This epigraph is a quotation from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, and it is an indication, no doubt, of Stella Gibbons's intention to write a pleasurable and amusing book, extolling the virtues of harmony and order.
Later in the text the novel's heroine, Flora Poste, reads Mansfield Park 'to refresh her spirits', and we learn that she is an admirer of Jane Austen: ‘... when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as "Persuasion", but with a modern setting ...’(p.19).
Stella Gibbons dedicates her book to her husband, Allan Bourne Webb, and to Ina Dornan, a life-long friend. According to Gibbons's nephew and biographer, Reggie Oliver, Dornan was the model for Mrs. Smiling in Cold Comfort Farm, and for Celia in Enbury Heath (1935).
Stella Gibbons addresses the letter in the foreword to the fictitious Anthony Pookworthy (the letters following his name stand for ‘Associated Back Scratcher’ and ‘Licensed Log Roller’).
According to biographer Reggie Oliver, Pookworthy is meant to represent Hugh Walpole, author of the Herries Chronicles, whom Stella Gibbons described in an interview as ‘pompous and vain’. Reggie Oliver has also suggested that the letter is a parody of the ‘prefatory letter’ in Walpole’s novel Judith Paris (1931) which is addressed to J. B. Priestley, and begins, ‘My Dear Jack’, just as Stella’s letter begins, ‘My dear Tony’.
The German Baedeker Publishing House was founded by Karl Baedeker (1801-1859), and published its first guidebook in 1839. It is the star-rating system used in Baedeker guidebooks to pinpoint sites of particular interest to tourists that is used by Stella Gibbons for her own purposes (to denote 'purple passages' which parody the 'rural novel') in Cold Comfort Farm.
Lyons' Corner Houses were large restaurants owned by J. Lyons & Co., operating in London between 1909 and 1977. Reasonably priced, with live orchestra music and sometimes open 24 hours a day, they provided a range of services (including food-halls, hairdressers and telephones) and were enormously popular until tastes began to change in the 1960s.
In 1918 a world-wide Spanish flu epidemic killed approximately 50 million people. It is probably Stella Gibbons's memory of this event (which occurred when she was in her late 'teens) that inspired her to attribute the death of Flora Poste's parents to a similar phenomenon.
The term shell fanlight does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary. However, it may be used to refer to a fanlight where the area in which one normally finds glass is filled in with plaster moulded in the form of a shell.
Click here to see an example of a shell fanlight in London.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was an American poet, journalist and essayist. His declamatory poem extolling the virtues of the pioneers of the American West (and, indeed, the virtues of trail-blazers in all walks of life) is entitled Pioneers! O Pioneers!:
Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!
Mrs. Smiling's collection of brassières, and her hope that 'on her death it would be left to the nation', is one of the comic highlights of Cold Comfort Farm. In 1932 the 'bra' was a relatively modern invention, having been devised (for her own use) in 1910 by a young American woman, Mary Phelps Jacob, who subsequently patented her design and put it into production in 1914. (Brassière-type underwear had been produced before, but Mary Phelps Jacob's design was the first to be granted a patent in the brassière, rather than the corset category.)
After a short while, the business was sold to Warner Brothers Corset Company of Connecticut, which is probably the inspiration for the 'Waber Brothers' referred to later on in Cold Comfort Farm as the manufacturers of the brassière which Mrs. Smiling goes to check out in the 'slums of Mayfair'.
Christian Science was founded by Mary Baker Eddy in 1866, and is practised by members of The First Church of Christ, Scientist.
Several species in the genus have highly fragrant vespertine flowers (which open in the evening), and are a popular choice for gardens.
Fragrant tobacco flowers are also renowned for attracting a range of evening pollinators such as hawk moths.
Cold Comfort Farm is set 'in the near future', and various clues later on in the book indicate that this imaginary 'future' is at least post-1946. One of the major changes Gibbons envisages is change within the transport system, with commercial aviation widespread within Britain.
The 1920s and 1930s were decades of enormous progress in aviation, both commercial and civil, so it is not surprising that Stella Gibbons should imagine further developments in this field. The fictitious Belisha Bat is presumably named after the politician Leslie Hore-Belisha who was a Member of Parliament when Cold Comfort Farm was published. He subsequently became Minister of Transport from 1934 to 1937 when he was responsible for both the development of the driving test and the Belisha beacon.
Stella Gibbons's original choice of name for the Starkadder family home was Curse God Farm. However, according to her nephew and biographer, Reggie Oliver, she took up the suggestion of a friend, Elizabeth Coxhead, who knew of a real farm called Cold Comfort near the village of Stoke Golding in Leicestershire. In a 2001 article about this farm, it was reported that the couple who bought it in 1957 had renamed it 'Comfort Farm'.
Cold Comfort Farm includes many references to the cinema. For example, Seth Starkadder is addicted to ‘the talkies’, the colloquial term for sound cinema, which had only replaced silent films a few years before the publication of Cold Comfort Farm.
These references reflect the increasing importance during the 1930s of the cinema as a leisure activity where the masses could indulge their passion for adventure and romantic fantasies in surroundings that were opulent and luxurious (often in Art Deco style). This opulence was reflected in the type of names chosen for cinemas. Three examples in Cold Comfort Farm are Rhodopis, Majestic and Orpheum.
Rhodopis is the name of a 6th-century Greek hetaera (courtesan or prostitute), as well as an ancient version of the Cinderella story. As far as we know, there has never actually been a Rhodopis cinema!
Another feature of Cold Comfort Farm is the contrasting of commercially-driven Hollywood cinema, represented by the film director Earl P. Neck, with 'alternative' avant-garde cinema, represented by the 'broad-minded' intellectual Mr. Mybug. Whilst both types of cinema are lampooned by Stella Gibbons, it is perhaps the second that is most mercilessly satirised.
Although it is not quite clear what kind of organization Stella Gibbons has in mind when she refers to 'the Orient-Star-in-the-West Society', the title 'Spiritist Investigators' League' suggests an organization for those interested in Spiritualism and psychic phenomena. Whilst Gibbons appears in this extract to be lampooning such ideas, her biographer Reggie Oliver notes that in later life she took an interest in the work of the Religious Experiences Research Unit, founded by Sir Alister Hardy in 1969. She also joined the Society for Psychical Research after hearing that they had an account of a post-death visitation by the novelist and literary critic C.S. Lewis.