Book Review by Jane V. Stella Gibbons trained as a journalist but thought of herself as a poet. She wrote many other novels but Cold Comfort Farm was her first and by far the most successful. She can in fact ‘do’ any style including the overblown stuff favoured by writers like Ethel M. Dell. Stella even marks her parodying passages, helpfully, with asterisks!
‘** Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of wind eating its way 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.’
‘*** The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman . . . Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break.’
[Ethel M. Dell could have written these passages in all seriousness and would probably have been satisfied with this over-blown vocabulary and these competing metaphors.]
Cold Comfort Farm is a masterful parody of the type of rural novel written by Mary Webb et al and is a wonderful parody of life on a failing post WW1 farm in the Sussex Downs. But it is also a parody of the ‘town’ novel – Flora and her friend Mrs Smiling shop, go ice-skating and to the cinema. They have modern haircuts and up to date taste in fashion. Mrs smiling collects brassieres.
Flora Poste is a determined young woman of 19 who loves organising people and getting her own way. She is somewhat of a literary ‘trope’, a young woman, left by the sudden death of parents ‘with £100 a year and no property’. Thus, with no means of supporting herself (her education had been ‘expensive, athletic and prolonged’ with the result that she possessed ‘every art and grace save that of earning her own living’) she decides to go to live with her distant relatives, the Starkadders, at Cold Comfort Farm.
The Starkadders are:
Judith, (Flora’s cousin) who is married to Amos Starkadder. Judith is in a perpetual state of overwhelming grief and consumed by an obsession with her son Seth.
Amos, the owner of the farm, is a lay-preacher who spends most of his time preaching hellfire to the locals;
Reuben is their elder son who does most of the work on the arm and is waiting jealously to inherit.
Seth is their younger son – a swarthy, film-star handsome man with animal attraction and habits to match. He is besotted with the ‘movies’.
Elfine is their 17 year old waif-like daughter. Elfine flits about the downs to escape the house and writes poetry.
There are innumerable cousins around too, with biblical names. But chief of the Starkadders is Aunt Ada Doom, widow of Fig Starkadder, Amos’ father. Ada keeps to her room where she devours huge meals, only descending twice a year at ‘the gathering’ of the family and when the sukebind is in flower. She rules the family with a rod of iron – none must leave, none must marry (and she demands to see the milk and egg accounts each week). She claims that she ‘saw something nasty in the woodshed’ when she was a small child and that this experience could easily send her over the edge. She rules by her threat to run mad if any of the family disobeys.
There are staff too at the farm. Ancient Adam Lambsbreath has been a retainer for many years. His tasks are milking the cows (Aimless, Feckless, Pointless and Graceless), cooking the farm hands meals and ‘clettering’ the dishes (in greasy water with a thorn twig). He is very attached to Elfine whom he ‘coddled in his bosom’ since she was first born. Mrs Beetle is the home help from the village who cooks Flora’s meals and is just about the only sane, practical member of the household. She is mother to Meriam, a kitchen maid, who bears Seth a child each year nine months after the sukebind has flowered.
And of Flora’s town associates there is Mr Mybug (Meyerberg), a would-be intellectual who is overweight, unattractive and lecherous and has designs on Flora.
Young Flora is determined to sort this miserable lot out. She schemes and plots with admirable understanding of their natures and succeeds in persuading Amos to buy a Ford van and travel round England – and finally America – preaching hell-fire to the masses; Judith she despatches to a psychiatrist she knows in London who deflects Judith’s obsessive tendencies onto old churches in Europe; Seth she introduces to an American film studio mogul who instantly signs him up for romantic roles in Hollywood; Elfine she takes up to London for a modern haircut and some suitable clothes so that, thus groomed, she may marry Richard Hawk-Monitor up at the Hall. She even introduces Meriam to the idea of birth control!
And finally, her greatest challenge – Aunt Ada Doom. Skilfully Flora lures Ada from her room with promises of world travel and expensive hotels. The last we see of Aunt Ada is just before she is whisked away in a light aircraft to taking her to Paris. She is dressed in a black leather flying suit and is filled with enthusiasm for her coming adventure.
Reuben inherits the farm, proposes to Flora, is gently refused and Flora sends for her urban cousin Charles to come and collect her in his light aircraft, the Speed Cop 11. Flora and Charles realise they are in love and all ends happily.
Why did I choose Cold Comfort Farm as my comfort read? I love spoofs/take-offs/satire/parody – good writing. You know you are in for a stylish, well-written tale from the first paragraph.
‘The education bestowed on Flora 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 living.’
I love invented words – as long as they come from a sound knowledge of English etymology. (‘scranlet’ – doing something agricultural involving scraping the soil, no doubt; ‘marsh tigget’ – bound to be a bird; ‘sukebind’ – a plant of the convolvulus genus for sure). But chiefly it is because so many of the phrases and words became part of my family’s daily speech, phrases such as:
‘I maun have ‘ee all aroun’ me’ – Aunt Ada Doom, a maternal desire to have her family all together.
‘Who be writing to ‘ee from Howchicker?’ – on receipt of a letter.
‘Seth and Reuben too, send gumboots’ – on discovering that one had landed in a rather muddy and bucolic place.
‘Cletterin’ they dishes’, whenever one had to do the washing up.
‘I ha’ scranletted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down in the bute’, and Flora’s dilemma whether to reply ‘how perfectly sickening for you’, or ‘come that’s capital’.
‘When er were no but a titty wren’ – referring to one’s childhood.
‘Going a-mollocking’ – off to the town to indulge oneself in riotous living.
Then so many of the characters are close to the realities I experienced as a small child when taken by my mother to live on a farm at the end of the war. I knew the bucolic life of the late 40s and 50s. I recognise that the characters are close to the truth. I remember an occasion when I was taken to visit a sister of my step-father. She was a widow who lived on a farm with her only son upon whom she doted. He was swarthy and good looking, and I’m sure he went a-mollocking! During our visit Aunt Nance cooked her son some species of omelette. She cracked a large number of eggs into a black pan on the open fire and proceeded to scramble them around with a fork. Her finger nails were black from the work she did. Black bits from the fire fell into the eggs. The resultant mess she slopped onto a plate and presented to her son. A Judith and Seth situation if ever I saw one!