Friday, 26 August 2011

Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons

I didn't have any idea what to expect from this book but it certainly wasn't the missing link between P G Wodehouse and Mervyn Peake. That is however, what I got.

The book opens with a foreword dedicated to "Anthony Pookworthy, Esq., A.B.S., L.L.R." Gibbons bewails the years she has spent as a journalist "learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences."  Now, to "achieve literature and favourable reviews" she must learn "to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible."   His "books are not ... funny. they are records of intense spiritual struggles, staged in the wild setting of mere, berg or fen." It is clear that she finds them laughable and that Pookworthy represents a type of author who is to be wickedly lampooned in what is to come.

In order to help us to be "sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle" she tells us she has "adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedecker, and firmly marked what I consider are the finer passages with one, two or three stars."

In the novel proper Flora Poste, an orphaned woman in her early twenties, is living with a school friend and wondering what to do with her life. Flora's life plan is to live off relatives and steer clear of work for a while - "Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it."

After firing off some letters she decides to bring some light to bear on the darker recesses of the Starkadder family farm in rural Sussex. She is a bastion of 'common sense' amoung her country cousins, and carries a copy of "The Higher Common Sense" to help her on a mission to impose order. They are slaves to grand passions. "See - we'm violent folks, we Starkadders. Some on us pushes others down wells. Some on us dies in childbirth. There's others as die o' drink or goes mad."

There is sexy Seth: "Seth gave a low gloating laugh. An animal quality throbbed in the sound like the network of veins below a rat's fur"; Penny pinching Reuben: "He was feverishly collecting the feathers dropped by the chickens straying about the yard, and comparing them in number with the empty feather sockets on the bodies of the chickens.."; Amos, who preaches twice a week to the "Church of the Quivering Brethren"; Mad Aunt Ada Doom: "when she was no bigger than a linnet she saw" "something nasty in the woodshed" and a whole crew of grotesques including cows called Aimless and Feckless and a bull called Big Business.

When Flora lets Big Business out of the dark barn where he has been bellowing for the first half of the book it can be seen as the symbolic heart of the novel. Once sexuality and passion is kept shrouded in mystery and darkness it can fester and become deranged, especially if it is being asked to behave symbolically as in a bad novel. How much simpler to be rational about everything!

The residents of the farm are not the only targets for Gibbons pen.
The gentry: "Flora knew her hunting gentry. They were what the Americans, bless them! call dumb"
"They preferred the society of persons who spoke once in twenty minutes. They liked dogs to be well trained and girls to be well turned out and frosts to be of short duration."
The intelligentsia: "You know how dreadful intelligent people are when you take them to dances."
Eugene O'Neill: "Flora was desperately sleepy: she felt as though she were in one of Eugene O'Neills plays; that kind that goes on for hours and hours, until the R.S.P.C. Audiences batters the doors of the theatre in and insists on a tea interval."

There are many more but the one most often targeted is the misuse of English and her one, two and three starred passages are long, tautological and full of the most absurd metaphors one could hope to find. Indeed they are taken to such extremes as to become elegant in their gargantuan ungainliness. It is here and in the extreme fixation of many of the characters that she can seem to presage the Gormenghast novels of Mervyn Peake.

In the book she parodies the expectations one would have of country life if one read too many romantic novels of deep passions set there by giving us what is to be expected, and in spades. She is also very self reflexive, and tells us many times that she is doing this. "She did wonder what the brethren would look like. In novels, persons who turned to religion to obtain the colour and excitement which everyday life did not give them were all grey and thwarted. Probably the bretheren would be all grey and thwarted...though it was too true that life as she is lived had a way of being curiously different from life as described by novelists."

The humour in this book has survived remarkably well for almost eighty years and can seem quite modern. The catchphrases used in such comedy shows as The Fast Show and The League of Gentlemen can be seen here. She also predicts Skype! "She could not look at him, because public telephones were not fitted with television dials." This was after all, set in the near future.

And let us end with Flora's thoughts on the Starkadder daughter Elfine, who is in love with one of the local gentry: "She must learn to be serious about horses. She must learn to laugh when a book or a string quartet were mentioned, and to confess that she was not brainy." If only she could have given that advice to some of Jane Austen's characters.


  1. This sounds quite enjoyable. Reading your review I remember that I've saw it mentioned once as some sort of parody.
    I accidentally bought a "purified" version of this quite some time ago. Rewritten for Americans. I compared the first paragraph and it was unrecognizable. Most words were changed and everything was condensed. I've never seen anything like this done before.

    1. Sounds like a perfect target for a satirist like Gibbons. Considering that much of the humor comes from the parody of a particular overwrought style of writing it is hard to imagine a condensed and simplified version working in any way.