Book Review

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

A+

Genre: Classic

Oh, Cold Comfort Farm, where have you been all my life? This classic went completely past my radar and now that I’ve found it I’m actually surprised that it’s not dedicated to me, specifically.

Cold Comfort Farm, published in 1932, pokes gentle fun at the sub-genre of novels that dwells on misery and melodrama on English farms. Early versions of this genre include the works of Thomas Hardy and of course Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. In Cold Comfort Farm, our heroine, Flora, becomes an orphan and decides to sponge off of her relatives instead of getting a job. Flora likes things to be fun and cheerful, but also tidy. She’s a great fan of Jane Austen, and not at all a fan of getting a job:

When I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, “Collecting material.” No one can object to that. Besides, so I shall be.

If you ask me, I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I…I cannot endure messes.

Flora gets responses from several relatives, but none are quite satisfactory. She is intrigued, however from this letter from the Starkadderer family, which I’m copying here in it’s entirety because it’s a pure delight to anyone who’s read a word of anything gothic. I’d like to cross stitch the second-to-last sentence and hang it in a frame over my front door.

Dear Niece:

So you are after your rights at last. Well, I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these past twenty years.

Child, my father once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed.

We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort, and we will do our best to welcome Robert Poste’s child.

Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.

Yr. affc. Aunt,

J. Starkadder

 

Flora senses an opportunity to gather material and heads off to Cold Comfort Farm. It’s filthy and it’s full of crazy people. Here’s its long and tortured architectural history:

The farmhouse was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherd, but he had grown tired of it, and had it rebuilt it in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way and another. The Charleses had let it alone; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the first had rebuilt it. George the Second, however, however, burned it down. George the Third added another wing. George the Fourth burned it down again.

 

This book is essentially one in which Jane Austen’s character Emma (but a version of Emma who is never wrong) visits Wuthering Heights. Few things are as delicious as the matter of fact way Flora reacts to the storm of insanity that surrounds her. The insane characters include Amos, who is constantly preaching about hellfire (“THERE’LL BE NO BUTTER IN HELL!”), and Seth, the representation of raw sexuality, who starts off with his shirt completely unbuttoned but who is always unbuttoning another button (where do all these buttons come from?).

Adam is in charge of the cows, who keep doing things like losing legs while he fails to notice as he stares dolefully into space, and Elphine roams the hills wearing diaphanous layers and composing poetry. Aunt Doom lives upstairs and threatens to have a fit if anyone leaves, and there’s a whole herd of associated farmworkers and relatives with names like ‘Urk’ and ‘Mark Dolor’. I won’t spoil things by telling you how Flora deals with all of this except to say that she does it with aplomb, and that the very first step she takes is to teach the hired girl, who winds up pregnant every spring, how to use birth control. Flora does this without even a hint of slut shaming. Flora is my hero.

The style combines a very modern candor with the convoluted, exaggerated gothic style. It’s also set “in the near future” although the only futuristic element of significance is that Flora’s cousin Charles has his own plane. As often occurs in older books, some derogatory terms are thrown around, but only by people we dislike. It seems that Flora finds racism and homophobia to be quite untidy, though she never spells this out.

Some of the paragraphs have stars by them and it took me the longest time and some help from the Internet to realize that the stars are the author’s attempt to grade her own mastery and level of purple prose, as in this three star bit: “From the stubborn, interwoven strata of his subconsciousness, but not as impalpable emanation, a crepuscular addition, from the unsleeping life in the restless trees and fields surrounding him.”

Sheesh.

Flora adores Jane Austen, but she’s not an Austen heroine. She’s too full of fun – even Lizzie Bennet wouldn’t be able to keep up with Flora’s social life – and too frank. Flora might hint in order to manipulate, but she never speaks between the lines. Flora also admires Austen while somewhat missing Austen’s point – both Emma and Persuasion make a case that it’s usually not a good idea to meddle in the lives of others, while Flora is dead set on meddling to the immense benefit of everyone around her.

On the romance front, there’s a romance between Elphine and Dick Hawk-Monitor and a romance between Flora and Charles, but neither has much story development. Elphine’s romance is handily arranged by Flora in the space of a single dance, and Charles clearly adores Flora from the outset and is just waiting for her to say the word. While I adore Charles, the truth is there isn’t much of an active love story there.

Instead, the book is pure comedy – and what comedy it is. Every time I pick it up I find some new absurdity to giggle over, like Adam “clettering the dishes” or Mr. Myburg’s attempt to prove that Branwell Brontë was the true author not just of Wuthering Heights but of all the Brontë novels, or this description of Elphine:

 

Elphine jumped to her feet and stood poised; she had something of the brittle grace of a yearling foal. A dryad’s smile played on the curious sullen purity of her mouth, and her eyes were unawake and unfriendly. Flora thought, “What a dreadful way of doing’s one hair; surely it must be a mistake.”

 

I feel like this book is the very book I have been waiting for lo these many years. It is an absolute delight. Fans of Austen will like Flora’s utter imperviousness to melodrama and fans of the Brontë’s will love the send-ups of Brontë hand-wringing and commotion. Ultimately Flora sets all to rights and there’s this deep sense of satisfaction that everything is well in the world.

I had Good Book Sigh®, and then I read it again. This is going to be my new therapy book, because it makes me laugh and also convinces me that out of chaos can be brought order:

There they all were. Enjoying themselves. Having a nice time. And having it in an ordinary human manner. Not having it because they were raping somebody, or beating somebody, or having religious mania or being doomed to silence by a gloomy earthly pride, or loving the soil with the fierce desire of a lecher, or anything of that sort. No, they were just enjoying an ordinary human event, like any of the millions of ordinary people in the world.

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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  1. 1
    Deoridhe says:
    7+

    If you loved the book you should absolutely seek out the movie. I went movie first, then book, but both are delightful. The forward, a letter to an author Gibbons “admires” (her letter reads as ironic to me) goes over the stars – she did it for his benefit, so he could skip the plot and go straight to what she felt was her most florid bits. Also, another futuristic element is the video phones, but they get only one or two brief mentions and are easy to miss.

  2. 2
    Dorothea says:
    5+

    *ahem* I would just like to point out that the author’s name is Stella Dorothea Gibbons.

    No wonder I feel such a connection to this book. Cold Comfort Farm is my desert island book. Once you have mined its depths you need no other book, not even the Pensées of the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, nor the cooling jellies waved by mocking demons; nothing nasty in any shed can touch you. Gibbon’s immortal phrase “the dark flame of his male pride” proved so useful in my family that it has been shortened to the DF of MP.

    All in all, a glorious book (but what on earth is that insipid cover about??). I get Good Book Sigh just writing about it, and imagining someone reading it for the first time.

  3. 3
    Gillian B says:
    6+

    Completely agree you must must MUST see the movie. Ian McKellan as Amos, ranting and raving. Rufus Sewell as Seth, oooooozing sex with every breath. And the lovely Kate Beckinsale as the ever-organising Miss Poste.

    It will even make you giggle at “Game of Thrones” – “There’s always been Starks at Winterfell Farm”.

    And the ever present “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

  4. 4
    Jamie says:
    3+

    I NEED THIS RIGHT NOW! The writing style is very Mary Frances Hodges or LM Montgomery, and I neeeed it!

    The second I read her aunt’s letter I jumped down here to comment.

    Brb buying immediately.

  5. 5
    Susan says:
    2+

    I love everything about this novel so much. I wanted to second the suggestion to see the film adaptation, as it’s very well done and perfectly cast.

  6. 6
    2+

    This is one of those books that are sheer pleasure.

  7. 7
    Bonnie says:
    3+

    I love it that Kate Beckinsale starred in Cold Comfort Farm one year and Emma the next. Chick flick night, anyone?
    Thanks for sharing the love, Carrie and everybody! 🙂

  8. 8
    2+

    Yassssssssssssssssssss! Both the book and the movie are amazing. I love how the cows are named perhaps most of all.

  9. 9
    Lora says:
    4+

    and now i have to buy this. all the catnip.
    PS I also love Meg Cabot’s Victoria and the Rogue which is a delightful Austen sendup with a ‘managing female’ who was raised by indulgent uncles in India who send her back to England because they’re tired of being bossed round, so she takes her aunt’s family of children in hand with great aplomb and has a lovely romance besides. Le Sigh.

  10. 10
    4+

    Oh yes, I love, love, love this book. I saw the movie first and found the book later, and I love both. The casting is superb. I kind of liked that they skipped the near-future stuff and just set the movie in the period in which it was written (the book is set sometime in the 50s and gets it all wrong, plus misses WWII entirely, which lends some unintended poignancy when you realize where some of these young men might end up). The starred bits of purple prose are laugh-out-loud funny. And “Something nasty in the woodshed” has become a regular part of my vocabulary. I think I feel a re-read coming on.

  11. 11
    Erin Burns says:
    2+

    That sounds like a trip.

  12. 12
    NancyG says:
    4+

    Due for a reread, for sure. I remember this book fondly from my otherwise misspent youth,at least forty years ago. I’m sure I didn’t get half of the humor. let alone all the literary conventions it referenced. Looking forward to it!

  13. 13
    Rhoda Baxter says:
    4+

    I love this book! DH threatened to call our first child Feckless after the cow.
    going check out the Meg Cabot book right now!

  14. 14
    Regalli says:
    3+

    You had me at “There will be no butter in hell!”

  15. 15
    Margaret says:
    2+

    Thanks for the extremely entertaining review. I’m heading to Goodreads right now to add this to my TBR list – along the the Meg Cabot book.

  16. 16
    Laura V says:
    2+

    Mustn’t forget the video phones, when discussing the near-future setting!

  17. 17
    2+

    I am so glad to read this review this morning. I too have seen the movie and loved it loved it loved it loved and have watched it I don’t know how many times. It is a perfect film. I have looked for the book on Amazon several times and it was always too expensive, but I notice today that Cold Comfort Farm is on $2.99!! So I have bought it.

