I knew I was going to get along with Miss Flora Poste, the narrator of this novel, from the very first chapter, in which she explains that her “idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room, where everybody has to play hockey properly”. Flora also likes everything about her to be “tidy and pleasant and comfortable”. She is therefore presented with quite a challenge when she goes off to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, following the (unlamented) deaths of her parents.
The Starkadders have always lived at Cold Comfort Farm, even though the place is apparently cursed. The family is ruled over by mad Aunt Ada Doom, who conveniently “saw something nasty in the woodshed” as a child and so must have her every wish fulfilled, for fear she might go even madder. Her daughter Judith is sunk in gloom; Judith’s husband Amos spends all his time preaching hellfire at the Church of the Quivering Brethren; their inarticulate elder son Reuben tries to keep the farm going and obsesses about how many feathers his chickens have lost; Seth lounges about with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, seducing the housemaids; and young Elfine writes terrible poetry and communes with Nature. Then there’s their ancient farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, and his beloved cows (called Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless); Mrs Beetle the housekeeper and her “jazz quartet” of tiny, illegitimate grandchildren; and a confusion of dirt-encrusted Starkadder cousins, with names like Urk and Micah, who are constantly stealing one another’s wives and pushing each other down the well.
Fortunately, Flora enjoys a challenge and she cheerfully sets about improving the lives of all her relatives, whether they like it or not.
This is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Stella Gibbons pokes fun at everyone and everything: Serious Literature, romance, evangelists, psychoanalysis, intellectuals, people who worship Nature, fashionable Society, the British aristocracy. As Rachel Cooke writes, “Gibbons was a sworn enemy of the flatulent, the pompous and the excessively sentimental.” The really clever thing, though, is how Gibbons manages to create over-the-top characters who are nevertheless completely recognisable. Mr Mybug, for example, who is convinced Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights:
“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff . . . There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights.”
He sounds like V. S. Naipaul.
Although Cold Comfort Farm was first published in 1932, it is supposed to be set “in the near future”, sometime after the “Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ’46”. Mayfair is now part of the slums of London, while Lambeth is a fashionable, expensive part of the city. The British railways have fallen into “idle and repining repair” because so many people travel in their own private aeroplanes, and telephones come equipped with a “television dial”. Some of this is quite prophetic, but it reads oddly in a novel that otherwise seems thoroughly part of the 1930s. (The excellent 1996 film version of the book wisely omitted these modernistic bits.) One extra note: make sure you read the author’s foreword before you read the novel. I didn’t, so I missed out on a running joke about literary criticism.
Stella Gibbons wrote two sequels to this book, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, which unfortunately, I haven’t read. After being out of print for years, they have been republished this year by Vintage Classics, along with a dozen other novels from this author. I am particularly interested in reading Westwood, which is set during the Second World War and sounds fascinating.
More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:
Oh, and don’t forget that my book giveaway is still on, until the 4th of December. Go and check out the excellent book recommendations from readers, and add a recommendation of your own!