When plodding through Women in Love one day, I came across a rather grim sentence by Mr Lawrence describing some fellow as ‘erect and gleaming in his blondness’. Elsewhere in Lawrence’s works, the horizon is ‘plunging into moist darkness’, people tremble four times in one paragraph, pale buttocks gleam and glint, and ‘suave loins of darkness’ are hidden away in somebody’s trousers.
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 from the very beginning of her story, when she writes to several sets of relatives, including the Starkadders, searching for free accommodation, and is sickened by her own skills. ‘It is rather frightening to be able to write so revoltingly, yet so successfully,’ Flora tells her friend Mrs Smiling. ‘All these letters are works of art . . . They are positively oily.’ Gibbons also writes revoltingly and successfully, awarding her best passages two ** or three *** stars. The stars begin the minute Flora hits the countryside: ‘Dawn crept over the downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind . . . baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm . . . [which] squatted on the gaunt shoulder of the hill.’ The cowshed, ‘embraced by the pallid paws of day’, in which Adam Lambsbreath is milking Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless, is filled with ‘a lowering, moist, steamy light, almost like that which gleams below the eyelids of a man in fever’.
Reggie Oliver tells us that his aunt had realized when she was only 11 that the Gibbons family was ‘not simply prone to melodramatic scenes’ but ‘took pleasure in them. She detected an element of pretence in their passion, and it was this early recognition which made her the enemy and scourge of pretentiousness throughout her life.’ Oppressed by ‘wildness, disorder and eccentricity’ in her youth, she did what all youth does and rebelled against the family trait that displeased her. She couldn’t do much to improve her own family, but she could at least send Flora to sort out the Starkadders.
Gibbons also sensibly realized that laughing is, for some people, ‘ braver and more radical therapy than any obtained through psychoanalysis or counselling’. Many people mistakenly believe that having a laugh means that one is not taking things seriously. On the contrary. There is no better way of approaching a grim and desperately serious topic, in my opinion, than by cracking a joke, and I admire Stella Gibbons tremendously for approaching the problem of childhood trauma and the perpetuation of nastiness in such a jolly way. Aunt Ada Doom blames childhood trauma for her own appalling behaviour and uses it as an excuse for being vile to everyone with whom she comes into contact. They then behave appallingly in turn.
What a tiresome cycle, and much in vogue today. Gibbons was prophetic. Parents are now even more to blame for everyone’s problems and ‘recovered memory’ syndrome is used to help children to dredge up yet more parental misdeeds, so that they can continue to suffer like mad and get away with behaving abominably. How one longs for a brisk, interfering and witty Flora Poste to step in and put a stop to it. She was on to Aunt Ada’s tricks at once:
The woodshed incident had twisted something in your childbrain seventy years ago . . . and . . . because of that incident . . . you sat here ruling the roost and having five meals a day brought up to you as regularly as clockwork, it hadn’t been such a bad break for you, that day you saw something nasty in the woodshed.
Flora will not tolerate trumped-up excuses for ghastly behaviour. While trying to sort out the Starkadders she also has to fend off the attentions of a Mr Mybug, who ‘she seemed to remember meeting at a party’. He is an ‘intellectual’, writing a life of Branwell Brontë, which will prove that the Brontë sisters were all drunkards and that Branwell wrote the novels. Mybug’s lechery and tendency to play ‘Hunt the Phallic Symbol’ when out walking with Flora is based on the bonkers Lawrentian/Freudian idea that chaps are prey to fundamental demands of flesh and blood which brook no refusal. ‘My great religion’ drones D. H. Lawrence, ‘is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect . . .’ Mybug feels the same. Buds remind him of ‘nipples and virgins’, distant hills of ‘a pair of large breasts’.
Unlike Lawrence’s creatures, who are perfectly formed, earnest and tormented, Gibbons’s characters have very human flaws and more mundane ambitions. Mybug, like many fellows, cannot grasp the idea that Flora does not fancy him because she finds him physically unattractive. ‘She felt a little sorry for him because he was rather fat . . . and tried to pull down his cardigan, which had worked up all wrinkly round his waist.’ But Mybug presumes that her lack of enthusiasm is due to ‘inhibitions’. Keen to establish a touch of normality chez the Starkadders, Flora attempts to introduce afternoon tea to the farm. She offers Reuben a cup, prompting a fearful three-star response ***. ‘A woman. Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast . . . She woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. Break her . . . and hold fast the land . . .’
‘Will you have some bread and butter?’ asks Flora, and Reuben is defeated. How one longs for someone to offer Mary Webb’s Gideon a nice cup of tea in Precious Bane, for he too is having a tough time. ‘It seemed . . . that the mighty hand was upon him, striving with him to make him go widdershins to what he was, to what father had made him, and granddad, and all of them, back to Timothy, that had the lightning in his blood . . . we were all set out on a dark road.’
Luckily Gibbons will not leave anyone to struggle along a dark road. She is determined to set all the Starkadders off in a better direction, however impossible that may seem. Delphine’s ghastly oufits can be improved, Seth need not be stuck endlessly mollocking, Reuben can run the farm himself, Amos need not preach only to a few miserable local sinners. Why not ‘go round the country with a Ford van, preaching on market days’ and spread the word farther? suggests Flora.
We soon see that all the apparently crazed Starkadders are desperate for sensible suggestions. They sop up Flora’s practicality like parched sponges, even Judith, who ‘stood at the window looking with sodden eyes at the inexorable fecundity of the advancing spring’ and was in the ‘habit of multiplying every emotion she felt by twice its own weight’.
According to Gibbons, the countryside is not a charming, mystical place. It is marred by reeking sukebind, mud, incomprehensible language and miserable persons. But the place and its inhabitants are not beyond redemption, even Aunt Ada Doom. I can’t tell you how, because that would ruin the ending, which is gripping and optimistic and shows that no one need be dragged down by family mess and be endlessly glum and tormented. They can rise up, as the Starkadders do and as Stella Gibbons did in her own life, and have fun.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 10 © Michele Hanson 2006