Reading The Matchmaker (1950, set just after WWII) is like sitting by a fire-side on a wintry day – it’s beautiful to see the flames and the shadows they cast, it’s warm and comfortable, overlaid with a sense of smugness that one is indoors rather than battling the elements, but occasionally there’s a shower of sparks that wakes you from your indolence and makes you remember that fire can be dangerous, and occasionally it’s just too hot and soporific and you find yourself drifting off with eyes itchy from the smoke.
It’s just after the Second World War in a Britain of rationing and deprivation. Alda’s husband is stationed in Germany, and she’s living in the Sussex country-side in a small cottage with her three children, her few neighbours decent enough people but eccentric to varying degrees. The farmer living down the road has a tightly wound wife, two home-sick Italian prisoners of war working on his land, and then is assigned a Land Girl named Sylvia who dreams of being an actress and dyes her hair. Of these simple enough characters Gibbons built a story that mostly enchants and occasionally irritates, lit with occasionally acidic but mostly empathetic insight into human nature and appreciation of landscape. Alda is the titular match-maker, secure in her thirteen-year marriage with a comfortable sense of being able to manage grown-ups (with the best of intentions) as well as she does her children (who are given their own characters rather than relegated to scenery). Yet people somehow manage slip beyond her plans and forge their own destinies – a grand term, perhaps, for the small sphere of love and country-matters and farm-work that The Matchmaker revolves around, but the characters’ choices matter intensely to themselves and therefore to the reader. Well, me.
The few mis-steps, I think, that The Matchmaker takes (and I’m assuming the novel in general will appeal to people who like English novels set in the country-side which proceed at a leisurely pace) are in the frequency of its descriptions of nature in bloom or in shadow, as seasonally appropriate, and in the descriptions of the deep soulful link some characters have with the earth – Gibbons veers perilously close to the sort of thing she mocks so brilliantly in Cold Comfort Farm at times. Her treatment of class and nationality, as well as her assignation of traits such as melancholy or artistic sensitivity to heredity, can also seem somewhat stereotypical to the modern reader. While Gibbons shows a decided preference for middle-class upwards, she does compare the aristocracy to highly-bred dogs at some point, and the Italians are peasants driven by emotion rather than intellect and the Land Girl is working-class and has a confused notion of socialism, for instance, while one character’s lover is well-bred but fickle and brittle.
It must be remembered that the novel was written six decades ago, however, and there is much to enjoy in its warmth and humour, as well as the poignancy that pervades some scenes of remembering and confusion.
“Firelight, and curtains drawn against the rain and deepening twilight, and four laughing faces, framed in hair as palely golden as the flames. The mean, tastelessly furnished room is hidden in kind shadows; they play over the ceiling and bow and waver as if dancing an accompaniment to the story Alda reads aloud. Five hundred miles away, the father driving through a dark, sighing forest of pines near Oldenburg imagines that group gathered about the fire, as he has so often seen it, and amidst the black night and dreary confusion of the journey, he smiles.
(…the mighty George Eliot once commented with acerbity upon those readers who “demand adultery, murder and ermine tippets on every page,” and we ourselves, confronted whenever we open a volume of contemporary fiction by explosions, lust, perversions and despair in every line, join our feeble voice to hers. Though often tempted to show that we, too, know all about That–yes, and That, to say nothing of the Anglo-Saxon Words (all nine of them) we refuse to be bounced into writing what we do not enjoy writing. Our themes are gentle, it is true, but
We do but sing because we must
and pipe as the linnets do,
and our final decision is that enough is going on everywhere without us starting in.) (37-8)”
Gibbons, Stella. The Matchmaker. London: Vintage Classics, 2011. (1950).