She had the "misfortune", says Alexander McCall Smith, to write one wonderful book, the classic comic novel Cold Comfort Farm. The author of the international bestselling No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series recalls how he first read and loved this humorous gem in his early twenties. For years, he never read anything else by Gibbons because he thought she had written only this one great novel, first published in 1932 when she was a young journalist on the Lady, "the magazine for gentlewomen". In 1934 the book won France's Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse.
However, notes McCall Smith, it's the sad fate of writers such as Gibbons – who was also a reporter on the London Evening Standard – and, say, Harper Lee (who did the same thing with another great work, To Kill A Mockingbird) that they run the risk of either being ignored or are compared adversely with what went before. In fact, Gibbons – who died at the age of 87 in 1989 and whose delightful, newly reissued short story collection Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm is currently outselling John Grisham's latest novel on Amazon's bestseller lists – was an impressively prolific writer.
The reason McCall Smith and Gibbons's many other champions – who range from Barry Humphries and Sophie Dahl to Lynne Truss, Libby Purves and Julie Burchill – had never read anything else by her was because her books were long out of print, despite the fact that she published some 32, including novels, poetry and short story collections, between 1930 and 1970.
In her lifetime, her admirers included Noel Coward and the acerbic theatre critic Kenneth Tynan – who wanted to put Cold Comfort Farm and its calm, collected young heroine Flora Poste on stage – according to her nephew and biographer Reggie Oliver, whose excellent Out Of The Woodshed: The Life Of Stella Gibbons was published in 1998.
Now, though, Gibbons's moment has come, thanks to Vintage Classics's lively editorial director Laura Hassan. Cold Comfort Farm, in which Gibbons satirises the "loam and love-child novels" of Mary Webb, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Thomas Hardy, had always been Hassan's comfort-blanket read – "So cheering! So chipper!" – a fact she mentioned in passing to bookseller Nic Bottomley, of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. He asked whether she'd read any of Gibbons's other books. Like McCall Smith, Hassan thought there was only the one.
"I investigated and found that secondhand copies of her books were being sold online for more than £3000 each. My interest was piqued, especially as a publisher, because that's a sign that she's still a much-loved, popular writer," says Hassan, who bought an old edition of Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm for considerably less than £3000 and read it with enormous pleasure.
Then she read a trio of Gibbons's novels, Westwood – which Truss regards as a wartime masterpiece after adapting it for Radio Four several years ago – Starlight and Conference At Cold Comfort Farm. Julie Burchill has given a cover quote for Conference, the brilliant sequel to the original: "Most of us wish we knew a real Flora Poste who could put straight our pretzeled lives."
Hassan is publishing all three novels in paperback as well as the short stories, with pretty covers. In all, Vintage Classics is publishing 14 of Gibbons's novels – 11 of them in print on demand (POD). If readers download in sufficient numbers, then The Bachelor, The Matchmaker, Bassett, Ticky, Here Be Dragons, My American, White Sand And Grey Sand, Enbury Heath, The Rich House and The Charmers will come out in paperback.
She has also commissioned Truss, Purves and McCall Smith to write introductions, while Virago Modern Classics has reprinted the gloriously eccentric rom-com Nightingale Wood, Gibbons's ninth novel, with an introduction by Sophie Dahl. She writes: "What luxury to stumble upon this quirky book, and the fascinating modern woman who wrote it. It is a rare and unadulterated pleasure, and high time for its encore."
McCall Smith has written the introduction for Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm, which returns us to the world of Howling and the Starkadders, "before the civilising hand of Flora Poste had softened and reformed the farm and its rude inhabitants". The aforementioned are assembled around the festive table and, as the turkey is about to be carved, Aunt Ada Doom – who it will be remembered once saw something nasty in the woodshed, although it's not known if it saw her – is moved to remark of the paltry poultry, "Ay, would it were a vulture, 'twere more fitting!" There are omens of ill luck, such as coffin-nails, in the pudding, and deeply unpleasant gifts are exchanged.
"Gorgeous!" exclaims Lynne Truss, declaring that Gibbons is "the Jane Austen of the 20th century". A claim that McCall Smith disputes. "She [Gibbons] was not as good a writer as Barbara Pym," he insists. But then he's biased; he's a devout member of the Barbara Pym Society and regards Pym, whose fine novel An Academic Question is being reissued by Virago Modern Classics in May, as Austen's rightful heir.
Nonetheless, Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm is amusing and particularly welcome, he says, applauding Gibbons's sense of fun, her dislike of pomposity and affectation, and her intrinsic charm as a writer. Truss, meanwhile, is adamant that no male writer of Gibbons's stature would have been so long out of print.
"It just seems so wrong. It didn't make sense to me, but suddenly the world makes more sense again now that people are reading Westwood, for instance, which I love so much. It makes me so happy that people are rediscovering her. It also makes me happy to read her. She's in a class of her own – her perseverance and talent are finally getting their rightful credit."
What does McCall Smith think is the secret of Gibbons's lasting appeal? "I believe that people enjoy her books for the same reason that they like the TV series Downton Abbey," he replies. "They are wonderfully entertaining, but they are also books in which people actually talk to one other in well-crafted sentences – just as they do in Downton Abbey.
"The characters in her books and in the TV series have courteous conversations, which I think people find attractive even if they do address one another in a way that strikes us today as overtly formal, even mannered. Perhaps it's also about nostalgia for a long-lost Middle England – a place that, for all its faults, had character. But she's such a spirited writer, so funny and also thought-provoking. Many of the short stories in the Christmas collection really are quite haunting."
Hassan adds: "Her dissection of the British class system is so spot-on; I think she was a great observer and so deliciously witty. I'm thrilled to be bringing her back into print."
Like Hassan and Truss, I revel in Cold Comfort Farm, not only for the immortal phrase Gibbons coined about something nasty in the woodshed, but for her peerless parody and invention of rural words, such as "scranlet", "sukebind" and "mollocking". And, whenever I feel low, I repeat Judith Starkadder's words to Flora: "Curtains! ... Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude."
For some unknown reason it creases me up every time. Stella is stellar.
Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is published by Vintage Classics, £7.99