Through the late 1900s and into the 20th century, English novelists were full of woeful tales chronicling the sad fall of gentry from affluence to poverty. Stories like Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice joined the work of Charlotte and Emily Bronte, entertaining the turn of the century reader with these melodramatic tales. By the 1920s, when some had thought this trend had passed, it moved into another phase, with pulp paperbacks filled with lurid descriptions and the purplish prose imaginable. Stella Gibbons in 1932 attempted an emergency rescue, and succeeded wonderfully with her novel, Cold Comfort Farm, recently re-released to coincide with a new movie version by director John Schlesinger.
Flora Poste is the recently orphaned waif who finds it necessary to impose herself on some body of relatives. Her meager inheritance of 100 pounds a year is not enough “keep you in stockings and fans,” as her good friend Mrs. Smiling remarks. She writes to several distant family members and receives three replies. Most of them are appaling, except for the one from her cousin Judith Starkadder, which is, at least, interesting and appaling. She writes back and accepts the offer of boarding from Cold Comfort Farm, to find out what “rights” she has that cousin Judith mysteriously refers to. Her arrival at Cold Comfort begins a warming trend that ends up firing up every Starkadder in sight, including: Amos, the hellfire-and-brimstone owner of the farm and preacher to the Quivering Brethern; Reuben, his son and would-be caretaker of Cold Comfort; Seth, the hunk-a-hunk-a burning love that has terrorized the female countriside, to his mother’s extreme shame; the flighty Elfine, who whisks around in ethereal garments quoting her own poetry; and the matriarch who rules Cold Comfort Farm with a iron fist, Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something “nasty in the woodshed” when she was a little girl, and who hasn’t left Cold Comfort Farm since.
Gibbons is artfully playing on the conventions of the melodrama, and it helps the reader to be familiar with the work of Thomas Hardy or Jane Austen to fully appreciate some of the playful work here. Without this meta-nature, Cold Comfort Farm would be amusing, but not nearly as effective. For modern readers, this is one novel that has weathered the intervening sixty years well, due in some part to Gibbons deft touch with her satire, but also her clear, readable style when not trying to out-purple the purple prose-wizards of the melodramas.
This is the perfect novel for those book-weary high-school students still suffering under the weighty tomes of “literature” that is force-fed to them by our assembly-factory education system. A good dose of parody, a kind of 1930s National Lampoon, should help them feel better about books, and literature in general.
[Finished 1 May 1996]