Gibbons, Stella Entries

Cold Comfort Farm

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Cold Comfort Farm is one of those books that inspires evangelism: people read it, think it's fantastic, and praise it in overly colored language to everyone around them, giving it as a gift on holidays, and following up with questions like "Have you read Cold Comfort Farm yet? Well, why not? It's HILARIOUS! Go on, read it right now. I'll just sit here and wait." Which is, of course, a huge turn-off, and the poor recipient avoids the book out of harried annoyance. So please, feel no pressure at all: you needn't run out and buy Stella Gibbons's novel unless you really want to.

That said, it IS hilarious, and I do highly recommend it. Not many books keep me up past my bedtime in this era of the five-o-clock alarm, but this one did, and I was chuckling the entire time. I think its charm lies in the fact that, although it's a satire, it also imparts a sense of genuine, warm affection for the characters and literary modes it's lampooning. The oddball inhabitants of Cold Comfort - Aunt Ada Doom, conveniently mad; Judith, toiling under an incestuous obsession; Seth, bored by sex but passionate about talkies; Amos, who preaches hellfire and sends home for flannel shirts; and Flora Poste, officious and uselessly educated, who descends on the farm and applies her no-nonsense brand of "tidying" to her messy relatives - could be painted viciously or dismissively, but they're not. Instead, a reader gets a sense that while everyone is a bit silly, and take themselves more seriously than they ought, they're all decent folks at heart. It's a much gentler, happier poking of fun than something in the style of Thackeray or even Austen, and a reader leaves Cold Comfort Farm feeling refreshed, rather than anxious or world-weary.

The plot begins simply: nineteen-year-old society girl Flora, finding herself orphaned and in possession of a much smaller fortune than she'd anticipated, intrudes herself on her eclectic collection of rural relatives and attempts to bring their lives into what she considers better order. They've all resigned themselves to living out their days in a Gothic morass of moral and physical stagnation, and Flora's bracing if interfering assurances that this is not the way things are done, make for a hilarious counterpoint. But while this setup is funny (and gets steadily funnier as the plot thickens), the real charm is in Gibbons's method of developing it. There are all kinds of delightful little details, which I would probably appreciate even more on re-reading. Take, for example, this passage, in which Mrs. Smiling, Flora's brassière-obsessed friend, attempts to find the proper train for her:

Even Mrs. Smiling could not find much comfort in the time-table. It seemed to her even more confused than usual. Indeed, since the aerial routes and the well-organized road routes had appropriated three-quarters of the passengers who used to make their journeys by train, the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.
There was a train which left London Bridge at half past one for Howling. It was a slow train. It reached Godmere at three o'clock. At Godmere the traveler changed into another train. It was a slow train. It reached Beershorn at six o'clock. At Beershorn the train stopped; and there was no more idle chatter of the arrival and departure of trains. Only the simple sentence 'Howling (see Bershorn)' mocked, in its self-sufficing entity, the traveler.

Gibbons has a great ear for that classic British humor that revels in the absurdity of everyday life, and her poker face is impeccable. Her snappy wit is applied evenly to everyone in the book, from the country squire ("The idea, like most ideas, would simply never have entered his head") to an art-house bohemian ("who, like all loose-living persons, was extremely conventional") to Flora herself, as when she reflects that "One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one's favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one's dressing-gown." (This strikes me as snobbish but extremely understandable.) I found the caricature of the self-important male artiste-on-the-make to be especially satisfying:

It cannot be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug. To begin with, he was not really interested in anything but sex. This was understandable, if deplorable. After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness. The trouble about Mr. Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which are not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr. Mybug, and he pointed them out and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all. Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested. She was therefore obliged merely to be polite, and Mr. Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and thought it was due to inhibitions. He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited. Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

I love the way this passage points up the confusion, in some peoples' minds, between lack of interest because they are being complete self-involved bores, and lack of interest due to frigidity. Also, it's hilarious how his personal knowledge of sexual inhibition is limited to women between nineteen and twenty-four. Interesting how it pans out that way. But at the same time, the scene also parodies Flora's compulsion to continue walking with him for fear of rudeness, and the whole society's ridiculousness for being so predictable. This passage, for example, comes from Flora's first meeting with Mybug, and all of the assumptions she makes here prove perfectly correct (he has just asked if she cares for walking):

Now Flora was in a dreadful fix...For if she said that she adored walking, Mr. Mybug would drag her for miles in the rain while he talked about sex, and if she said that she liked it only in moderation, he would make her sit on wet stiles, while he tried to kiss her. If, again, she parried his question and said that she loathed walking, he would either suspect that she suspected that he wanted to kiss her, or else he would make her sit in some dire tea-room, while he talked more about sex and asked her what she felt about it.

I kind of imagine this is how it must have been to hang out with D.H. Lawrence.

Yet even Mr. Mybug turns out to be a decent sort at heart, and one feels more amused than frustrated with him. He, and all the other Cold Comfort characters, have become dear to my heart in the course of reading this slim volume, and I think that experience is at the core of all the pro-Gibbons evangelism. Her sense of humor may be a bit precious for some, but if the idea of one of the hardier young Wodehouse ladies (say, Pauline Stoker or Stiffy Byng) plopped down in the midst of an overwrought Victorian gothic/pastoral à la Thomas Hardy tickles your funnybone, then you, my friend, are in for a treat. Pick a copy up at your earliest convenience. If, you know, you feel like it.

(Cold Comfort Farm was my fourth book for the What's in a Name Challenge.)

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography