Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Penguin Essentials: paperback published 2011: 233 pages
‘We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm…’
Sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste has been expensively educated to do everything but earn a living. When she is orphaned at twenty, she decides her only option is to descend on relatives – the doomed Starkadders at the aptly named Cold Comfort Farm.
There is Judith in a scarlet shawl, heaving with remorse for an unspoken wickedness; raving old Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed; lustful Seth and despairing Reuben, Judith’s two sons; and there is Amos, preaching fire and damnation to one and all.
As the sukebind flowers, Flora takes each of the family in hand and brings order to their chaos.
This was a Christmas present from Ana (she knows me so well – I also got lemon gluten-free biscuits!) as we had talked about Cold Comfort Farm before but I had never got around to buying or reading it. Oddly enough – though I should probably have already known this – I didn’t realise that this was a comedy until I read the blurb and the review on the front cover. This was a good sign – after the tense brutality of The Great Gatsby, I needed some light-hearted reading!
Meet Flora Poste. Glamorous and serious, Flora is not much good for anything except sorting out everyone’s lives to her satisfaction. So when her parents die and she appears at Cold Comfort Farm, nothing is quite the same again.
The humour of this novel is not slapstick, not cruel and not surreal – it’s sweet and gentle and heart-warming. Flora is adorable as a meddler, and the slightly-caricatured fellow characters are entertaining and touchingly obvious. I chuckled and I sighed, and I read it at such speed without even noticing.
What almost surprised me with Cold Comfort Farm was the poetic beauty of some of the prose. For a book marketed as a “sharp and clever parody” and “probably the funniest book ever written” (Sunday Times), I was expecting pure entertainment, clever characters and witty observation. What I wasn’t expecting was prose that vividly sketched a country scene – complete with the smells and sounds – and had me step in to rural Britain in the mid-20th Century.
I wondered if the world could be expanded (I assume it is with spin-offs such as Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm). For example, you never find out where the missing cows’ horns go, or what poor old Judith is so upset about. And old Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed, doesn’t really get an opportunity to tell everyone exactly what she saw in the woodshed.
I adore the kind of humour shown in this book – it’s not being cruel about anyone or to anyone, and it’s not that surreal humour that people feel the need to read to sound intelligent. It makes for a lovely, warm-feeling skip through rural Britain. And it makes for a light relief from the roll call of intense, serious novels I’ve read of late. I also love the beauty of the writing that seems so effortless amongst the pacing of the story. For me though, and perhaps it’s the same criticism as last week – I felt there was more story to give, and it simply wasn’t there.
Next book: I’ve had 2666 by Roberto Bolaño on my bookshelf for ages, but the sheer size of it intimidates me. Which is when I spotted that he had another (much thinner) novel knocking around, and I thought I’d ease myself in gently. Amulet is described a “hallucinatory narrative”, telling the story of Auxilio Lacouture as she hides in a lavatory on the fourth floor of a university … I’ll let you know what I think!