Sunday, May 29, 2011

866. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Genre: Satire, parody
Rating: 5. Top 10 contender
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1950

Sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen and left with only 100 pounds a year, and decides her future is to descend upon her relatives, the StarkAdders, at their farm in Howling, Sussex. At the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who hasn’t left her bedroom in 20 years. But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people, and armed with common sense and a strong will she resolves to take each of the family in hand.

First chapter
I can’t think about the whole first chapter when the first paragraph is so deliciously cheeky. It clearly sets out that this isn’t going to be a ‘run of the mill’ story and tells you pretty well everything you need to know about Flora’s world and something about Flora besides: “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.” (p1) This sentence was enough to hook me.

From what I could discover from my obligatory research is that Cold Comfort Farm is a satire or parody of the “loam and lovechild” rural novel using a brisk, smart, sensible, modern young woman from London to put everybody on the right path.

A “loam and lovechild” novel? In all my reading (and I like to consider myself well read), I don’t recall hearing of this genre before and I had to investigate … it’s a subset of the pessimistic rural novel genre. A young, usually outcast woman leaves the city to live with relatives in the pastoral countryside. The countryside is seen as rough and wild, the men and women are ruled by their passions (sexual and otherwise), and the melodramatic characters have lives that are more complex and intertwined than Brooke and Ridge in Young and the Restless! (FYI: Brooke has been married to Ridge, his father and his brother more than once so that ought to give you a clue!) Inevitably, the characters confront tragedy and heartbreak, but find solace in traditional values, leading to a spiritual reawakening and, through that, a happy ending. All very uplifting and Victorian!

I guess most of us have read at least one pessimistic rural novel—Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Woodlanders, even Lady Chatterley’s Lover—and I can’t say I’ve enjoyed all of them ... Hardy’s not a favourite of mine and nor is Lawrence’s misogynism. I also realised I’ve never read a “loam and lovechild novel”: Mary Webb (the House in Dormer Forest and Precious Bane), Sheila Kaye-Smith (Sussex Gorse) and Mary E Mann. That’s despite owning Mary Webb’s Precious Bane for years, and seeing it in a recentish BBC production.

What I enjoyed most from my research was learning about Stella Gibbons. Apparently, she worked for newspapers before she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, and one of her jobs was to prĂ©cis each chapter of Mary Webb’s “Golden Arrow” for its serialisation. Gibbons didn’t like the book and this hadn’t changed by the 1960s when Gibbons observed in Punch that “The large agonised faces in Mary Webb’s book annoyed me … I did not believe people were any more despairing in Herefordshire [sic] than in Camden Town.” I also read elsewhere that one of Gibbons’ reviews of a “loam and lovechild” novel was so cryptic (about three words in length) and revealing that it was clear she thought the character and novel should never have been written! I wish I remember where I saw the review online as it was the funniest thing I’ve read and I’ve added Stella Gibbons to the ten people I’d invite to a dinner party for the insights and lively conversation she’d bring.

In reading Cold Comfort Farm, two things stand out for me: Stella Gibbons’ obvious literary strengths in being able to deliver such an entertaining and well crafted first novel, but also how she must have felt about “loam and lovechild” novels to write a parody. A parody is a work that mocks, comments on, or trivialises an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. A satire holds up vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, and society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be funny, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon. If Cold Comfort Farm represents my first “loam and lovechild” novel, I’m glad it was a satire or parody, and one of the value and skill of Cold Comfort Farm, because I’m positive it will never be a favourite genre.

It’s clear, despite being in her late 20s when she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, that Stella Gibbons is well read. Apparently, she borrowed characters from various pessimistic and “loam and lovechild” novels to use in her own. Nicola Humble observes the influence of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and referred to elements of Charlotte’s Bronte’s Jane Eyre: the flighty Elfine who might be thought of as a version of Cathy from Wuthering Heights, the darkly-brooding Seth as a Heathcliff, and their mad mother Judith as a sort of Bertha Mason. In contrast, Faye Hammil refers to the works of Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb as the chief influences: the farm modeled on Dormer House in Webb’s The House in Dormer Forest, Aunt Ada Doom on Mrs Velindre of the same book, the farm-obsessed Reuben on a character in Kaye-Smith’s Sussex Gorse, and the Quivery Brethren on the Colgate Brethren in Kaye-Smith’s Susan Spray. I’m glad somebody else did that work for me, especially the “loam and lovechild” references, as I’m in no particular hurry to read them. What I picked up for myself, being a fan of Jane Austen, is the homage to her through Flora via a reference to Persuasion and a quote from Mansfield Park. Nice to have two favourites linked like that.

