Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

12 Jan

I was perusing Amazon one day (actually I was looking for The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, and wondering whether it was worth buying) when I came across the Kindle edition of Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons’ hilarious and quotable satire of old fashioned (and angst-ridden) British rural novels.

I don’t know how I managed to miss reading this novel all these years (or even the multiple films based on it), but I am now lusting after the talented Ms. Gibbon’s woefully out-of-print backlist. Publishers, if you’re one of my five readers, for the love of all that is good and holy–put them back in print. Electronic, dead tree book, smoke signal–it doesn’t matter. Good books want to be read.

Initially, I was torn between the Kindle and the dead tree edition, but instant gratification won. This is one of few cases where I didn’t mind Penguin’s inflated ebook prices–the book is worth twice what the publisher is selling it for (did I mention that it’s good?). The Kindle edition itself–a digitization of the Penguin Classics edition–is very good, although it lacks the adorable cow cover that graces the print edition. Like the print edition, the Kindle version has Lynne Truss’s introduction, notes on the text, the author’s original (and very funny) forward to Anthony Pookworthy, and (my favorite) the ability to skip between chapters using the joystick. Overall, a very pleasant e-reading experience.

Cold Comfort Farm centers on Flora Poste who, possessed of one hundred pounds a year and an uncanny ability to meddle in other people’s affairs, goes to live with her relatives, the Starkadders, on dreary Cold Comfort Farm. Upon arriving (in a horse-drawn buggy steered by an unintelligible housekeeper named Adam who rather reminds me of Joseph from Wuthering Heights), Stella finds the farm’s inhabitants are prisoners of mad Aunt Ada Doom, who “saw something nasty in the woodshed” as a child and warns her family never to leave for “there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort.” Unimpressed, Flora sets about tidying the Starkadders’ lives with quick wit and common sense. As Flora says, “I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”

I wasn’t sure if I would like Cold Comfort Farm. Gibbons wrote the novel in 1932 primarily as a parody of the popular novels of the day. Would it be as funny today as it was then? Would I even get the jokes? Yes, and I did. I was tickled to spot Gibbons’ references to Jane Austen (Flora Poste, our enterprising protagonist, is very like Emma) and Emily Bronte, among many others, especially those poking fun at overwrought literary symbolism. Gibbons offers the reader many sly winks throughout the text, even going so far as to “firmly [mark] . . . the finer passages with one, two or three stars” to help those who “are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle.” She adds, “it ought to help the reviewers, too.”

Even with all the literary winking and nudging, Cold Comfort Farm is plain old fun. And although the novel is a satire, it is never biting.  Almost nothing is safe from Gibbons’ eye, including her fellow writers. Upon learning that an associate, Mr. Mybug, is writing a thesis about Branwell Bronte that suggests that he, not his sisters, actually wrote their famous novels. When Flora learns that the entire thesis hangs upon three letters Branwell wrote to an aunt in Ireland (that do not even mention his literary work) she muses:

It was not the habit of men of genius to refresh themselves from their labors by writing to old aunts; this task, indeed, usually fell to the sisters and wives of men of genius, and it struck Flora as far more likely that Charlotte, Anne or Emily would have had to cope with any old aunts who were clamouring to be written to. However, perhaps Charlotte, Anne and Emily had all decided one morning that it really was Branwell’s turn to write to Aunt Prunty, and had sat on his head in turn while he wrote the three letters, which were afterwards posted at prudently spaced intervals.

Wisely, Flora does not share her flash of common sense with Mr. Mybug.

As Flora flits from relative to relative, I kept waiting them to give her the heave-ho, or at least toss her in the well, but it looks like they were grateful for all her meddling. Flora is like a bright beam of light that allows her family to (slowly) find their way out of their own personal woodsheds. Cold Comfort Farm is a reminder that life is never as difficult as we make it, and there is little point in misery when there is so much enjoyment in the world.

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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in Author: Stella Gibbons, Literature


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