After the emotionally draining, yet wonderfully insightful and elegiac, read of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, it was with a need to read something more light-hearted in subject matter that I picked up Stella Gibbons Cold Comfort Farm (and it also happens to be on my Classics Club list!).
Recently orphaned Flora Poste has just returned to London from her expensive and extensive education and is in the need of some familial company. However, she is estranged from her many distant relatives and cunningly comes up with a plan to persuade these almost-stranger-like family members to take her under their wing. She receives a number of replies but is most intrigued by her cousins, the Starkadders, who live in Sussex on Cold Comfort Farm. The letter they reply on is dirty and smudged. There is a mysterious reference to some past wrong-doing and Flora’s reclaiming of her rights. There is also the sense that Flora could be put to some good use in cleaning up the Starkadders in the country:
‘She reminded herself that Sussex, when all was said and done, was not quite like other countries, and that when one observed that these people lived on a farm in Sussex, the address was no longer remarkable. For things seemed to go wrong in the country more easily and much more frequently, somehow, than they did in Town, and such a tendency must naturally reflect itself in local nomenclature’.
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons, pg.22
Gibbons playfully parodies the doom-laden accounts of rural stories, which were popular at the time – she even has a character called Aunt Ada Doom, who happens to be the biggest obstacle in the way of the Starkadder’s normality. She is at the heart of the mystifying problems that arise at Cold Comfort.
‘Aunt Ada Doom sat in her room upstairs … alone.
There was something almost symbolic in her solitude. She was the core, the matrix; the focusing-point of the house … and she was, like all cores, utterly alone. You never heard of two cores to a thing, did you? Well, then. Yet all the wondering waves of desire, passion, jealousy, lust, that throbbed through the house converged, web-like, upon her core-solitude. She felt herself to be a core … and utterly, irrevocably alone’.
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons, pg.112
When Flora descends on Cold Comfort Farm, she does so with the air of somebody on a mission. She is not phased by the problems she comes across whilst in Sussex and systematically cleans up the Starkadders as if she were routinely cleaning a house. However, it is Aunt Ada Doom, who never leaves her bedroom and constantly repeats the refrain, ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed…’ who proves to be the most difficult problem for Flora to solve.
Although Flora is quite clearly depicted as a snob, her thoughts and remarks are so blunt and to the point that I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. There is one time where she is talking to the house-maid, Meriam, who has found herself pregnant with the woman-hating, yet handsome, Seth Starkadder’s child. Flora teaches her the ways of using contraception and Meriam bursts out:
‘ ’Tes wickedness! ’Tes flying in the face of Nature!’ […].
‘Nonsense!’ said Flora. ‘Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy’.
Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons, pg.69
Although Flora’s views are quite modern and advanced for a woman in those times (and the book is meant to be set about ten years or so in the future), the language she uses to describe taboo subjects are so old-fashioned it is hilarious. Yet she talks about pregnancy and marriage as such trivial matters, which is refreshing to see in a book that was published in the early 1930s.
I would highly recommend Cold Comfort Farm to those in need of a light-hearted, joyful and quick read. It is a funny and uplifting tale of the attempt to modernise country life and the old fashioned ideals that get in the way. There are also a couple of futuristic elements to the novel, such as the ‘television phone’, which I would love to see portrayed in the 1995 film version of Cold Comfort Farm. I think I will definitely invest in the short story collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm to get me into the Christmas spirit!