Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons is a classic comic novel and, even re-reading it in the twenty-first century, the humour made me laugh aloud. It's primarily a parody which targets some of the tiresome rural dark!fic which was being written at the time *cough*T.F.Powys*cough* (of which more later) although it also contains healthy chunks of social satire. The first third of the book is slow by contemporary standards and the humour doesn't manifest until the scene has been thoroughly set but it's well worth persevering.
One of the interesting aspects of Cold Comfort Farm, which I'd forgotten until I re-read the novel, is its alternative future backstory and consequent science fictional references. Stella Gibbons specifies that the story is set in "the near future" as seen from 1932, she creates a fictional history covering the period from 1932 until at least 1946, her characters use videophones, and aeroplanes are a comparatively common method of transport (even postmen use them to deliver mail).
Flora, our heroine, is a pragmatic and modern young woman who moves in with her hopeless and backward relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, and proceeds to "tidy them up" using The Higher Common Sense. Flora, who is "possessed of every art and grace save that of earning her own living", doesn't tidy up every loose end, however, as she fails to discover both the fate of the goat and the nature of her "rights". The story's ending is a tad too tidy but then Cold Comfort Farm is an upbeat comic fantasy so implications of happy ever after are only to be expected.
Aspects of Cold Comfort Farm which might be of special interest to whileaway readers
- The main character Flora.
- Science fictional elements in the background.
- Overt feminism including reference to contraception which was brave at the time especially for a writer, such as Stella Gibbons, who was employed by The Lady magazine.
- Refusal to judge people's worth along class lines (Flora's ally Mrs Beetle is working class) or by a simplistic division into urban and rural (the urban Mr Mybug is as warped as the rural Starkadders).
- The way Flora's "tidy" arrangements for people to be-done-by-as-they-want have undercurrents of social subversion.
- Our heroine's casual resort to ethically ambiguous behaviour, up to and including theft and forgery, with no comeuppance whatsoever.
- Aunt Ada Doom and the clever way her passages are written in the second person to make the reader complicit in her psychological machinations.
- The catchphrase: "I saw something nasty in the woodshed." (And the pointed response: "Did it see you?")
- Approving mention of artist Marie Laurencin.
Rambling about context
Many people choose to believe that Stella Gibbons was specifically ridiculing the novels of Mary Webb but I suspect this is because Webb's novels are still widely read, unlike several of Gibbons' other targets, so people are aware of them. It's true that one of Gibbon's inspirations for Cold Comfort Farm (originally intended to be titled Curse God Farm) was Webb's novel The Golden Arrow (which is far from Webb's best work) but trying to set up a direct correlation between CCF and TGA diminishes CCF by ignoring the impressive range of targets which the story successfully parodies and diminishes Mary Webb's reputation by implying that her work is only fit for ridicule. That invidious comparison also looks, to me, to be merely another attempt to suppress women's writing by inventing an unnecessary contest between two female authors with the intention that only one of them will be allowed into the canon of classic novels in English. Mary Webb wrote Precious Bane which is deservedly a classic (she also wrote some passable poetry). Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm which is deservedly a classic. There's room for them both on the same bookshelves.
Pretending that Cold Comfort Farm exclusively targets Webb's writing also does no favours for CCF because it obscures the impressive range of the novel's general social satire and specific parodies. Gibbons satirised her own family, her literary and artistic contemporaries, as well as the English class system and the county set as a class. Gibbons also specifically parodies the social and sexual pronouncements of D.H. Lawrence, the rural dark!fic of Sheila Kaye-Smith, and the gloomy, misogynist, bizarrely religious (let's call it xtian because it has nothing to do with Christ), doom-mongering churned out by T.F. Powys. It seems to me that the most direct hit in Cold Comfort Farm is when Gibbons describes what the Starkadders are not doing near the end of the story and, surely not coincidentally, summarises what the characters typically are doing in an average T.F. Powys novel: "There they all were. Enjoying themselves. Having a nice time. And having it in an ordinary human manner. Not having it because they were raping somebody, or beating somebody, or having religious mania or being doomed to silence by a gloomy, earthly pride, or loving the soil with the fierce desire of a lecher, or anything of that sort." (Howzat!)
Cold Comfort Farm is a witty and engaging story and I commend it to your attention. Read it, re-read it, recommend it to friends, or just check it out of the library and back in again to keep it on the shelves.
Recommendation for further reading
If you've enjoyed reading Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons then I suggest you might also enjoy Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner which contains witty social satire, and sly digs at the Merrie Englandist tosh propagated by Margaret Murray when she was on holiday from her respectable career as an Egyptologist, all in a fantasy and rural dark!fic setting.
I also posted a slightly longer review of Cold Comfort Farm on my lj.