Thursday, July 01, 2010

From Sparrow: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
(Penguin Books, 1938)

Have you ever wanted to "tidy up" the world about you? Do you have a penchant for cool rationality and find alternately amusing and disgusting emotional excess? Well then, you may just have a bit of Flora Poste in you -- and I think that's a good thing, indeed.

Stella Gibbons apparently wrote Cold Comfort Farm as a parody of intensely emotional and darkly passionate pastoral novels that were popular in early 20th century England. I had no idea of this the first few times I read CCF. I have never read D.H. Lawrence or Thomas Hardy, but, without Ms Gibbons's light, tempering, satirical touch, I doubt I would want to. I loathe the sort of overt narcissistic emotionalism that permeates and plagues society today, and I cannot imagine wishing to read about it during my leisure time. Life is too short. But, you need not be familiar with the novels under fire to enjoy thoroughly Cold Comfort Farm.

Flora Poste, orphaned at 19 and left in financial straits, decides to ignore her friend's hints that she ought to train for a job, and decides to impose upon relatives instead. She chooses distant cousins -- the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in the delightfully named "Howling" -- because she senses that she can amuse herself by "tidying up" their presumably dreary, lurid, inward-gazing lives. Her instincts were correct, and we find the Starkadders even more decaying, primitive, dank and oppressive than we could have imagined.

There is creepy old Adam, who loves his cheerless cows but never notices when their limbs suddenly detach from their bodies; Amos, whose love of preaching damnation overshadows any vestige of Christian love; Elfine, whose untamed, poetry-writing ways will never win her a county marriage and ticket out of Cold Comfort; Rueben, who is suspicious of any and all who would steal the farm out from under him; Seth, over-sexed and under-brained; Judith, who broods constantly and yearns unhealthily for her youngest son; Urk, who has an unwholesome attachment to water voles; Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was two, and uses that as an excuse to reign over all of them with an emotional iron fist. Jerry Springer would have loved to have this dysfunctional lot on his erstwhile show.

But, you and I and Flora know that this is simply an unacceptable way to live. She descends upon them like a very bossy, manipulative angel of mercy -- dispassionately directing them all toward peace, happiness, and normal behavior. The burning question that I had when I read this book the first time is "Will she get her comeuppance?" Nosy little heroines usually do, you know. I'll leave that to you to find out.

The best thing about Cold Comfort Farm is the humor. It is a wonderfully funny book, with many quick, sharp asides directly from Ms Gibbons that are howlers. The pacing is quite fast -- no sooner does Flora arrive in her little room at the farm than she starts improving the Starkadders. Bumpity, bumpity, bump -- the author careens us toward the end at heartpounding speed; which, in after all, makes you feel a little cheated, as you would have liked a few more hassles for our intrepid heroine to prolong the magic and fun.

The only drawback to the book -- other than its brevity -- is that Ms Gibbons chose to set it in the near future. It was published in 1932, and the action takes place more than 14 years later (the fictional "Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46" are a telling reference). On one hand, this strange timewarp quality adds an unsettling charm to the story; on the other, though, it seems a bit out of place in such a level-headed, matter-of-fact book. Jane Austen never would have done that; and I think that, perhaps, Ms Gibbons ought not to have as well. A minor quibble -- what do you think?

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," is the quote from Jane Austen's Mansfield Park that precedes the title page of Cold Comfort Farm. With such a credo, how could I not have loved this novel? The very fact that Flora Poste uses Austen novels, in part, as manuals for tidying up the Starkadders ensured my allegiance from the beginning. But, this book has merit enough to stand on its own -- and Flora Poste can certainly stand side-by-side, if not exactly with Elizabeth Bennet, then with Emma Woodhouse.

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