#100WomenNovelists of the 20th Century: Stella Gibbons

Blog Post 6: Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

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The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

This novel is a delight, even more so for me because it is one of those classics that I had never read until recently. It’s smart, funny, quirky, clever, ahead of its time and it very much deserves a place in my top 100 novels written by women in the last century.

‘Cold Comfort Farm’ is essentially a parody of the unremittingly depressing rural novel written by the likes of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and Mary Webb. It begins with Flora Poste living her metropolitan London life. The death of her parents hardly touches Flora as, according to her, she only ever saw them for a month a year and they were pretty remote. The problem for her is more to do with finances. After death duties have been paid, Flora has a £100 a year to live on. Her friend, widow and collector of heart-broken men and brassieres, Mrs Smiling, tells Flora she must stay with her in Lambeth and ‘learn how to work’. But Flora does not want to do this. Instead she writes to distant relatives scattered over Britain asking if she can come and live with them.

The landscape and tone of the opening pages set up the reader to expect a society novel such as they might get from Nancy Mitford or Evelyn Waugh. But a fairly short way into the book and the writing and story take a distinct turn when Flora decides that she will go and stay with the Starkadders on their farm in Sussex.

When Flora arrives in Howling, she realises that she will be living with a bunch of eccentrics, whose names would strike horror into the heart of Mrs Smiling. There is her somewhat depressed Aunt Judith who is married to Amos, who preaches hell and damnation to the Church of the Quivering Brethren. There is also lustful Seth and brooding Reuben. There is Micah, Ezra, Urk, Luke, Mark, Caraway, Hark-away, and my favourite, Adam Lambsbreath. There is the slightly bonkers poet, Elfine, ‘wild as a marsh-tigget in May’. And, of course, the animals : Big Business the bull, and Feckless, Graceless, Pointless and Aimless, the cows.

The Starkadders live in squalor and discord, under a curse that began many years ago when the matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom ‘saw something nasty in the woodshed’. Now she lives in her bedroom upstairs, (a sort of Bronte mad woman in the attic?), has her meals brought to her on a tray, and oversees household operations from her bed. If anyone tries to move out, she has a funny turn and they have to stay. She also owes something to Flora, to right a wrong done to her father.

Flora, using resourcefulness and tenacity, sets about putting things in order, from the kitchen to their love lives. Some modern readers may see this as a townie interfering in the ways of country folk, but she simply wants everyone to be happy and for harmony to be restored. This includes practical advice on birth control to one of the local women who gets pregnant every year when the sukebind is in blossom, a plant with ‘dark green leaves and long, pink tightly closed buds’. 

If you ask me, I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I…I cannot endure messes.

Gibbons’ novel is quite ahead of its time. To ramp up the parody, she uses a post-modernist technique of asterisks which highlight particularly purple pieces of prose.

••Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its was between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

If this passage only deserves two asterisks, imagine what three will deliver.

There is also a futuristic element with the novel being set in the not too distant future and everyone travelling about by plane. This part doesn’t necessarily add anything other than more quirkiness so it is quite forgivable.

‘Cold Comfort Farm’ does the opposite of what it says on the tin: it uplifts your soul and makes you smile. But we are left with a question. Just what exactly did happen in the woodshed?

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