Monday, February 25, 2019

Cold Comfort Farm

Published in 1932 by Stella Gibbons this amusing book is set ‘sometime in the near future’ (after the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ‘46) and reflects life in England in the 1930s. I must admit to my lack of knowledge of literature of this time, but even I can tell there is a fair amount of satire here and poking fun at various English classes, rural life and authors in general.

Flora Poste is orphaned at 19. This is not a situation that greatly troubles her as she hardly knew her parents. The education bestowed on her by them was “expensive, athletic and prolonged” and she “was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living”.

She swiftly decides the only course of action to her is to turn to extended relatives and live off them, for, “I have already observed that, whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one’s friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one’s own conscience, to the amount that one may impose on one’s relatives.” Enquires to the available relatives turn up only one real option at Cold Comfort Farm, home of the Starkadders, in Sussex. Her London friends are appalled by the thought, convinced they will be awful people, including either a Seth or a Reuben who will undoubtably be all on about sex.

Not surprisingly, when she arrives there is both a Seth and Reuben in the household who early impressions suggest will live entirely up to her fears. Father Amos is a hell fire and brimstone preacher, mother Judith is constantly grieving over Seth, Elfine runs wild across the hills and Aunt Ada Doom masterly keeps the entire family in her control by pretending madness whenever necessary.

Rather than being depressed about the problems of the household, Flora sets about to fix them all. She wants to make Elfine a lady and marry her off, Amos to get out the way by going on a preaching tour, and Seth to learn some manners and control. There is a local writer who is determined to fall in love with Flora and keeps describing all the local fecundity in an attempt to woo her.

Gibbons starts the book with an imaginary letter to a friend editor, introducing her novel. What is charming here is the way she indicates that she has asterisked certain passages (like a travel guide would) so the reader, or indeed an book reviewer, would know they were onto something really impressive. In reading the novel, the location of an asterisk meant you were about to read a particularly florid description of something:
“Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.”
Things like this, plus the impossible descriptions of the farmhouse and the cow’s names (Aimless, Graceless, Feckless and Pointless with the bull Big Business) help to note much of it is meant to be lighthearted. This is further demonstrated by the tidy way everything works out, and how two mysteries raised throughout the book are never solved.

For modern readers it may seem gentle and somewhat simple, even though quite amusing. I think many of us would not get most of the references. I read an review by Lynne Truss (author of Eats Shoots and Leaves) and that helped me see that some of what I had taken as real was all made up or designed to be irony or satire. Good to learn these things!

It was an enjoyable read and pushed me to continue reading older English books. I even turned to the DVD adaptation from 1995 with Kate Beckinsale and Joanna Lumley, which while enjoyable would probably only interest those who had read the book.

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