Cold Comfort Farm (1932): Stella Gibbons

★★★½

OK, here’s the thing. I didn’t love Cold Comfort Farm as much as I expected to. I’ve a feeling it might be one of those books that I’ve read ‘too late’: that I’d have gelled with it much more readily if I’d read it as a teenager or young adult. Or maybe I was just in the wrong mood. As it is, I enjoyed it but found it a little too self-indulgent and showily clever. Our heroine is Flora Poste, who has been expensively educated to ‘possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living‘. When her parents die, leaving her with a hundred pounds a year, she decides to impose herself on relatives rather than finding a job in London. From the shortlist, she selects the Starkadder family, descendants of her mother’s sister Ada, who live on a remote farm in Sussex. Flora is prepared for rustic simplicity. But even she is startled by the raw and elemental roughness she finds among her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm. With her neat and organised mind, Flora sees very clearly that the Starkadders must be taken in hand and improved, for their own contentment and her own comfort. A challenge lies ahead, to be sure, but nothing can stand up to Flora Poste once she’s set her mind to something.

Flora comes from the elegant world of London life, full of intellectual dinners, over-intellectual plays (there are some funny pastiches of self-consciously ‘modern’ theatre) and and ironic attachments. Brisk and no-nonsense, she realises from the start that Cold Comfort Farm has issues, being entirely too wild for its own good. The farm is ‘crouched, like a beast about to spring, under the bulk of Mockuncle Hill‘, not far from the ominous village of Howling (whose ‘frosted roofs’ are coincidentally, later on, also ‘like beasts about to spring’, though also ‘crisp and purple as broccoli leaves’). The Starkadders are an eccentric clan who reel from one madness to the next, full of high emotion, rolling eyes and ponderous monologues. There’s Cousin Reuben, who slaves away over the land with a fierce possessiveness; his mother Cousin Judith, who is prone to weeping in her room at the sheer blankness of her life; the ethereal, half-feral Elfine, who flashes through the house like a kingfisher’s wing and spends most of her time roaming the high Downs; and Judith’s husband Amos, who preaches weekly sermons of fire and brimstone to the Quivering Brethren. And then there’s Cousin Seth, whose tongue-in-cheek introduction will spark recognition in anyone who’s ever read romance novels of any kind:

Standing with one arm resting upon the high mantel, looking moodily down into the heaving contents of the snood, was a tall young man whose riding-boots were splashed with mud to the thigh, and whose coarse linen shirt was open to his waist. The firelight lit up his diaphragm muscles as they heaved slowly in rough rhythm with the porridge.

Flora has her work cut out. Meals are tempestuous and tortured. There are unspoken secrets, bitterness and shames. Each one of the family is surely oppressed by some deep and violent personal desire. If she can only figure out what this is, she help them find self-fulfilment and free themselves from the chains of Cold Comfort Farm. But it won’t be easy, for upstairs, in a room that few many enter, sits Aunt Ada, queen of the Starkadder clan, teetering forever on the edge of madness and tormented by the memory of ‘something nasty in the woodshed‘ that she saw as a child. Then there’s the old retainer Adam, the king of unfathomable mutterances (‘And now I mun go to bring Robert Poste’s child back to Cold Comfort. Aye, ‘tes strange. The seed to the flower, the flower to the fruit, the fruit to the belly. Aye, so ’twill go‘), who cares deeply for his cows and for the flighty Elfine, and for keeping the status quo. Gradually, however, Flora’s common sense and bright outlook begin to pierce the Starkadders’ antique gloom. With a little help from her London friends, she determines to save them from their old-fashioned rustic misery and to usher them into the bright new dawn of the 20th century.

I’m not saying that the story isn’t funny. It is, of course it is, because everyone except Flora is taking things incredibly seriously when they’re self-evidently absurd. Gibbons suggests that it’s ridiculous to wallow in tales of elemental connection to the harsh, ravaged land, or for rustic maids to be relentlessly impregnated under hedges, or for cursed families to be bound to their farms, when all that’s needed is a nice brisk talk about contraception and a visit to a good dressmaker in town to perk everyone up. Flora’s pragmatic London life is the framing narrative for the gloom of the Starkadder sections, which consequently look even sillier. You might feel that her successes are a little too quick and a little too easy – the logic of the novel’s own plot is rendered unnecessary because it’s too busy being parodic. But I’m probably missing the point. I did feel quite strongly that some sections were unnecessarily daft, such as the cows’ habit of losing legs or hooves when Adam isn’t looking. That adds in an absurdist Monty Python note – unless of course it’s a direct parody of something of which I’m unaware.

