Tuesday, January 22, 2019

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella Gibbons

Winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize, COLD COMFORT FARM is a wickedly funny portrait of British rural life in the 1930s. Flora Poste, a recently orphaned socialite, moves in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and becomes enmeshed in a web of violent emotions, despair, and scheming, until Flora manages to set things right.

Oh man, what a ridiculous book! It's my choice for the comedy classic in the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. I'd never heard of either book or author before, but it was published way back in September 1932, when my Dad was a two-month-old baby. That sparked my interest to find out what readers were laughing at back then, but it's the sort of book to have you shaking your head asking, 'What the heck just happened?'

It's instantly clear that author Stella Gibbons was doing a very clever parody, and the books she was targeting were pastoral dramas full of acute Victorian emotions, which were apparently all the rage at the time. An obscure author named Mary Webb is said to be Gibbons' specific target. But her take-offs could even apply to several classic authors still popular to this day, such as Thomas Hardy, D.H Lawrence, Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. Writing a full novel is a pretty elaborate way of bringing attention to the limitations of a whole genre, but Gibbons did it.

Flora Poste is a smart and tidy girl who is orphaned at the age of 19. She writes to a distant branch of her family, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, asking for assistance. And because they grievously wronged her father once, in some mysterious way, they offer her hospitality to make up for it. There's rumour of a curse hanging over the farm, since nothing ever flourishes there, so Flora's older cousin Judith Starkadder wants to do what she can to alleviate their guilt.

Flora shows up, and the Starkadder clan turns out to be a mob of primitive and intense weirdos, each living their own brand of a rich and emotional inner life. Cousin Amos is a fire-and-brimstone preacher with a huge following, although he always screams at his audience that they're headed for hell. His wife Judith battles with depression and anxiety, and smashes several ornaments with her dramatic gestures. They have two grown sons. Reuben is hanging out to inherit the farm and resents anyone he imagines might pose a threat, including Flora. And Seth has the sort of earthy, animal magnetism that turns heads and makes girls swoon. Their teenage sister Elfine is a beautiful, tousled wild child, who runs around the country writing deep and meaningful poetry, and is not good for much else.

Even the farm animals are named to suit the grim tone of the place. There are the horses, Arsenic, Viper and Travail. And the beloved cows, Feckless, Graceless, Pointless and Aimless.

But the mastermind who controls everything from upstairs in her bed is the ancient matriarch Aunt Ada Doom. She uses supposed post-traumatic stress disorder to her own advantage. Aunt Ada 'saw something nasty in the woodshed' as a child, and never recovered, but whatever it was made her marriage a prolonged nightmare. For over sixty years, family members have tiptoed around trying to keep her happy, and she insists that nobody ever leaves the family nest, because 'there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.'

Flora, the natural busy-body, decides to straighten everything up with her common sense. Her motto is, 'Unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life.' Meanwhile she has to contend with the attention of her admirer, Mr Mybug, who's staying down in the village. He's a brilliant author who's busy writing a shock expose which attempts to prove that Branwell Bronte wrote all the famous novels attributed to his three sisters.

Members of the family end up with great marriages, career opportunities, new outlooks and changes of scene, all thanks to Flora's meddling. One of the happiest recipients of her reforms is the bull, Big Business. The Starkadders had kept him cooped up in the shed, and she simply lets him out to enjoy the pasture.

If the point of parodies was just to poke fun at other authors they'd be funny enough, but this one has occasional pearls of wisdom too. For example, when Seth is taken away to become a film star, the narrator remarks, 'He would never have a chance now, of becoming a nice, normal young man. He would become a world famous, swollen mask.' And this was written in the early 1930's!

Keeping up such a flowery flow of nonsense, and overstretched similes and metaphors on purpose for a whole book must be even tougher work than weeding them out when they creep in accidentally. This could be used as one of those text book examples of how not to write a novel. Gibbons was doing a similar thing to what Jane Austen did with the Gothic genre in Northanger Abbey, but even more so. And fans loved it. Not her fellow authors though. Virginia Woolf wrote that she was miffed when Gibbons won the prestigious Femina Heureuse prize with her silly story.

