Friday, August 9, 2013

White magic and black magic and the books of Stella Gibbons

My first encounter with the books of Stella Gibbons
It was my stepmother who introduced me to many of the works of Stella Gibbons. I have never much liked romance novels nor books that are primarily about personal relationships, but my stepmother was so enthusiastic about the books that I decided to give them a try.  I felt an attraction that I could not have put into words at the time. I found them civilised, elegant, witty and interesting; I liked the glimpses they gave me into other people’s lives: this expanded my horizons; I liked the descriptions of London and the natural world. I was only ten years old at the time, so I was too young to understand the undercurrents and subtle references to dark topics. This was the stage when a foundation was laid and seeds were sown for the future.

My second encounter with the books of Stella Gibbons
A time came much later in my life when I decided to return to the past and salvage some good things I remembered. This operation included renewing my acquaintance with books I had enjoyed reading many years earlier.  I re-read many of Stella Gibbons’s novels and short stories. I also found some of her books that I had never read before in second-hand bookshops.

I got much more out of reading them as an adult with some experience of life than I had in the past as a child – the reverse was true for some of the other authors I re-visited.  I do not agree with her opinion that domesticity and care-giving are of supreme importance to women nor do I share her traditional religious views, but apart from that I liked Stella Gibbons’s insights into people and attitude to life. I liked her sympathy for and understanding of her characters, especially young women.

She described painful feelings and states of mind that I had experienced myself. Much of what she wrote about contemporary lifestyles was fascinating.  I enjoyed reading her descriptions of areas of London that I had come to know well. 

I had a feeling that there was something still to come, something more to be learned from her books, something of particular interest to me. It was some years before I realised what it was.

Stella Gibbons and white magic
I started investigating various types of unseen influence. I read fiction not so much for the stories but for relevant information. I mentally reviewed her books in the light of my new knowledge of and ideas about unseen influences. This new viewpoint gave me some new insights.

It seemed to me that not only did Stella Gibbons have a benevolent attitude towards most of her characters, she was also a fairy godmother to them: she granted their wishes and made their dreams come true.  She salvaged and redeemed fictional people’s lives. She engineered happy endings.

Some of these outcomes were low key and not glamorous and exciting, but they were the best offer these characters were likely to get. There was no prince for some women, just a suitable companion for them to share their lives with. For example, the happy ending for one of the characters in The Charmers consists of sharing a cosy home with a kind, soon to be bedridden, friend who will need a lot of assistance, and getting a job in a wool-shop.

These novels return good for evil, counteracting mentally the forces that isolate people, sabotage their lives and make them negative, bitter, discontented and despairing. Stella Gibbons creates counter spells by writing about people who make the best of things and are positive and contented despite their hardships and sometimes less than satisfactory lives.

It occurred to me that this approach was a form of white magic, or perhaps sympathetic magic. By making good things happen in her imagination and creating kind, caring and sharing characters, Stella Gibbons was making similar things happen in the real world.

When I first read The Wolves Were in the Sledge, the idea came to me that it was written as a deliberate counterpoint to certain contemporary books featuring amoral young people in ‘swinging sixties’ London, of which one or two of Jane Gaskell’s books are good examples.

Starlight features a young German refugee girl who is saved from starvation, rehabilitated, and has a suitable future designed for her. Perhaps the creation of this character and her new life gave energy to organisations working to help displaced people in Europe.

Did Stella Gibbons know what she was doing? What did she know about unseen influences? Was she consciously trying to be a force for good and use her writing talent to create positive images that might engage her readers’ imaginations, inspire people and have a ripple effect that would help to make the world a better place?

I became interested in Stella Gibbons as a person. Not much information was available, so when I learned that a full biography had been published, I bought a copy immediately. It was very informative, although reading about her early life was very painful. It was uncanny how many characteristics, ideas and experiences we had in common: for example, she was determined to break the family curse. Being directly involved with real life and many people is very painful for some of us, so writing is a good way to make a positive difference to the world.

Stella Gibbons and black magic
Starlight has a sub-plot about possession by an evil spirit. A mediumistic woman picks up something that gives her the power to tell fortunes in return for money. Eventually it takes her over and an exorcism is performed. This sounds promising, but it all seems unconvincing and unoriginal to me: it is too obvious and unsubtle. None of it resonated with me, but some of her other writing certainly did.

In The Weather at Tregulla, she mentions a power “Which, or Who, looks after its own.”  I think she is referring to Satan, said to be the lord of this world. Some people certainly do get away with a lot and are never brought to justice. Jimmy Savile comes to mind here.
I can’t remember the source, but somewhere she mentions glamour as being one of the biggest traps that this world contains. She could well be right about this.

