You know that feeling where you’re not entirely sure you’ve read the book you were actually meant to be reading? I’d been warned off Cold Comfort Farm twice in the past week – my Mum spent a full ten minutes telling me how boring it was and a friend texted me saying she didn’t like it because it was ‘weird.’ Regardless, with the heavy weight of trepidation in my heart, I grudgingly picked it up…. and loved it.
When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organize other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand.
I think the key to getting along with Cold Comfort Farm is accepting it as a parody. It’s not really meant to be a serious work of fiction. Instead, it’s a send-off of the earlier rural novels like those by D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. Now, I do like what I’ve read of Lawrence so far, but I still appreciate what Stella Gibbons was trying to do. More than that, it’s actually funny. Flora’s well-intentioned contempt for her family’s bad habits shows itself in dry, sarcastic comments which even made me snort at one point. Perhaps I should be next in line for fixing up by Flora…
That’s basically the plot of the book. Flora is suddenly forced to live on a meagre income after the death of her parents, and so decides to reside with her distant family, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm. On arrival, she sees her cousins for exactly what they’re intended to me – exaggerated, cartoonish cliches of all those rural novels. There’s Amos who’s obsessed with religion, Judith and her profound depression, the over-sexed Seth, the contraceptionally unaware and therefore always pregnant Meriam and the commoner in love with the gentry plot-line of Elfine. They’re all so loveable in their extremes that you can’t help but wish for a happy ending.
It’s a very accessible book – it flew by in a matter of hours for me. It takes a few pages to get used to the heavy accents of the Starkadder family but it’s not really much of a problem after that.
‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’
It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint? If so, one might say, ‘My dear, how too sickening for you!’ But then, it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be, ‘Attaboy!’ or more simply, ‘Come, that’s capital.’ Weakly she fell back on the comparatively safe remark:
‘Did you?’ in a bright, interested voice.
The literary influences are quite obvious. As well as the afore-mentioned Lawrence and Hardy (Huh. Unintentional, but vaguely amusing regardless…), Flora reminds me strongly of Emma Woodhouse with her insistence on ‘fixing’ the problems of everybody herself. Then there are a number of discussions between Flora and Mr. Mybug regarding the true author of Jane Eyre – whether it be Charlotte herself or Branwell Bronte. Flora becomes understandably quite irritated at this and calms herself by quoting Mansfield Park when she returns home.
Not only did I enjoy Cold Comfort Farm, I also read and enjoyed the introduction, and seriously – who does that? It’s by Lynne Truss in my edition, which is the Penguin Modern Classics version with the cow pictured above (incidentally, the cows in the book are called Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless, which amused me no end). I don’t normally bother with the introductions to classics, but I gave the first few pages a quick scan and liked what I read. Instead of a long, dreary introduction about the symbolism and hidden messages as usual, Ms. Truss briefly talks about how she was introduced to the book and what it means to her now. I love hearing personal reminisces of reading – to me it’s much more interesting that critical interpretation.
Long story short, I really enjoyed this book and I can’t wait to start tracking down some of Stella Gibbons’ other books. My work may be cut out for me there though – on LibraryThing there are 3,070 copies of this book, but only 198 of the next popular, Nightingale Wood. I’ll be interested to see how they compare to this pleasantly surprising genius of a book.