Prepare to journey to the countryside of Sussex, where a weird family called the Starkadders inhabit a farm outside of the town of Howling. Pack your decent clothes and plenty of proper literature (especially The Higher Common Sense handbook ) which will be your lifeline in staying educated and rational when surrounded by such primitive folk. Beware of lusty men named Seth. Avoid the writer Mr Mybug (The Mybug) whose continuous phallic references are obviously evidence of a Freudian-complex. Finally, be strong and do not give into Aunt Ada Doom’s demands – even if she did see ‘something nasty in the woodshed.’
Written in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm is a comical novel like no other. Although it has been adapted for screen, radio and television it is the original novel which resonates as a classic. From the opening page readers are immersed in Gibbons’s style of witty one-liners and range of oddball characters. Cold Comfort Farm was inspired by the public obsession of rural novels published in the late 1920’s, which was often full of clichéd and absurd characters.
Gibbons worked as a journalist for the London Evening Standard and often was assigned to review these popular rural books. The most notable were books written by Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. It was from the sheer frustration of reading these novels about the quaint English countryside that Gibbons took her sharp wit and wrote her first novel Cold Comfort Farm. Upon publication it was criticised and shunned by rural-book lovers as ‘that wicked parody.’
The satirical novel Cold Comfort Farm follows the story of nineteen year old Flora Poste, a proper and well-educated girl. The death of Flora’s parents leave Flora inheriting ‘from her father a strong will and from her mother a slender ankle,’ but very little fortune. Not wanting to work and preferring to live an easy life Flora contacts relatives seeking out a spare room. Despite being accepted by many relatives, it is the strange letter from her distant cousin Judith Starkadder from a farm called ‘Cold Comfort’ that sees Flora travelling to the outskirts of Sussex.
One of the surprising things about this novel is the large number of characters in the narrative, which can often result in a confusing and complicated plot. Yet Gibbons is gifted in creating interesting, three-dimensional characters that fit perfectly into the story. There is Aunt Ada Doom, the nut-case who won’t leave her room but controls the entire family. Flora’s cousin Judith, a depressed and miserable woman married to the Brethren preacher Amos. Their children are Seth, a prime specimen of manhood, Reuben, a jealous and suspicious character, and Elfine, a free spirit with no grace or marriage prospects. There’s also the very funny old farm-hand Adam, who cleans the dishes with twigs. Although the characters are influenced by rural novels Gibbons removes the clichés and creates characters with believable human desires and aspirations.
In some ways Flora plays the role of the fairy godmother when she arrives at the farm, but with more of a scheming mind. She uses her talent of rationality to arrange marriages, organise career opportunities and create prosperity on the farm. But although Flora may appear to be a good Samaritan everything she does is also beneficial to herself. She is headstrong and controlled – attributes that a reader will respect, especially if they are fond of Jane Austen.
Interestingly, Flora Poste’s character is thought to be loosely based on Gibbons, who like Flora, was well-educated and often involved in resolving family problems with a distant and composed manner. From the age of eleven Gibbons became aware of the manipulative power of family members, who could enjoy inflicting misery on others. By creating the character Aunt Ada Doom in Cold Comfort Farm Gibbons hoped to convey individuals who used childhood trauma and history as a way to control an entire family.
Cold Comfort Farm is extremely funny but it is also poetic and beautifully written. It shows off Gibbons’s talent as not just a writer of satire but also a poet who frequently submitted to T.S Eliot’s Criterion. It is a novel in which sentences can be marvelled over, in which description of the scenery is so rich and crisp that the farm Cold Comfort is far from an imagined place:
‘Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns.’
Cold Comfort Farm is a novel of contradictions. It is literature that doesn’t take itself seriously yet remains confident in style and tone. It is a novel where the characters are wacky and hilarious yet believable. Like all good classics it is hard to pin-point what it is that makes it a class of its own. But one thing is for sure, it will need to be read numerous times to be completely savoured.
Update since writing this review: I enjoyed this book so much I have bought my own copy to re-read!