There is an episode in The Shadow of a Sorcerer where a young woman called Meg is sitting in a café with a much older man, a modern-day alchemist called Esmé Scarron.  Some young soldiers there behave badly: they whistle at Meg to attract her attention and make fun of Scarron behind his back. A little later they encounter the group of soldiers again: one of them looks very ill and is being supported by his friends. Some of them think he has been poisoned.

Scarron has a collection of books about magic – apparently black - and the occult. He appears to others to have put a spell on Meg so that she welcomes his attentions. There is a suggestion that the sick young soldier was deliberately struck down by Scarron as a punishment for his offensive behaviour. I have seen real life examples of such curses.

The information about Scarron shows that Stella Gibbons knows something about what unscrupulous and unethical practitioners of black magic are said to do – for example he experimented on his children to see what would happen – but it is not clear what she actually believes. She does say something about people such as Scarron who try to get into the company of the rich and famous, the elite rulers of this world, in the belief that membership of the inner circles is the purpose of and solution to the problems of life. I think that such people are puppets and agents who are aided, protected and advanced by dark forces and placed where they will be of the most use and do the most damage.

A horrible incident in A Pink Front Door
My radar had told me that there was something of special interest to me somewhere in Stella Gibbons’s works. It was only recently that I realised what it was. A Pink Front Door contains an incident that is very relevant to this blog. I have summarised it from memory: as is the case with many of Stella Gibbons’s other books, this novel is out of print and not available from my usual sources.

One of the sub-plots in A Pink Front Door reminds me of certain Regency novels in which the heroine’s only goal in life is to save her family from ruin by marrying well, which ideally means into huge amounts of money and the aristocracy. One of the characters in A Pink Front Door is called Anthea Cavendish; she comes from an upper-class but impoverished family; her only hope for the future is to make a good marriage. She is in an unsatisfactory, essentially clandestine, relationship with a privileged young man whose family owns a country estate. She desperately wants to marry him, but he has many options and is in no hurry to settle down.

He goes off to celebrate Christmas on some exotic island with a party of people that includes many close family members; she is left behind in cold, wet, cheerless (for Anthea) London. She feels overwhelmed by the contrast between his life and hers at this time of year. She even thinks about suicide as a possible way out of a life that is becoming increasingly meaningless. She is afraid that she has missed all her chances.

She is out walking when she becomes aware of a disturbance: someone has slipped in the slush and fallen over. It is Ella, an elderly spinster whom Anthea knows slightly. Ella cannot walk without help, so she holds onto her saviour’s arm while Anthea escorts her home. Anthea is so unhappy that she tells Ella something of her story. Ella tries to give her some hope. Not long afterwards, the young man, now an earl, appears unexpectedly at Anthea’s house and asks her to marry him. Suddenly Anthea has her perfect future – and her mother is ecstatic at the news.

This all sounds like the traditional happy ending, with Ella as the fairy godmother who made the girl’s wishes and dreams come true.  I have written elsewhere about some people who told me what they wanted and soon got it. However, this is only half of the story: Anthea’s dreams came true at other people’s expense. The man who became her husband did not travel back to London with his party: he took a later flight. The first plane caught fire on landing, and everyone on board was burnt to death. That was how he became an earl and why he immediately rushed off to propose to Anthea: he was distraught and wanted a new family and an heir as soon as possible. The people who ‘by chance' died in such a terrible way in the burning plane are soon forgotten; the story moves on with the usual satisfactory outcomes for the main characters.

The book does not make any connection between Anthea’s assistance to Ella, her conversation with Ella and the subsequent outcome in Anthea’s favour. I still remember the light bulb moment I had when I first made the connections: it was a horrific realisation. It is an unusual example of the sort of unseen influence I am interested in, as two people are involved and good seems to come out of evil.

Ella sounds just the sort of person to have certain powers that are used unconsciously. She is a shy, weak, unassertive and fragile daydreamer. She may be mediumistic. The pressure she experienced as a young woman from being expected to excel academically was too much for her: she may have never fully recovered from the stress of having demands made on her that she was unable to meet.  She can’t cope well with life but luckily has a strong cousin who protects her. She may have felt a surge of gratitude towards Anthea for helping her, which acted as a very effective blessing.

Anthea’s state of mind may be relevant too: she was at the end of her resources, which is often the time when something apparently helpful appears and offers a way out – at a price. However, there is no day of reckoning for Anthea; it seems to be Ella alone who pays the price.

Ella is artistic; she likes to go out and paint attractive subjects in the streets of London. This hobby results in her death not long after the conversation with Anthea. While on one of these expeditions, Ella is seen by a former family servant and bullied into coming down to a basement flat for some tea. This woman pulls Ella down the steps, resulting in a bad fall from which she never recovers.

The book suggests that this is subconscious revenge for past injustice: Ella and her cousin had teased the servant until she gave up the idea of marrying her one suitor. This may be true, but I am wondering whether Ella’s death is a consequence of indirectly bringing death to many others.

Sooner or later, we get back what we put out and the chickens come home to roost.