London in Literature: Starlight

The perfect autumnal read

It is tough to select just one piece of London writing as a favourite – all of the following have fulfilled that role for me at various points: Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and other works featuring Moses Aloetta; Patrick Hamilton’s 20,000 Streets Under the Sky trilogy; Rose Macaulay’s The World is My Wilderness; Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City; Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife and Una Marson’s London poems from The Moth and the Star.
The novel I have chosen as my favourite today is Starlight (1967) by Stella Gibbons. Famous primarily for Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons’s other novels are well worth exploring, with many located in London. Starlight is set in Highgate, primarily in the run-down cottages in which two elderly, impoverished sisters – Gladys and Annie – live alongside the mysterious Mr Fisher who makes straw dolls, and their unscrupulous landlord’s wife, Mrs Pearson, and her young maid. Mrs Pearson is a medium, and is suffering from an unnamed illness which keeps her bedridden. Her arrival in the cottages brings with it a sense of foreboding for the residents, as it appears that something unearthly has arrived with her. The book is partly a tale of the domestic supernatural, but also touches movingly on class, vulnerability and old age. The London it depicts is gloomy, spooky and teetering on the brink of poverty. It is a dark story, but one that also has a warmth and glow about it, much like the pink and gold furnishings of Mrs Pearson’s bedroom cocoon.

Written by Leila Kassir, Senate House Librarian

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