It is generally thought that Stella Gibbons was mocking Mary Webb’s Precious Bane when she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, but she was probably having a pop at all those purveyors of country hardship, sex, doom and slop, Hardy and Lawrence included. One can easily tire of the lush, dripping, thrusting, tragic, moist, fecund countryside, and long for a brisk young woman from the tough pavements of town like Flora Poste to come along and tidy things up a bit.
Nowadays, with the world in a fairly nightmarish and chaotic state, I find myself desperate for tidiness and happy endings, and even more desperate for a laugh. Cold Comfort Farm provides all of this. And what a relief it is for those of us who have slogged through numerous earnest rural novels in which there are no laughs at all. It is not easy to keep up the laughs in a comic novel, right to the very end, but Gibbons did it. Her nephew and biographer, Reggie Oliver, reports that she also laughed while writing it, and when she took her chums out to lunch and read them the latest bit, they laughed like drains too, often annoying the restaurant proprietor. How I wish I could have been at those lunches.
For anyone not familiar with the story, our heroine Flora Poste, a young woman who prefers not to be employed if she can possibly help it, goes to stay, for free, with some bizarre relatives, the Starkadders, on a Sussex farm. The Starkadder family includes Judith, Delphine, Reuben, Seth and Amos, who are grieving, dressing badly, smouldering, mollocking and preaching hell-fire respectively, and generally not making the most of themselves. Making sure they all remain unfulfilled, barmy, gloomy and stuck on the farm is Aunt Ada Doom, the family matriarch, who rarely leaves her bedroom and has famously ‘seen something nasty in the woodshed’.
Flora resolves to tidy up their lives – a mammoth task, but she sets to it with a will, and succeeds magnificently. One cannot help but like Flora because she recognizes her own imperfections
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