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.
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!
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.