However, the cheeky brilliance she used in Cold Comfort Farm may have backfired on Stella Gibbons. The book was such a success, it seems she wrote herself into a corner and got herself neatly typecast as an author of satire. She went on to write over 20 more books, some of which had more sober themes, but readers wouldn't look past her name on the front cover and take them seriously. To this day, Cold Comfort Farm is her only work that didn't sink into partial obscurity. The book's introduction, plus a google search, reveals that she considered it a liability in her later years. She wouldn't even mention it by name, but referred to it as, 'Hmm, Hmm-hmm, Hmm.' I can just imagine some of her targets and their offspring saying, 'Serves her right, for not being nice.'

Overall, Cold Comfort Farm was a funny, if disturbing place to visit, but I think I'll be glad to get stuck back into books with proper character development, rather than stock, cardboard cutouts and ludicrous situations. But no doubt I'll remember Cold Comfort Farm whenever other classics verge into melodrama. Which is just what Stella Gibbons must have intended.



  1. I absolutely love Cold Comfort Farm, and the movie does it justice, if you’re interested. I love the satire, the over-the-topness of it all. And, for the record, I have read a good deal of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence and the rest of the lot she was poking fun at, including Mary Webb. I actually liked her book Precious Bane quite a bit, although I read another one of her novels and thought it ridiculous.

    Glad you got to know Flora and the Starkadders—I want to visit the Farm again myself before too long.

    1. Hi Jane, Ahh, it's a fairly old movie, isn't it? I think I came across a few scenes from it while I was putting together this blog post. Thanks for the heads-up, I might try to watch it. I've read Hardy, Lawrence etc, but not Mary Webb, and after Gibbon's efforts here, I'm not sure I want to :D

  2. So happy to read this review! It makes me so sad that Gibbons is so overlooked, I thought her comedy in this book was genius. I didn't realise she was poking fun at Mary Webb, I definitely read it as a determined dig at Lawrence and his crew - a deserved one, too, in my opinion (everyone takes Lawrence way too seriously).

    When I was putting my review together (it'll go up on the blog soon), I read a lot about how Gibbons came to resent CCF, like a pop star who comes to hate their first big hit. It's a shame, really, but understandable - she was really prolific afterwards, and yet very few of those other works are still in print. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and spreading the good word!

    1. Hi Sheree, it makes me want to track them down and read a few. I haven't read any of Mary Webb's work, but based on Gibbons' satire, I'm not sure I'd want to, if she did it seriously :D

      I'm not a big fan of Lawrence, ever since being forced to read Sons and Lovers at high school. I'll watch out for your review.

  3. I had heard of this book but I never knew what it was about.

    I love the authors that you mentioned that this is parading so I think that I would get a lot out of this. In my opinion, parody is at its best when combined with some wisdom.

    1. Hi Brian, parody and wisdom can be a hard-hitting duo when used together :) What this book does at the very least is help us look at those authors in a lighter way. I might even look for more of Stella Gibbons down the track.

  4. If you can get the movie with Kate Beckinsale, I highly recommend it. The book was good but the movie was hilarious!!! I've read a few Gibbons. Nightingale Wood was one of them: https://classicalcarousel.com/nightingale-wood-by-stella-gibbons/ and I just finished Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm which is a compilation of stories, most having nothing to do with Cold Comfort or Christmas: https://classicalcarousel.com/christmas-cold-comfort-farm-stella-gibbons/ Both of them were enjoyable and worth reading but certainly not high-end classics. I enjoy Gibbons but one book every once in awhile is nice for me. I really enjoyed your excellent review and being able to visit the book without having to read it. I plan to re-read one day but not this year!

    1. Hi Cleo, I like Kate Beckinsale, and hers is obviously a far more recent movie than the old black and white one 😄👍 And yes, I don't think Stella Gibbons is an author many of us would care to binge read, haha. A little fix goes a long way!