Classics Spin 16: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cover: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Penguin Classics ed)Cold Comfort Farm
Stella Gibbons
(1932, England)

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. (Ch 1)

The problem with satire: if you haven’t read the books that a novel is satirizing it is difficult to get the joke. Not that a novel mayn’t be enjoyable on its own, but there’s certainly an added depth when the source material, if you will, is known. Herein lies my challenge with Cold Comfort Farm. I don’t know that I have read any of the novels Gibbons pokes fun of. Indeed, other than the obvious references to DH Laurence (character Mr. Mybug is a fan), I don’t know that I could even point to what novels she satirizes. Clearly, rural romances, but what and by whom I don’t know. Granted, I’m not terribly familiar with the literature of the 1920s, but I wonder if perhaps, much the way many of the “horrid novels” Austen gently pokes fun of in Northanger Abbey have vanished from common knowledge (save by way of Austen), the books Gibbons gently attacks are also mostly forgotten?

Regardless, my lack of knowledge only means a lack of depth of appreciation for Cold Comfort Farm. Indeed, I do not believe a foreknowledge of rural romances essential to enjoyment of the story at hand–nor even to laugh aloud at times at the absurdities there-in. The overarching plot is easily summarized: Flora Poste finds herself orphaned and with insufficient funds to live on her own in the city, so she decides to descend (with their permission, of course, form must be followed) upon rural relatives she has never met and “tidy” their lives–lives which, it turns out, are very much in need of tidying.

I found I rather like Flora. There is something so no-nonsense about her that is appealing. True, the accusation made to her by one of her city friends that she is a “busy-body” is not wrong, but she is so charming about the whole proceedings that no one seems to mind.

Each of the characters in the novel–from Flora to farmer Ruben to nature-child Elfine to preacher Amos to mad Aunt Ada Doom, among many others–is  clearly a type. It is here that I begin to see the edges of the satire. I don’t need to have read the other novels to recognize the types, nor to see Gibbons begin to subvert them, as we watch Flora’s interactions with–and meddling with–the others begin to bring out (or create) additional facets of their personalities. Between this and the absurdities of the storyline, Cold Comfort Farm turned out to be not only very diverting, but by the end of the novel, absolutely page-turning as I just had to know how it would all turn out–despite being very sure, given the genre, that all would be well! Perhaps at some point I will have to return to Gibbons’s work–either one of her later novels or perhaps, after searching out and reading some of her targets, a reread of this one.

Read from my Classics Club list as part of the 16th Spin. Hey! I both read AND posted on it by the deadline for a change…!

17 thoughts on “Classics Spin 16: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons”

    1. You know, I’d wondered about Hardy, but then I thought that perhaps that was looking too far back. So, no, those wouldn’t be forgotten ones–although maybe just I’ve forgotten them.

    1. Thanks, Jean! I don’t believe I’ve heard of Mary Webb–so I guess her books would be like the “horrids” referenced in the text of Northanger Abbey that were largely forgotten, and the Hardy and Lawrence would be equivalent to the Walpole or Radcliffe that we still read as early Gothic classics.

  1. What none of us are likely to have read are the reviews that Gibbon mocks, the reviewers who she assists with the asterisks. Although I thought that gag worked perfectly as is. It is easy to imagine those reviews.

    Glancing back at your post – I don’t think that Gibbon is gently attacking anyone. She mauls Lawrence and Hardy. Prose, ideas, and sensibility. Lawrentians, who existed at the time, hated this book.

    1. Yes, well, true…I’M the one that tends to be too gentle. 🙂 Also, see my ignorance of context! But I’m thankful for all the additional insights the comments have provided.

  2. This is such an interesting discussion. I too love CCF (and the fabulous film), but had never thought of specific writers she might be satirizing. I must have a look at Mary Webb.

    1. Oh, I always love it when there’s a good comments discussion. Better than the post, often. I think part of the reason it even occurred to me to wonder about other writers was my experience reading Northanger Abbey – both before and after I’d read any Gothic classics – which taught me that context can certainly provided added depth to a read.

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