REVIEW: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
After I finished Little Women, a book it somehow took me five months to read, I wanted to read something a bit lighter, quicker, and funny. Applying my self-created rules for classic literature reads, “lighter, quick and funny” don’t abound. The vast majority of classics that I read are 18th century English or American books downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg, and many tend to be on the ponderous side.
I’ve thought about picking up this satirical novel before, but it was published in 1932, so is it old enough to be a classic? Then I remembered that my rules are self-created, and thus, bullshit, and so I bought Cold Comfort Farm off of Amazon (for the low, low price of $1.99, which was somewhat explained by numerous typos). The book parodies the sort of rural dramas that I’ve probably read too many of in earnest (in my defense, I actually *like* most of them).
Our heroine is characterized thus early on:
“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.”
Flora first goes to stay with her widowed friend, Mary Smiling, with whom every man seems to fall in love. Mary suggests that Flora get a job, but she’ll have none of that. Instead, she decides to apply to a number of distant relatives for a place to stay. (It may have been part of the satire, but it was never quite clear to me if Flora needed the financial support of her relations – at first, with the suggestion of employment, I thought she did, but later she seemed to have very little concern in that direction, so maybe it was just a case of it being socially unacceptable for her to be unmarried and unemployed?)
Let me just get out of the way that Cold Comfort Farm has some weird, and to me, out of place futuristic elements. I don’t approve of them and would prefer to ignore them, but for some reason the book is set sometime in the future of its publication date, perhaps the late 1950s (Clark Gable is referenced as a long-ago movie star, so maybe even later?). If you’re not paying close attention you may even miss the few futuristic references (video phones, a mention of the British-Nicaraguan war of 1946), and that’s one of the reasons I think the whole conceit is dumb and I’d rather forget it exists.
I was talking to a friend who has read this book, and we agreed that Flora is reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Emma, except we actually *liked* Flora. If you like Emma, maybe you won’t see the similarity; Flora never has to learn the lesson that her meddling isn’t appreciated, because it all actually turns out splendidly for her and everyone else. Flora defends her hobby this way:
“On the whole, I dislike my fellow beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”
Among the relatives Flora contacts, she settles settles on the denizens of the inauspiciously named Cold Comfort Farm, populated by the Starkadder family. Flora has corresponded with her cousin, Judith Starkadder, who feels obliged to take Flora in due to some unspecified wrong done by the Starkadders to Flora’s father Robert (upon arriving, Flora is routinely referred to simply as “Robert Poste’s child” by the various members of the Starkadder family).
Speaking of which, there are a lot of characters to keep straight in the story; I found this family tree somewhat helpful but even with frequent consultations, mentions of the lesser members of the family often confused me (especially the numerous “half-cousins” – is being a “half-cousin” even a thing or is it simply a reflection on the fact that the Starkadders are rather inbred?).
The main players are:
- Flora, cosmopolitan and endlessly confident;
- Judith Starkadder, obsessed to an unhealthy degree with her oversexed son Seth;
- Judith’s husband Amos, who preaches at the Church of the Quivering Brethren (his preaching does not seem to leave much, if any, room for salvation; everyone is doomed to hellfire from Amos’s perspective);
- Aunt Ada Doom, Judith’s mother, sister to Flora’s late mother. Aunt Ada rules the family with an iron fist while rarely leaving her bedroom. She saw “something nasty in the woodshed” as a child and won’t shut up about it;
- Seth Starkadder, handsome, brooding and obsessed with movies; he keeps producing illegitimate children with “the hired girl”, Meriam;
- Reuben Starkadder, Seth’s older brother. He is at first very suspicious that Flora has designs on Cold Comfort Farm; the farm is his abiding love. Once he realizes she doesn’t, Reuben turns out to be probably the sanest of the bunch;
- Elfine Starkadder, the only daughter of Judith and Amos, who swans around the outdoors and pines after Richard Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture Hall (he appears to be what passes for gentry in the area);
- Adam, the extremely aged (upwards of 90!) farmhand; he is devoted to Elfine and to his farm animals, the latter in a rather offhand way, though (at one point a leg somehow falls off of one of the cows);
- Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless, the aforementioned cattle, and Big Business, the family bull.
There are other characters (quite a few!), including Urk, one of the half-cousins, who seems to believe he imprinted on Elfine at her birth, ala Jacob in the Twilight series. Urk is thus distraught by Elfine’s burgeoning romance with Dick Hawk-Monitor. Also, Mr. Mybug, an acquaintance of Flora’s whom she runs into in the village of Howling adjacent to the farm. Mybug periodically attempts to get Flora to have sex with him, believing that her only possible reason to demur would be sexual repression. Mybug is working on a biography of Bramwell Bronte that posits that he was the author of all of the Bronte sisters’ works (and also heroically pretended to be an alcoholic in order to cover up for his sister Anne’s drinking).
The portrayal of Mybug is perhaps one of my only complaints about the novel; shortly after Flora runs into him: “…she discovered that his name was not Mybug, but Meyerburg, and that he lived in Charlotte Street – two facts which were not calculated to raise her spirits.”
Now, I know nothing about Charlotte Street in London, though a little bit of research indicates that it was once a haven for artists (this may be relevant to Flora’s objections, in part at least). But the Mybug/Meyerburg thing made my heart sink, because all I could conclude was anti-Semitism.
Further online research seems to have people sort of in three camps, with overlaps: 1) not really thinking that Mybug’s characterization is meant to be anti-Semitic, but rather just a parody of the Bloomsbury set; 2) not sure but not thinking there’s enough evidence to say that it is definitely anti-Semitic (I found some internal Wikipedia discussions on this) or 3) thinking it’s anti-Semitic but without a lot of censure for it (I think because it’s relatively mild).
To be fair, I didn’t find much that was negative about the portrayal of Mybug that pinged any anti-Semitic stereotypes that *I’m* aware of, but I’m far from an expert on anti-Semitic stereotypes. He’s definitely mocked as a character, as are almost all the characters – Mybug is pretentiously artistic and obsessed with sex. Are either of those (or were they in 1930s Britain) considered negative Jewish stereotypes?
But what I come back to is that “she discovered that his name was not Mybug, but Meyerburg”, which doesn’t seem to have much other explanation. The whole issue is unsettling, because there’s not that much there to object to, but there’s just enough to make the whole thing feel vaguely yucky.
Anyway, Flora settles in at Cold Comfort Farm and begins managing the lives of the Starkadders, sending several off to live better lives (or at least different lives than they were living), and pairing others up romantically with the appropriate partners. She saves Aunt Ada Doom for her final project, and if the resolution there is improbable (I mean, improbable by the standards of a story where a leg just comes off a cow for no apparent reason), it’s still very satisfying.
I would probably give Cold Comfort Farm a straight A because it’s so funny and really diverting; there are any number of lines I could quote that made me laugh:
Surely she had endured enough for one evening without having to listen to intelligent conversation?
That would be delightful,’ agreed Flora, thinking how nasty and boring it would be.
Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.
“I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’
It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint? If so, one might say, ‘My dear, how too sickening for you!’ But then, it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be, ‘Attaboy!’ or more simply, ‘Come, that’s capital.’ Weakly she fell back on the comparatively safe remark: ‘Did you?’ in a bright, interested voice.”
…but the Mybug issue kind of hangs over my head. I feel ambivalent enough to drop it down to an A-.