Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm is a comic parody of the 'rural' novels of the early decades of the last century. I first read it about 30 years ago, and was immediately captivated by its humour and charm, if a little thrown by its quirkiness. From the time of that first reading I have unreservedly referred to it as 'my favourite book', and have gone back to it on numerous occasions, each time finding the same pleasure and amusement. I will come back later to the issue of the book's quirkiness, but would like to begin by trying to put my finger on what made the book so appealing right at the start.
Firstly (as was clear to the typists who laughed out loud whilst typing the drafts), it is an immensely funny book: sometimes the humour is sustained through complete 'scenes' (e.g. when the heroine of the novel, Flora Poste meets the sex-obsessed Mr. Mybug in a tea-shop, or when Amos Starkadder is preaching to the 'Brethren' in Beershorn); sometimes it appears briefly in a single word, a phrase, or a sentence. Like the best stand-up comedians, Stella Gibbons has the knack of placing a crucial word or phrase in exactly the right place, as well as that indefinable ability to make funny something that would appear mundane or insignificant if written by someone else. Why do we laugh, for example, when Mrs. Beetle says "Ni smorning" rather than 'Nice morning''; when Mr. Mybug asks the Hollywood producer, Earl P. Neck, "Do you know the work of Limf?'; or when Flora Poste, plagued by questions as to who let the bull out, writes, 'I did. F. Poste' and has the confession pinned to the door? The answer to these questions is that we don't know why we laugh - we just do.
Secondly, it is a novel where exactly the right ambience is created for each situation, often through the use of just one or two carefully chosen descriptions. At one point, Flora is described as having a 'nice sense of atmosphere', and certainly the same could be said of Stella Gibbons. Thus, when we are introduced to Mrs. Smiling and Flora in the first chapter, and Flora accepts 'tea and a cinnamon wafer'; when Mrs. Beetle describes the domineering Ada Doom as a 'bit off our feed this morning'; when we hear that M. Viol has cut Elfine's hair and 'dressed it in a careless, simple, fiendishly expensive way that showed the tips of her ears'; or when Elfine reports that her grandmother does not allow any member of the family to accept invitations unless they are 'to funerals or the churching of women', the scene is instantly set, and we know exactly where we stand.
Thirdly, there is throughout the novel a genuine love of the English countryside and an ability to describe it in a way which evokes a sense of wonder and pleasure at its beauty, as well as (in more recent years, at least) a sadness that so much of that beauty has now been lost and will probably never be regained. Again, it is the ability to create the atmosphere of the countryside in all seasons and weathers which stands out. Consider, for example, the description of the evening Flora Poste leaves the farm for the final time: 'The shadows grew slowly longer. A cold, fresh smell came up out of the grass and fell from the trees. The birds began their sleep song.'
Having identified those aspects of the novel which (in my case anyway) were appealing, I'd like to return to that sense I had, on first reading, of it being a very strange novel. At the time, this was strongly connected to my wish for novels to be 'realistic', and Cold Comfort Farm is full of playful fantasies (such as the leg of a cow coming off yet leaving the cow no worse for wear, or a woman jumping down a well and appearing to survive the experience unscathed) which unnerved me. There is also the issue of the novel being set in the 'near future', and certainly on my first reading - and for many years afterwards when re-reading the novel - I found this a bewildering concept: the futuristic elements are confined only to certain aspects of life, whilst others remain firmly rooted in the world that was contemporary to the writing of the book in the 1930s. It didn't make sense to find Flora Poste considering the possibility of flying from London to Brighton one minute, and embroidering a hand-made petticoat with 'drawn threadwork' the next. However, time and an increasing familiarity with, and liking for, the transformational possibilities of fiction (now an accepted feature of postmodern writing) have tended to soften the reservations I felt then. What I perceived at that time as peculiar and unbelievable strikes me now as a highly imaginative challenge to our preconceptions about the world, and an example of a literary style which was greatly 'ahead of its time' in 1932.
One last aspect of the novel worth drawing attention to is the mass of cultural and social references and allusions often wasted on the contemporary reader. Have many people these days heard, for example, of Marie Laurencin, or Grace Aguilar, and would they be familiar with the significance of Charlotte Street or a feature in Vogue magazine known as 'Our Lives from Day to Day'? Probably not. Too much unfamiliarity with references and allusions can make a reader feel disoriented and fed-up, and lead to him or her judging a book 'dated'. And it is certainly true that not understanding the referential material of Cold Comfort Farm may cause a reader to miss some subtle nuances of meaning. Having said that, it does not hamper one's enjoyment of the novel, although researching some of the referential material certainly engenders an admiration for the breadth and depth of Stella Gibbons' cultural knowledge and experience.
Thirty years on, then, from that first experience of designating Cold Comfort Farm 'My Favourite Book', I now think of it as a highly original, imaginative, and thought-provoking novel. I also still consider it one of the funniest novels I have ever read... and I think that is a verdict that would have pleased its author enormously!
Some reviews of the period:
Punch - "Miss Stella Gibbons... has arisen to mock with devilish skill at a certain kind of much read, earthy passionate novel"
Times Literary Supplement - "It is quite time that the earthy and passionate novel was parodied"
from: Out of the Woodshed: The Life of Stella Gibbons by Reggie Oliver (Bloomsbury, 1998)
A more recent review:
The Independent - "Delicious ... Cold Comfort Farm has the sunniness of a P.G. Wodehouse and the comic aplomb of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop."
And from the internet:
Shipley Book Group - "The dialect is wonderful and the descriptive passages show a brilliant grasp of the work she is parodying."
herumi on dooyoo - "... the humour in it is very subtle, and unlike anything I've come across before."
Wisewoman on Library Thing - "I found it not nearly as funny or as Austenian as I had been led to believe."
The Tortoise on Library Thing - "The characters lacked depth and are mostly forgettable."