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…!

Ending, Beginning – Reading England

Button: Reading England 2015

How quickly the year draws to an end! And although I’ve had a much less successful (it feels) reading/blogging year than I’d hoped, I did manage to read two books for the one challenge I signed up for last year, O’s Reading England 2015.

Cover - Northanger Abbey, An Annotated Edition

The first, and one I forgot to even mention as a challenge title in its blog post (bad blogger!), was a reread of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’m not really sure where the fictional Northanger Abbey of the title is located, but the bulk of the book takes place in Bath in Somerset County.

Cover: The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Book two was a Sherlock Holmes novel (novella?), The Valley of Fear. Unlike many of the short stories (well, the ones I remember) which are set in London, this one has a rural setting, in Sussex County (which I now know, thanks to Wikipedia is split into seperate administrative counties – so which modern county this would be, I haven’t a clue).

Although I didn’t exceed my goal of Level 1 (1-3 counties), I’m thrilled that I successfully completed this challenge, including even “finally reading one of the annotated Austens” on my shelves. And so it was an easy decision to join in again in 2016! I still have plenty of books to choose from. I wonder what counties I will cover this year?

Completed: The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
J.R.R. Tolkien
1954-56, England

At first the beauty of the melodies and the interwoven words in the Elven-tongue, even though he understood them little, held him in a spell, as soon as he began to attend to them. Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the entertainment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him. Swiftly he sank under its shining weight into a deep realm of sleep. (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 2, Chapter 1)

It has been a long time–relatively speaking–since I last read The Lord of the Rings. Although I’ve read it some five or six times now, most of those were spaced closely together, and I last picked up the books in 2002. (Which I remember distinctly, because it was between the first and second of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, and the second came out just before I went to Italy in 2003.) In some ways, reading it again, I feel like a worse reader than I was all those years past, as it took me so much longer and at times seemed to drag on so much more. But I’ve read more–that is, other books–in the meantime, and I got so much more out of this reading than those past.

One important difference–I finally read The Silmarillion a couple years ago. One of many of Tolkien’s works published posthumously, it contains much of the background of Tolkien’s imaginary world. Reading The Lord of the Rings after it, I realized how much of this background, this invented history is referenced in The Lord of the Rings–references that I would never have caught, nor even realized that I was missing. The depth and breadth of Tolkien’s creation continually astonishes me.

I’ve also read Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-stories,” developed from a 1939 lecture, in which he lays out a defense for what he calls “fairy-stories” or what we might now term fantasy. It is interesting in light of the debate, not only over the literary merits of “genre” writing, but also the debate over whether to consider The Lord of the Rings as for “children” or “adults.”* From what I see online, it seems the debate often goes, “well, there’s a clear-cut battle between good and evil, so they must be for children.” But this is in contrast with Tolkien’s own views. First, that “fairy-stories” should not be relegated to children merely because they are imaginary. And more importantly, because of Tolkien’s concept of “eucatastrophe,” the sudden unexpected turn to the joy of the happy ending, which he would never dismiss as for children only: his ultimate example is that of the Resurrection, and as a faithful Catholic, Tolkien would never call the Easter story one for children only. His definitions of “good” and “evil” are clearly informed by his religious faith rather than that of a secular worldview.

‘Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.’ (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2)

In fact, on this fifth/sixth(?) reread, I am completely convinced that Tolkien’s writing cannot be fully understood/appreciated without acknowledging his faith. Although there are not allegorical allusions (Tolkien disliked allegory), the worldview is strikingly Christian, as seen in the repetitions of the ideas of faith, mercy, redemption, and hope throughout the novel. In the confrontation between Frodo and Boromir at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was struck that while Frodo maintained faith despite recent events, Boromir had lost his–or at least lost hope. In contrast, at about halfway through The Return of the King, Frodo has lost all hope–but remains steadfastly faithful to the mission, even without hope. Samwise, steadfastly faithful to Frodo, provides all the hope they need.

There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach. (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter 2)

One thing I can’t quite seem to put my finger on: how is Tolkien’s work generally considered, critically? Browsing blogs, there seem to be mostly posts of either the “I LOVE this so much, it’s my favorite thing ever!” or “I just.couldn’t.get.through.it” types. There are websites by Tolkien scholars, often dedicated to minutiae; I would assume that most of them started from a “love it” place. And where I see those that dismiss it as “mere children’s stories” not worthy of study, it seems they do so for the good/evil reason. At times I found the language stilted (specifically dialogue), but it seemed a deliberate choice, to make his heroes sound as the heroes of epics past. Perhaps, even sixty years on, we still need more passage of time for illumination.

I feel like this year, almost all of my reading has made me want to wander down another path I hadn’t planned (I’ve resisted, mostly), and The Lord of the Rings is no exception. I’ve never really read any of Tolkien’s sources or inspirations, just a little of Malory. Tolkien’s faux-historical narrative (both in plot and style) encourages me to visit some of his predecessors. The ancient sagas call to me. And there are still works of Tolkien’s I’d like to explore: his retelling of Sigurd and Gudrún, The Children of Hurin. Stories of ages long gone, or of ages that only ever were in imagination, but grand tales to tempt the imagination.

‘Yes, that’s so,’ said Sam. ‘And we shouldn’t be here at all, if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually–their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on–and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know, coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same–like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear, though they may be the best tales to get landed in! (The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter 8)

 

*My opinion? Why on earth need there be a distinction between books for children and books for adults, so long as they are good enough for children? But, that said, the style and language might be a bit tricky for some young readers–Tolkien liked antique words that I often must look up, and his narrative at times harkens to epics past.