn't a "comfort book," well, it may be simply beyond us at this point, they say.
Comfort books are a wonder drug. I was recently ensorcelled by Stella Gibbons's excellent comic novel, The Matchmaker. This charming book, set in the 1940s, centers on a nature-loving pre-hippie mother, Alda Lucie-Browne, who moves with her three daughters to Sussex while waiting for her husband to be demobilized. She is endowed with the back-to-nature gene that drove people in the '60s to build geodesic domes in the country (one wonders what happened to the geodesic domes). When her husband Ronald visits, he is dismayed by the damp cottage in the country.
They had now arrived at the house, and its square little face, with windows reflecting the yellow remnants of the day, stared aloofly above them.... The front garden was primly enclosed by a wooden fence, and every bit of it was filled with thick, strong, bushy laurels whose branches pressed against the small front windows. Even on a bright day Pine Cottage never seemed full of light - the pine trees saw to that - and this evening in the eerie owl-light it actively breathed out darkness; the porch was a cave; the room beyond the laurel-shadowed windows might have been filled with squid-juice, so black was it, and every shadow from the surrounding woods seemed drawn into the circle of those sighing pines.
Country life might challenge those of us who are coddled by modern conveniences, but Alda is surprisingly tough - she is not bothered by the dark or the cold, and takes long walks with her daughters in inclement weather. But most important, her old friend Jean, who has recently inherited a fortune, visits Pine Cottage, so Alda has a companion.
Happily married people want everyone to be happily married. And so Alda mischievously decides to do some matchmaking, which doesn't please Jean, because Alda has been matchmaking since they were at school. Alda decides her handsome neighbor, a chicken farmer, might do for Jean. But this confirmed bachelor is not at first interested in marriage, nor is he Jean's first choice.
Although Gibbons's novels seem to be relegated to the middlebrow pile, her prose is flawless and her characters are so finely-etched that we feel they are our dearest friends. Her elegant writing transcends the middlebrow, I think. She won the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize for her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, a satire of "loam-and-lovechild" novels by Thomas Hardy and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Oddly, this was the only one of her novels widely known here until Vintage Classics and Furrowed Middlebrow began to reissue her books.
And here is a list of 10 other comfort books, complete with links to the Goodreads descriptions. Because I know your need them!
- The Life in the Studio by Nancy Hale (a memoir)
- Angel Pavement by J. B. Priestley (novel)
- The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford (novel)
- How to Be Good by Nick Hornby (novel)
- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir by R. A. Dick (novel)
- The New Moon with the Old by Dodie Smith (novel)
- Fashion Is Spinach by Elizabeth Hawes (a memoir)
- The L-Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks (novel)
- The Perpetual Curate by Mrs. Oliphant (novel)
- Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber (short stories)