Here Be Dragons is a more serious story from Stella Gibbons, author of the delightful Cold Comfort Farm. Here Be Dragons is set in the 1950s. The main character is Nell Sely, who has recently moved to London with her parents after her father, a country vicar, lost his faith.
Luckily, Nell’s Aunt Peggy is a rich television star who houses the Sely’s in an apartment she owns and finds Nell a job as a typist. Nell meets her cousin John, Aunt Peggy’s pride and joy, and finds him to be a dirty, artistic Bohemian, who along with his artist friends, sponges off everyone he knows, parties hard and lives in squats, take lovers and looks down on people who abide by the rules of society.
Nell becomes infatuated with John but sees his grungy friends more clearly for what they are as she accompanies him around a succession of coffee shops, squats and dives, always looking for someone who will give him an opening into the art world.
Nell quits her boring job to become a waitress in a tea shop. She is aware that she will be looked down on for waitressing but her family need the money. After waitressing for a short while, Nell decides to save for her own tea shop. In her Aunt Peggy’s eyes, this ambition makes Nell into a cliché, but Nell knows her own mind.
Nell is a terrific heroine who is likeable, full of common sense and compassion, but I struggled to believe in her infatuation with her younger, grubby, selfish and manipulative cousin John. The plot had a few intrigues and there was a moral in there somewhere, but the story and characters just didn’t take my heart the way Cold Comfort Farm did.
A passage where the owner of the tea shop asks Nell to smell the cream to confirm it was good to serve for another day made me laugh and shudder all at once, and was typical of the humour throughout the book. The bohemian set were subtly exposed as selfish, pretentious twats, and certain other characters were delightful – here I’m thinking of Nell’s ‘managing’ friend Elizabeth, who is very like the wonderful Flora from Cold Comfort Farm. There were also horrid characters, including American Gardis, who is even more selfish and manipulative than John. Not surprisingly, John and Gardis hate each other.
I’ll continue to look out for more stories by Stella Gibbons, but will lower my expectations in future. There can only be one Cold Comfort Farm.