Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Stella Gibbons’s Juliet: different, difficult and defiant

I didn’t expect to think of anything more to say about Stella Gibbons’s books, and I knew that as she died in 1989 there wouldn’t be any more of them.

I learned recently that two manuscripts she left to her estate have been published. I didn’t expect to like the new books - I prefer Stella Gibbons’s earlier to her later books - and I didn’t expect to find anything relevant to this blog either.

The stories contain anachronisms and anomalies, recycled and repurposed characters and other material that I recognised from her previous books, and I can’t say that I enjoying reading them for their own sake very much.

However, some of what I read in Pure Juliet (a draft that was completed in 1978 and retitled from An Alpha) resonated enough to inspire an article.

I want to concentrate on one character, the eponymous Juliet, and the most relevant aspects in this book: by coincidence, Juliet’s main interest in life is the study of coincidences.

Juliet’s personality
It seems to me that Stella Gibbons wanted to create and describe someone who was in many ways her exact opposite. She has not done too bad a job of it. Much of what she says about Juliet’s character and behaviour is familiar, and some of it could apply to INTJ girls. I can identify with a lot of it.

Juliet is a young girl, a Londoner, the product of a council estate and a comprehensive school. she excels at maths and physics. She is obsessed with the creation of a science of coincidences. She is an extreme case of left-brain dominance. She has no time for people, poetry or the imagination. In some ways she is more machine than human.

She could well be a genius.

Juliet is wired differently from everyone around her; she is programmed very strongly to follow her interests and behave in ways that baffle, frustrate, offend and infuriate others.

She often has a bad effect on people; they see her as sullen, ill-mannered, ungracious, weird and creepy.

It is impossible for Juliet to behave like the other girls in her school or fit into her family. She can no more meet their needs and expectations than they can hers. She doesn’t understand why they want company, gossip and attention; they don’t understand why she wants solitude and prefers abstract mathematical ideas to people. 

She has little in the way of social skills and emotional intelligence. She is as deficient by the standards of most people as they are by hers.

Stella Gibbons knows that people like Juliet see talking to and interacting with others as a waste of energy that could be more profitably applied elsewhere. Time is precious and Juliet has better things to do. She spends hours in her room studying mathematical textbooks; she is obsessed with her goal of creating a Law of Coincidences.

Stella Gibbons understands that people like Juliet hate noise, continual interruptions and distractions and having demands made on them that they are unable and/or unwilling to meet. They want to shut the real world out and be by themselves for long periods of time so that they can follow up their ideas; they just want people to leave them alone to get on with their work.

For Juliet, the inner world, the world outside space and time, is the real world. Anything and everything else usually seems unreal or an annoying intrusion. Left to herself, she would eat, sleep and talk to people only when forced to by circumstances and the inability to continue with her studies.

Juliet reminds me a little of Ayn Rand; there are a few elements of Elizabeth Taylor’s Angel too.

Three helpful people
Although Juliet gets very good results in her ‘A’ Levels, her father does not want her to go to university. He wants her to get a job like everyone else, a job as a secretary or in a factory for example.

This is not acceptable to Juliet. She is driven, single-minded and ruthless; nothing and no one will be allowed to stand in the way of her self-directed studies, university or no university.

She is also opportunistic, although it is for the sake of her mission not her personal benefit. She has a rather one-sided relationship with a rich elderly lady she met by chance a few years back. The old lady, who has no children of her own, takes a great fancy to Juliet, seeing her as the daughter she always wanted, and even wants to adopt her. They keep in touch, and she invites Juliet to stay with her for a year in her house in the countryside.

As soon as she finishes school for good, Juliet decides to take the old lady, Miss Pennecuick, up on her offer. She walks away from her home and family with relief; she is not at all attached to her parents. The new environment is much better than the family home, the people are much more civilised and it is easier for her to work there. She has escaped; she feels safe now.

Juliet doesn’t feel grateful for anything and doesn’t care about the old lady; the attention her hostess demands is endured and seen by Juliet as the inescapable price she has to pay for her room and her food.

The old lady has a great-nephew. He takes on the role of a general mentor. While he thinks that Juliet is a genius who needs unlimited solitude and privacy so that her strange powers can develop, he also tries to humanise her and get her to take an interest in things outside her studies - music, birds and the beauty of nature for example.

The old lady dies, leaving Juliet a lot of money. The great-nephew takes on the role of protector and with it the responsibility for housing and supporting Juliet. He is determined to see her get her chance.

Now she can go to university after all.

For me, one of the best scenes in the book is when Juliet goes to Cambridge University for an interview and meets a tutor who speaks her language. This is the first time in her life that Juliet has been able to speak about what matters most to her to someone who understands what she is saying, realises what she is trying to do, approves of it and is in a position to help her with it. The tutor immediately recognises Juliet’s genius. 

Juliet is only 17 when all this happens. She gets what she needs most at the time when she most needs it. There is no sabotaging of her life, no ‘too little, too late’ syndrome for her. She need no longer feel anger, frustration and despair because the people around her just don’t understand.

It is difficult not to feel envious of Juliet for all the unearned, possibly undeserved, help, recognition, acceptance and support  that she got from her patrons and benefactors – all of which she took for granted.  I could have done with some of that for myself.

Chance, coincidence or a lucky break?
Stella Gibbons may have been playing the Fairy Godmother game by bestowing on Juliet the help that she needed.

She may also have been performing white magic again: by getting Juliet fixed up and her future sorted out in her imagination or on another dimension, perhaps she caused something similar to happen in the real world.

When she described Juliet’s first meeting with Miss Pennecuick, Stella Gibbons was unconsciously giving an example of how some people get what seem to be lucky breaks but which may be arranged from behind the scenes.

The old lady had travelled quite a way from outside London to the area where Juliet lived. She needed specialist medical treatment, and, by complete chance, the only hospital in England to have the necessary machine was in this area of London.

Miss Pennecuick had been wheeled out to the local park for some fresh air; by chance Juliet was passing through, saw the old lady feeding the squirrels and stopped to join in. They got talking...

This accidental meeting may have been consciously contrived by Stella Gibbons just to meet the requirements of the plot, but it is very significant to me. It could just certainly be a matter of luck, chance or coincidence that both parties came together to fill gaps in their lives; there could also be more to it than that.

Juliet works on mathematical and geometric explanations of the phenomena of coincidences; no magic, mystery or religion in the case for her.

I am interested in something more along the lines of the powers of the subconscious mind and sentient powers that may intervene in human affairs - and I don’t mean the guardian angels Stella Gibbons mentions a few times.