The speech of the Sussex characters in the novel parodies rural dialects and the story is sprinkled with local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth's favourite activity, undefined but resulting in the pregnancy of a local maid), sukebind (a weed whose flowering in the spring symbolises the quickening of sexual urges in man and beast; scranletting (ploughing), and clettering (an impractical method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig or clettering stick). It’s reasonable to expect that country characters shouldn’t be mocked as they do tend to be an easy target. But I don’t think this is the novel’s intention, it’s more a device that’s used to set the scene for mocking the means by which their problems are resolved.

In any event, it’s not just rural inhabitants which are parodied as the city dwellers receive the same treatment: Flora’s friend Mrs Smiling, the city sophisticate, amasses a vast collection of brassieres in the hope they, “would be left to the nation,” not to mention she can be steered away from making a fool of herself in conversation by being diverted to talking about brassieres. This is one of the funniest parts of the novel and it goes nowhere … why? And then there’s Mr Mybug, a male acquaintance who visits her in the country and, during shared walks, monotonously points out features of the landscape he declares phallic or suggestive of “large breasts.” I’m glad that goes nowhere!

So how is the novel resolved? Not by confronting tragedy and heartbreak, and finding solace in traditional values which lead to a spiritual reawakening. Instead a modern young woman approaches each person sensibly, takes time to understand them and assists them to reach their potential (while occasionally consulting The Higher Common Sense, a handbook of modern concepts and sound advice if she gets stuck):
• fertile Meriam Beetle is introduced to contraception. Job very easily done (and novel banned in Ireland!).
• handsome and over-sexed Seth Starkadder, with his passion for the movies, is introduced to a producer looking for a new movie star and voila! Job done.
• hellfire preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren (hilarious!) Amos Starkadder is encouraged to buy a Ford van and take to the road to convert sinners, something he’s always wanted to do. Job done.
• Amos’ departure leaves the farm in Reuben’s far more capable hands, something he’s always wanted. Job very well done.
• the intellectual, outdoorsy Elfine Starkadder who is besotted with Richard Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture (pronounced "Howchiker") Hall, the local squire. Elfine is dressed elegantly and persuaded not to quote poetry, and Elfine and Richard’s future happiness is assured. Job beautifully done.

And all of this happens despite the reclusive Aunt Ada Doom who hasn’t left her second story bedroom in 20 years because she saw something nasty in the woodshed, and yet refuses to allow things to change or people to leave. She uses madness as an excuse to control her family and her "fits" intensify if they step out of line. This is threatened when Flora Poste arrives and starts tidying up people's lives. Once Amos leaves the farm, the other family members gain strength and start perceiving Ada as human rather than god-like, until Aunt Ada is won over by Flora who spends 12 hours closeted with her (and must have worn her down although other methods might have been used) and she emerges a different woman with a new interest in life and travel to Paris. Job definitely well done!

I love, love, love this book and Gibbons’ parody works well. I love the crazy characters: 90 year old Adam who cares only for his cows Feckless, Aimless, Graceless and Pointless (whose names surely reflect certain core traits of the humans for whom they provide milk and income) and how does Adam never notice that one of them loses a leg! I love over-sexed Seth who is perpetually undoing shirt buttons and is quite happy to accept Meriam’s advances but who thinks women only want "yer blood and yer breath”. I loved crazy doom and gloom preacher Amos who doesn't plan his sermons but "I allus knows 'twill be summat about burnin'...". And all the other crazies, caught in their own problems and keen to impress "there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort". As if anybody ever suggests otherwise.

And I love Flora, despite her downsides: she refuses to get a job and is content to live off her relatives. She likes to win although she doesn’t like to fight and she’s determine the turn the family around. And the ending where she disappears without saying goodbye is strange … it’s as though she never really connected or existed in Howling. But she’s so calm and sensible and moves so purposefully among the characters of Cold Comfort Farm.

And most of all I love how well Stella Gibbons manages to turn the pessimistic rural and “loam and lovechild” novels on their collective ear, and drags late Victorian sensibility kicking and screaming into the 20th century. And about time too … it was only 1932 when the book was written!

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