Cold Comfort Farm is set primarily in Sussex. An English county on the South Coast, Sussex borders Surrey, Kent and Hampshire.
One of the most important physical features of Sussex is the area of chalkland known as the South Downs, extending from Hampshire in the West to Beachy Head in East Sussex. The Starkadders' farm is located on the "Downs".
The area was also home to artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and in the 1920s and 1930s their charmingly eccentric house, Charleston, became the country retreat for the Bloomsbury Group, including writers E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf.
The towns and villages within easy reach of Cold Comfort Farm, namely Howling, Beershorn, and Godmere, are fictional. But there are references to real places: Flora Poste worries that Elfine might go 'all arty-and-crafty' and 'keep a tea-room in Brighton' and Elfine herself declares that if she fails to marry Richard Hawk-Monitor, she could always 'get a job in an arts and crafts shop in Horsham'.
Brighton is a large coastal town situated close to the border between East and West Sussex; Horsham is a small town about 18 miles to the north-west of Brighton. Assuming these towns are relatively close to Cold Comfort Farm, we have some idea of its imagined location.
Cold Comfort Farm is set "in the near future".
The book was published in 1932. One of the best clues we have to the date of the narrative comes in a reference to Claud, "who had served in the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46". We are encouraged to think these wars are fairly recent, so the date is probably around 1950.
Most things - clothes, food, patterns of speech - are firmly rooted in the 1930s, but some things have changed. Lambeth is fashionable; Mayfair is a slum. Clark Gable is long forgotten. People fly very short distances in some new type of aircraft that requires a "landing stage". Videophones have arrived (but not in public callboxes). Most peculiarly, Midsummer's Day has advanced ten days to 14 June.
Of course, no author should be judged when their futurology turns out to be off the mark, especially in a humorous novel. But it is striking to think how very unlike Stella Gibbons' imagined world 1950 turned out to be. Never mind that distant Anglo-Nicaraguan conflict, the Second World War had just claimed 60 million lives. In an era of rationing, blitz damage and economic stagnation, there were very few young women like Flora Poste around.
Before Flora Poste heads to Sussex to stay with the Starkadders, she spends some time with Mrs. Smiling at her house in Lambeth in London. There are references to them going to the cinema in Westminster, and to Mrs. Smiling going in search of a brassière in the 'slums of Mayfair'; the 'tide of fashion' (in residential living) is moving away from Mayfair to the 'other side of the river' (i.e. to Lambeth).
Stella Gibbons is having some fun with her futuristic London: in reality, Mayfair has always been a wealthy area beloved by embassies and exclusive members' clubs, while Lambeth, for much of its history, was an area of great deprivation.
LAMBETH lies south of the River Thames, and is home to Waterloo Station, the Oval cricket ground and the South Bank's Royal Festival Hall and National Theatre. Lambeth Palace is the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
The borough is now considerably more prosperous than at the time of Gibbons' writing.
MAYFAIR lies north of the Thames, within the City of Westminster. It is one of the smartest and most expensive parts of London, home to many exclusive shops and up-market hotels, such as Claridge's and The Dorchester.
For many, Mayfair has been immortalised as the most expensive property in the board-game, Monopoly.
Cold Comfort Farm pays close attention to the clothes worn by some of the characters. Stella Gibbons does not modify the nature of practical day-to-day living in order to fit in with the 'futuristic' setting of the novel. It is probably safe to assume, therefore, that in discussing clothes she is referring to the fashions of the 1930s.
In that period, most women would have had some knowledge of needlework, and would be capable of making their own clothes. Flora Poste, whilst chatting to Seth Starkadder in the kitchen, is 'making a petticoat and decorating it with drawn threadwork'.
Many clothes were also made to measure by dress-makers, a term that might cover anything from the 'little woman round the corner' to the up-market haute couture fashion houses such as the Maison Solide where Flora took Elfine for her evening-dress of white satin.
Whilst fashions for women in the 1920s had been casual and boyish (a reaction against the physical restrictions of Victorian and Edwardian garments), there was a return in the 1930s to sophistication and elegance. This is suggested by some of Flora's own clothes, for example the 'long coat of viridian velvet' and the dress in 'harmonious tones of pale and dark green' which she wears to the ball at Godmere, or the 'wonder of frilled and quilted, ruffled and tucked, pinched and shirred green batiste' that she wears to Elfine's wedding. Interestingly, Gibbons chooses not to describe Elfine's wedding dress. However, bearing in mind that the family she was marrying into lived at Hautecouture Hall, this would most likely have been a very fine affair.
Although men's fashion receives little attention in Cold Comfort Farm, one notable feature of the 1920s and 1930s was that menswear became much more casual and less formal.
In Cold Comfort Farm Stella Gibbons enjoys describing the food eaten by various characters, and with class distinctions a marked feature of 1930s society, there is a strong sense in the novel of different kinds of food being eaten by people of different social backgrounds.
Thus, we see the male Starkadders, representing a working-class rural population, eating a fairly basic and monotonous diet of porridge, home-made bread and bacon, occasionally 'spiced-up' by 'treats' such as beef, beer, pickled onions and home-made lemonade. It may also be noted that this rural food could be adapted for special occasions such as Elfine's wedding where 'cold home-cured ham, cider, home-made bread and salads made from local fruit' are on offer.
Guests such as Flora, and high-ranking members of the family such as Aunt Ada Doom, eat a slightly more refined diet of omelettes, kippers, cold veal, salad, blancmanges, junkets and jam. A similar kind of food is also available in pubs and cafés. For example, at the pub in Howling, Flora eats a steak with vegetables and apple tart, and in the café where she first meets Mr. Mybug, she has some plain biscuits, 'a sugared orange' and coffee.
At the upper end of the social scale, there is much more exotic and varied food and drink on offer. For example, Mrs. Smiling is able to supply cocktails and cinnamon wafers, and the 'posh-nosh' offered to the guests at Elfine's wedding includes syllabubs, ice-puddings, caviare sandwiches, crab patties, trifle and champagne.