Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
I was aware that Vintage were publishing some newly discovered Stella Gibbons novels, but until Simon asked me to read Pure Juliet for Shiny New Books I hadn’t meant to read them. When Gibbons is good (Cold Comfort Farm deserves its classic status, and I loved Nightingale Wood) she’s brilliant, but there are other times when I’ve found her, well, a long way from brilliant and there was a lurking suspicion that Pure Juliet might fall into the latter category. Still, it does no harm to take a chance on a book, so I said yes.
It’s a book that almost certainly wouldn’t have seen the light of day if Vintage hadn’t already done so much work to resurrect her reputation and build a new following for her. It’s broken down into three parts. In the first section we meet Juliet, a frustrated, ungainly, teenager considered weird and creepy by family and teachers – she has no friends. What she does have is an uncanny gift for maths and physics. At 17 she’s also achieved 5 A levels in these subjects at her local comprehensive, but her father has decided she’ll be leaving school to find work as a secretary, rather than the seemingly obvious university career. For Juliet, obsessed with working something out, neither option holds any attraction. Instead she runs away to the country to live with a rich, elderly, woman she met by chance in a park, and who wishes to adopt her. Here, she believes, she will find the peace she needs to work out the mathematical problems that mean so much to her.
Juliet is so socially withdrawn and inept, and so gifted when it comes to maths and physics that it’s tempting to assume she’s autistic (at least it is now when it’s a label we’re all familiar with) but that doesn’t seem to be what Gibbons has in mind. She just has something important to do, so important that any distraction is an inconvenience to be resented and there’s simply no time or energy for anything but the work. The first book sets this all out and introduces Juliet to the people who will shape her life, especially Frank – the nephew of her would-be guardian and the man who decides to make her his protégée. It’s his intention to nurture her genius and teach her to be human at the same time. There is also Clemence, the woman who loves Frank (he hasn’t noticed) and her reaction to his interest in Juliet.
The second book makes clear just how difficult Juliet finds normal human relationships; her work really is all that matters to her. Even death is an inconvenience. She’s oblivious to the animosity she raises in others and remarkably single minded, it ends with her being accepted into Cambridge, much to Frank’s satisfaction. The third book is where it falls apart a bit, Gibbons makes it clear that she doesn’t think much of women who don’t want a family. Juliet is unnatural not because of her intelligence but because she’s not interested in sex and everything sort of fizzles out into a somewhat underwhelming conclusion
Gibbons is spectacularly good at describing the English countryside; she finds and shares the beauty in a field or a hedgerow in a way that makes her as good as any nature writer I’ve ever read, and it’s a skill she puts to good use here. Mostly though this is a book for fans. There’s an underlying snobbery, as well as that dismissal of women who don’t have a husband and children, that’s problematic, though not necessarily surprising from a woman born in 1902. It’s interesting to see what Gibbons is doing at the end of her writing career. The first book especially is compelling, and I never lost interest, but there’s also a not quite finished feel about it. That said, it’s absolutely worth reading, and would make a brilliant book club choice (I’d love to know what others make of it) so I’m very grateful for the push that made me pick it up.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader and finds the idea of ignoring the world in pursuit of knowledge very beguiling at times.
Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet (Vintage Classics, 2016). 9781784870270, 337pp., paperback.
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