COLD COMFORT FARM rating: 5 stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.
Last night I dreamt I went to Cold Comfort again. I didn’t see anything nasty in the woodshed, but then I steered well clear of all outbuildings.
COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons (1932) is 91 years old and one of my favorites. I’ve read it many times. It’s in the public domain and you can download it from Internet Archive along with many of her other books. The 2006 Lynne Truss Penguin paperback edition pictured above, with Truss’s fun jacket illustrations and equally fun introduction, is a treasure.
Gibbons parodies the romantic English Country House novel, and was not only author to do so in the ’30s. In RIGHT HO, JEEVES by P. G. Wodehouse (1934), Brinkley Court is described by Bertie Wooster as a romantic English Country House in which you can’t help but get engaged:
I’ve got engaged three times at Brinkley. No business resulted, but the fact remains. And I went there without the foggiest idea of indulging in the tender pash. I hadn’t the slightest intention of proposing to anybody. Yet no sooner had I entered those romantic grounds than I found myself reaching out for the nearest girl in sight and slapping my soul down in front of her. It’s something in the air.Right Ho, Jeeves
Commonsensical Flora Poste, our heroine in the novel, can tell the difference between what people want and what people need, where there is a difference. These characters are each a parody within a parody. Cold Comfort is falling apart. One of the cows has actually lost a leg.
Amos Starkadder, patriarch, and Aunt Ada, dowager aunt, want to reign over the farm (and in Amos’s case, the local Church of the Quivering Brethren) and make everybody miserable. What they need is adventure.
Judith Starkadder, Amos’s wife, wants to be a martyr. She’s good at it. Flora wants to get her somewhere distracting.
Seth, Amos and Judith’s son, wants to go “mollocking” with every female within a few country miles, and impregnate the hired girl every year. He has so much charisma that even his mother is unhealthily obsessed with him in some sort of reverse Oedipal weirdness that Flora has no patience with, and she has no patience with the hired girl’s lack of practical birth control precautions either. It would be a spoiler to reveal Flora’s ideas of how to dispense with Seth.
Reuben, Judith and Amos’s other son, wants to farm. Flora believes he ought to do just that. What Reuben wants and what he needs square up, and Reuben is the best person to control the property and bring it back to life.
Farmhand Adam Lambsbreath is good with animals. Not so much with dishes. He cleans dishes with tree branches. Weird. He is obsessed with his daughter Elfine because the Freudianism just keeps on a-comin’ and I haven’t even gotten to Mybug yet.
Elfine needs to get a grip, and a hairbrush. She is a Bronte-esque wanderer over the landscape, a wild fairy-creature and aspiring poet, who really ought to marry the lord of the manor nearby. “I hate dancing unless it’s in the woods with the wind-flowers and the birds,” declares Elfine, so Flora has her work cut out for her to make Elfine into a proper young lady.
Mr. Mybug (Myerburg) is the Intellectual trope of the cast of characters, egomaniacal and sex-obsessed, played to perfection in the 1995 movie by none other than Stephen Fry. The movie “Cold Comfort Farm” is a true phenomenon of casting. The young Kate Beckinsale is Flora and looks a little bit younger than she does now. Ian McKellan is Amos. Aileen Atkins is Judith. Rufus Sewell is Seth. Joanna Lumley is in it, and Miriam Margoyles. . . why do I not own this film?
I love so many things about COLD COMFORT FARM (the book). I love how Gibbons just makes up weird dialect (Seth going “a-mollocking”) and plant names (“sukebind“) for comic effect. I love Flora Poste and how utterly secure, self-possessed, and sensible she is. I love how Gibbons has fits of metaphor and simile when parodying descriptions in the novels of the time, piling on and on, as if to out-wuther WUTHERING HEIGHTS and out-thorn Thornfield Hall1JANE EYRE even if it takes a whole page. Gobs of gothic ahead:
Flora gazed up searchingly at the windows of the farmhouse. They were dead as the eyes of fishes, reflecting the dim, pallid blue of the fading west. The crenellated line of the roof thrust blind edges against a sky in which the infusion of the darkness was already beginning to seep. The livid silver tongues of the early stars leaped between the shapes of the chimney-pots, backwards and forwards, like idiot children dancing to a forgotten tune . . . The light was like the waxing and waning in the head of a dying beast. The house seemed to settle deeper into the yard as darkness came. Not a sound broke its quiescence. But the light, strangely naked and innocent, burned waveringly on in the deepening gloom.Cold Comfort Farm
This is only a third of this paragraph but you get the gist. In other words, it got dark. I can’t help but giggle. Although it’s not a very big farmhouse, it dominates the whole landscape, crouching over the Sussex hills as if ready to spring (as Mybug says), anticipating the general mood if not the lineaments of Gormenghast more than a decade early.
If you are thinking that Gibbons would need to have a talent for real, reined-in description to come up with all of this excess, you are correct. Gibbons was a true talent and was very prolific in her day, and like many British woman authors of the early 20th century, has been nearly forgotten except for Cold Comfort Farm. Phyllis Orrick wrote about the loss of Gibbons’s work at the Neglected Books Page in 2021.
I’m happy to report that the Dean Street Press has begun to remedy the OOP Stella situation by reprinting The Swiss Summer, A Pink Front Door, The Weather at Tregulla, The Snow-Woman and The Woods in Winter. I love Dean Street Press and can’t say enough good things about them. Check out their author page. Wowzers. If you’re not salivating over this list, you are not an Anglophile. If your library has hoopla Digital, they have many Dean Street Press titles in their database, but your library may offer something different.
Reading in context:
What I’m reading right now:
KINDRED by Octavia E. Butler for my celebration of #OctaviaInOctober on Mastodon. I’ve read PARABLE OF THE SOWER, PARABLE OF THE TALENTS, DAWN, ADULTHOOD RITES, and IMAGO. Next up is FLEDGLING. I had never read Octavia Butler until this month and it’s been terrific to immerse myself in her work.