But you see: the story isn’t smooth. You’ll be trotting along quite happily, engaged in the story, and suddenly Gibbons stops and flags you down and makes you stop and watch while she indulges herself being clever about other books. And can someone perhaps explain the point of setting Cold Comfort Farm ‘in the near future’? The futuristic setting seems completely unnecessary, apart from the fact that everyone seems to travel by private aircraft, which seems to have absolutely no bearing on the plot. Is this parody again? Clearly I need to go and read some scholarly articles about the book in order to really understand it. And I would say that this – the very need to go and read lots of other stuff to appreciate what I’m reading right now – is part of the problem.

Out of curiosity, I tried to find out exactly what – or whom – Gibbons was parodying. According to Wikipedia, her sights were directed at Mary Webb, among others. A quick preview of The House in Dormer Forest confirmed this. Take this description of the woods around the ancestral home of the Darke family: ‘The upper woods had never known the shuddering horror of the axe, the bitter and incurable destruction of the day when gnomes of ugly aspect are let loose with flashing weapons among the haughty sons and daughters of the gods, hacking and tearing at the steadfast forms of beauty, until beauty itself seems to have crashed earthwards‘. I think we can all agree that this is so purple you could drape it round someone’s shoulders and proclaim them emperor (though I do rather like ‘gnomes of ugly aspect’, which is so bad it’s almost good).

The problem with a parody is that, by its very nature, it’s anchored in a particular period when readers would have understood what it was trying to do. Nowadays few people will have read Mary Webb or Sheila Kaye-Smith or even Hugh Walpole, the thinly-disguised addressee of the prefatory letter. As such, Cold Comfort Farm has to be able to function without the scaffolding of the genre it’s parodying, and that’s where it fell down for me. It’s a good novel in its own right, but Gibbons spends so much time nudging the reader and inviting us to chuckle at her wit, that it gets a bit wearisome. The overblown melodrama of the prose, which is the very point of the parody, begins to grate as you get deeper into the story and more invested in the characters. The other problem with a parody is that one can’t possibly criticise it without a lot of avid fans turning on you and claiming that you just aren’t smart enough to get the jokes. Maybe. Perhaps what I’m trying to say is that the novel is too conscious of its status as a parody and, as such, insists upon its own artificiality – thereby jolting the reader out of the novel’s world, by constantly reminding her that it’s all made up. For most of the novel the characters, too, are so focused on fulfilling their roles as parodies that they don’t have their own chance to develop – except, perhaps, in the final chapters where Flora’s magic begins to work.

Fear not: I can well imagine I’ll enjoy this more second time around, when the story is less important to me than the style. Heavens, I don’t want you to disown me entirely, for being unable to appreciate classic literature! But I do feel that Cold Comfort Farm has been given a cultural standing disproportionate to its actual quality. Is that just me? Was I in the wrong mood? Am I insufficiently open to the absurd? It’s hard to shake the feeling that it is my fault, that I’ve missed the key which would unlock all of the brilliance that other people see here. In fact, even in writing this post I’ve begun to appreciate the novel more – in terms of its technique and structure – than I did while reading it. Maybe I should give it a while, then come back to it, and see whether suddenly it tickles me as it should. What do you all make of it? Am I addressing an audience of passionate fans, or are there others out there like me, who feel somewhat lukewarm?

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3 thoughts on “Cold Comfort Farm (1932): Stella Gibbons

  1. Emma says:

    you do make me chuckle ‘… this is so purple…’ :priceless. I admire and thank you for your candour. That’s why I make time in my heaving inbox to sample your posts. Thank you.

  2. Edoardo Albert (@EdoardoAlbert) says:

    I loved ‘Cold Comfort Farm’! One of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Most humour is topical and tied to its time, but maybe I did find it even funnier as I read it in between a bout of English classics, so the parody element struck home with me. I must agree that the SF framing elements didn’t seem necessary, but I suspect that’s where it was particularly a child of its time.

  3. RT says:

    I absolutely adored Cold Comfort Farm – but I was a teenager when I read it and have no idea whether I would find it over the top now. I probably would, because I imagine that as a young person you just go with the humour without applying too critical an eye? I would recommend, though, that you read Precious Bane by Mary Webb and see if that affects your view of CCF. I read it quite recently and thoroughly enjoyed it!

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