Cold Comfort Farm / Stella Gibbons
London: Penguin Essentials, 2011, c1932.
After my last experience with Stella Gibbons I thought it was time to read her classic, the one which everyone thinks of when you hear her name -- it's like the rest of her 30 novels and short story collections don't even exist in the face of this book.
Since my husband had just found me this charming new copy, it was perfect timing to dig in. Except that I found it rather hard going.
Perhaps it was just that I wasn't in the right mood when I began it, but the first few chapters didn't feel funny at all. They were slow and tedious, and I wasn't sure if I'd keep on with it.
But. Then it started to pick up, perhaps when Robert Poste's Child finally made it to Cold Comfort Farm and encountered her cousins the Starkadders.
The comparison between the satirical depiction of the Starkadders in high Thomas Hardy style and Flora's practical, modern, down-to-earth sensibility was where the humour was found. When she arrives at Cold Comfort Farm, it is dark, foreboding, mysterious -- Cousin Judith moons about wailing after her handsome son Seth (who loves philandering and the talkies); Cousin Amos preaches hellfire and neglects the farm; son Reuben only wants to have the farm and make it go, if he can get a chance; daughter Elfine floats about in art school fashions communing with nature and nearly losing her chance at an advantageous marriage. Over them all looms the figure of Aunt Ada Doom who rules the farm from her bedroom, playing on the fact that she saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a child.
When Flora arrives she quickly straightens things out. One by one she sets her plans into motion, starting with giving the eternally pregnant servant girl some birth control tips, and continuing on to encourage Amos to widen his flock, introduce Seth to a movie mogul, and engineer Elfine's transformation into a country gel in order to catch her intended.
Flora snaps Aunt Ada Doom's iron control of the farm, and then in a flash of inspiration she sees how to change Aunt Ada herself. It's a very silly and over-the-top tale, with some engaging storylines, and a delightfully satisfying conclusion. I'm not sure how much funnier it would have been originally, when published in the midst of the vogue for Hardyesque, doomed countryside stories. Since I have read most of Hardy and of Mary Webb who she is also satirizing, I caught many of the references. But the problem is that I also quite like both Hardy and Webb, and while I see what Gibbons was doing here to great effect, at times the narrative leaned slightly toward the snobbiness I felt in her story collection that I've just finished as well, though not as directly.
In any case, this was in the end quite an entertaining read with lots to laugh over, if you don't take the dated elements too seriously. I think I'll have to rewatch the film someday as well and see how it's held up.