It’s always been a wonder to me that Stella Gibbons wrote just one brilliant comic novel, Cold Comfort Farm. I only have to think, ‘liddle mop’, ‘one o’ they Ford vans’ or ‘there’ll be no butter in hell’ to start smiling. I’ve read some of her other novels and none of them quite works for me. The Matchmaker, published in 1949, is very much a post-war book and reminds you constantly that the war wasn’t really over when it was over. The matchmaker of the title, Alda Lucie-Brown, was bombed out of her home and has been leading a nomadic existence, with three children in tow, for five years. Her husband, a university lecturer turned army Major, is seldom home because he’s still stationed in Germany, shocked by the sight of the dispossessed of Europe. Italian POWs are still working on farms and girls being called up.
Alda is one of those lucky people who are born happy and whom nothing worries much. With typical insouciance, she has taken a poky, dark, damp cottage in Sussex, which worries her husband. The nearest neighbours are the Hoadleys at Naylor’s Farm, where two Italians work, and handsome but dour Mr Waite, who miserably runs a miserable chicken farm. Did you know that the battery system was in use in those days? It was news to me. For Alda, happiness means marriage and babies, so she thinks everyone else should be married, too, and does her best to promote matches. Her first victim is her old schoolfriend, Jean, an attractive, wealthy woman who has nevertheless never managed to hook a man. Alda determines that Jean shall marry Mr Waite. ‘she congratulated herself on having introduced them, and forwarded the match in every way that she could.’ Jean is inconveniently in love with someone else and there are many twists and turns in her love life before the book’s end. I like Jean a lot; she’s kind and generous, looks after the children, practically runs the house and gets small thanks for her pains from Alda, who continues to think of her as ‘dim’ and ‘poor old Jean’.
While this plot thread is working out, onto the scene bursts Sylvia, an aspiring actress who has volunteered for the Women’s Land Army to avoid being called up for factory work. She’s a strapping, brassy lass who calls people ‘comrade’; everyone in her large, noisy family is a Communist. I found this irrelevant, as it doesn’t seem to influence her behaviour at all. Alda notices that handsome Fabrio, one of the Italians, is interested in Sylvia and decides that they should marry. Anyone with half a brain could see that bright, London-bred Sylvia will never marry an Italian peasant, however handsome and good (he really is) he may be. When she sees what Alda is up to, Sylvia is resentfully furious and turns on poor Fabrio, who has fallen for her without any help from Alda. This part of the story is rather sad. The book ends with the Lucie-Smiths in a new home and Fabrio back in Italy. It’s unlikely that Alda gives him another thought.
It’s hard to say why this book doesn’t quite work. It’s very well written; whole passages cry out for quotation. I think it’s too long, with irrelevant passages such as a description of Sylvia’s home life. Valid social comment, no doubt, but nothing to do with this story. Then there’s Alda, whose interference in other people’s lives is really quite dangerous, yet she’s never made to see this or to admit that she has ever been wrong about anything. I’d have liked more about the two elder daughters, Jenny and Louise, who are both interesting characters. I think perhaps the problem is that Gibbons the journalist wins out over the novelist, reportage over plot.