  18. 18
    CC says:
    4+

    I ADORE the movie. How have I never read the book?!

    “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” is oft quoted in our house. And the appropriate response of course is, “Sure you did, but did it see you, baby?”

  19. 19
    LML says:
    3+

    Interesting how the title (and the line “something nasty in the woodshed”) is so familiar although I have not read the book or seen the movie. So. Which first — book or movie?

  20. 20
    shawny j says:
    3+

    The movie is a classic and should be watched regularly. My family refers to each other as Aimless, Feckless, Graceless and Pointless. I’m Graceless 🙂

  21. 21
    2+

    Carrie, thank you for the review. I love this book! I hope more people find it now 🙂

  22. 22
    Kate says:
    3+

    I read this book in January and I loved i! Emma is my favorite Austen so it was really a pleasure to read, especially Flora’s efforts with Elphine. And the end was just so ridiculously cheerful, it was just great.

  23. 23
    Annie C says:
    3+

    Book and Movie are excellent, though I enjoy them for different reasons. KBeck! Rupert Penry-Jones before he was Captain Wentworth! Rufus Sewell! They make the movie glorious, but the novel is it’s own masterpiece and one of my all-time favorites. I had a college professor who explained Gibbons backstory like so: Gibbons was a book reviewer in the 1920s/30s for a ladies’ magazine, and was so annoyed with the ~wistful-yet-angsty~ rural novels (read: shite) that passed across her desk that she decided to write Cold Comfort as the ultimate parody/ “comic homage” to the popular genre. Turns out, it was SO good a novel that it’s now the epitome of that genre. (Supposedly, some critics thought that she was actually Evelyn Waugh writing under a pseudonym.)

  24. 24
    3+

    I’ve loved this book for years, and have “lent” too many copies… delighted it’s on kindle. Thanks.

  25. 25
    Theresa says:
    3+

    You have to see the movie. It’s crazy. It’s even more fun if you make it a drinking game every time you hear ‘I saw something nasty in the woodshed”…

  26. 26
    3+

    One of my favorite characters is the friend with the lingerie collection.

  27. 27
    Alice says:
    3+

    Cold comfort farm! This has been my therapy book for many years. I maintain it’s perfect. Stella Gibbons also wrote a whole bunch of other books, some of which are batshit weird (Starlight-demonic possession in shabby post war London) and some of which are superb – I strongly recommend Westwood, which is a more serious novel about the importance of not taking oneself too seriously, and is also a solid therapy read for me

  28. 28
    Des Livres says:
    2+

    Love this book. My parents have the original penguin which I read quite young. Reading your review, as soon as I got to “Robert Poste’s Child” I had a flashback and howled with laughter.

    I love the woman who had lots of children and planned to start a jazz band. As you do.

  29. 29
    Lily LeFevre says:
    2+

    For anyone on the fence about watching the movie, here is Ian McKellan’s sermon. Will make you rethink the term “quaker”

  30. 30
    molly says:
    2+

    And Stephen Fry as Mybug… hilarious “Let me warn you: I’m a queer, moody brute, but there’s rich soil in here if you care to dig for it.”

    I haven’t read the book, yet. A flaw in my character that I shall correct immediately :D. Thanks for the great review.

  31. 31
    Kate K.F. says:
    2+

    I love this book. I think I picked up my copy from a bookshelf at a relative’s house so it has her illustrations and its a comfort read. I still haven’t seen the movie, its high on my list.

  32. 32
    Bianca says:
    2+

    I love this book, and the movie is wonderful!!!!

  33. 33
    Celia says:
    2+

    I recommend watching Cold Comfort Farm along with with “I capture the castle” with Henry “Elliott” Thomas. *Swoon*. (Or with Uncorked with Rufus Sewell) they’re all gorgeous and quirky.

  34. 34
    Mary Pat says:
    3+

    Really – the movie is fabulous. Rufus Sewell…no shirt…naughty boy grin…sorry, I drifted. Everyone else is perfectly cast as well.

  35. 35
    3+

    You hadn’t read this? It quickly became one of my absolute favorite books. My guess is that Jane Austen would have loved it. I haven’t seen the movie, though. I’m afraid to — it’s so perfectly but together that my time in the industry lets me know how easy it is to mess treasures like this up!

  36. 36
    Bibliophile says:
    2+

    Cold Comfort Farm is one of my go-to books when I need cheering up or want to break out of a reading rut or get back into reading. It’s one of those books one can truly call a gem. The movie is great too, and perfectly cast.

  37. 37
    Jill says:
    2+

    …But have you read “Nightingale Wood”? Also by Stella Gibbons, and I think it’s even better. The Toast reviewed it a while back and completely nailed its appeal: http://the-toast.net/2013/07/30/slightly-less-beloved-classics-nightingale-wood/

  38. 38
    2+

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I loved the toast review. Tis a pity the kindle version of this book is so expensive.

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