Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Cold Comfort Farm
Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

She wondered if she had been wise to come. She reflected on the length, the air of neglect and the intricate convolutions of the corridors through which Judith had led her to the bedroom, and decided that if these were typical of the rest of the house, and if Judith and Adam were typical of the people who lived in it, her task would indeed be long and difficult. (p 50)

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is supposed to be a parody of a certain type of novel that was popular at the time (the nineteen-thirties). Perhaps I am fortunate not to have read these novels for I found Gibbons' novel to be more strange than comic for the first six chapters. It was not until Flora Poste, the bright young heroine, met the brothers Seth and Reuben and her cousin Amos that I began to enjoy the humor in this unusual little book. It seems that Seth's view of women is summed up in his comment to Flora, "Now I - I don't let no women eat me. I eats them instead."(p 82) And if Seth eats women, cousin Amos literally eats everything else (usually more than one helping). So there was some humor in this odd novel and in its attempt to parody the romanticised, sometimes doom-laden, accounts of rural life popular at the time by writers such as Mary Webb (author of Precious Bane which I have yet to read beyond page ten). Gibbons was working for the Evening Standard in 1928 when they decided to serialise Webb's first novel, The Golden Arrow, and had the job of summarising the plot of earlier installments. Other novelists in the tradition were apparently parodied by Cold Comfort Farm but the only suggestions that come to my mind would be early Hardy or perhaps Wuthering Heights.

The novel tells the story of Flora Poste who having been orphaned is looking for relatives with whom to live. After rejecting a number of others, she chooses the Starkadders (not a good sign when you're headed for a stay with a family of that name), relatives on her mother's side, who live in the isolated(very!) Cold Comfort Farm, near the fictional Sussex village of Howling. Greeting her as "Robert Poste's child", they take her in to repay some unexplained wrong done to her father.
Each of the extended family has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred or fear; and the farm is badly run, supposedly cursed, and presided over by the unseen presence of Aunt Ada Doom, who is said to be mad through having seen "something nasty in the woodshed" as a child. As an educated, level-headed urban woman, Flora applies modern common sense to their problems and helps them all adapt to the twentieth century.
Thus we have a contrast between the rustics living in nature, perhaps too close to a "state of nature", and civilization represented by the educated young woman. The rustics don't have a chance, but in bringing order into their chaos I'm not sure that Flora was doing a good thing. This may appear to be a parody of certain overwrought novels, but it may also be an omen of what the twentieth century activists for social change had in mind for England. Some readers may appreciate the humor in this novel more than I did, but I relished the ideas implicit in the story whether intentional or otherwise.

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