Review: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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.

‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed!’

Comments

  1. Bex says:

    This book's been on my TBR since I was about fourteen… So many people have told me it's great, I'm going to have to actually get my hands on a copy somehow!

  2. Sophia says:

    I've always meant to read this book one day. I have a feeling we did bits of it at school but I might be getting muddled up with Cider with Rosie. I really need to find a copy and get it read – great review!

  3. I did not know this was satire, now I definitely want to read it. I've read a bit of Hardy in my time and the rural idyll stuff can get might tiring …

  4. I have somehow never heard of this but I like the sound of it. It sounds clever and funny, both of which are things I like. I just might read it!

    My only slight worry is about the writing in a dialect part. I read Trainspotting and just couldn't bear it! In part, that's because I found it embarrassing that occasionally I had to read bits aloud to myself to work out what it was supposed say but also because I found it distracted me from the story. That could just be me though!

    I'd have to get an eBook copy though because cows frighten me to death and I just couldn't bear the thought of one hanging out in my handbag, however amusing its name might be!

  5. It's been a while since I read this one but I remember really enjoying it. Maybe it's time for a re-read…

  6. Hanna says:

    @Sophie- Argh, I know just what you mean. I read Cider with Rosie years ago and I can see how easily you could mix them up! I wish we did something this interesting at school though…

    @LIB – The accent isn't that similar to a Yorkshire one, and I'm sure you know plenty of people with those! I struggled until I pretend it was my boyfriend saying it (he has a strong accent) and then it clicked into place. Better not tell him that though…

    Oh! I understand perfectly! I'm terrified of fish and I refused to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea until I could find one without a giant trout on the front, haha!

  7. Jessica says:

    I have this sitting on my shelf, I remember they made a tv mini seris out of it which I enjoyed, it starred kate beckingsale.

  8. Ellie Warren says:

    I love Cold Comfort Farm although now I always get that Divine Comedy song in my head. Curse them! I saw that there was a Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm knocking about this year…not sure if it's any good though.

  9. Hanna says:

    @Ellie – Yeah, I was looking at the Christmas book earlier. I think it's set before Flora even went to the farm though; just the other characters milling about.

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