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Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

It has been said that this is the funniest English novel written. While that might be something of an exaggeration, there is no doubt that it is a very funny novel indeed and certainly stands comparison with other better-known English comic novels. While it is still in print in the US and the UK (and in Australia and Canada), it is still not firmly in the canon. Why is this? There are three possible reasons. Firstly, it is written by a woman. Women do not write comic novels, at least not in the view of the canonisers. This is, of course, nonsense but does seem to be a widespread view. Secondly, it is considered somewhat frivolous. There is no doubt that a casual reading would show a certain degree of frivolity but then so would a casual reading of, say, Decline and Fall or of Dance to the Music of Time. All three, of course, use comic effects for a generally serious purpose. Finally, this was Gibbons’ first novel (she had previously published a book of poetry.) She went on to write a further twenty-three novels, none of which had anything like the success of this novel and most of which were never reprinted and are now long since out of print and difficult to obtain. This clearly went against her. It is a pity, as it really is a very fine novel.

The novel is actually set in the future – around 1946 – though, apart from inventions such as an air postal service and a few references (Clark Gable is referred to as being long since out of date), we barely notice this. It is preceded by a foreword written to Anthony Pookworthy, A.B.S, L.L.R. Pookworthy is fictitious and is believed to be based on the writer Hugh Walpole. ABS apparently stands for associate back scratcher and LLR for licensed log roller. The book itself was, according to Gibbons, written in response to the overblown writing of Mary Webb. It is a witty and satirical take on contemporary life, both in London and in the country but with a serious aspect to it as well.

Flora Poste is nineteen when both her parents die of Spanish flu within a few weeks of one another. Contrary to her expectations, she is left with only a hundred pounds a year to live on but, as a very self-assured and tough young woman, she does not find this daunting. She goes to London to stay with her friend Mrs. Smiling. Mrs. Smiling is a well-off widow, courted by many young men, mainly from the colonies and all with odd nicknames. While there she writes to her few remaining relatives and asks them if she can live with them. She picks Judith Starkadder, a cousin who lives on a farm in Sussex. Once this has been agreed she heads off to Sussex. Though Sussex is close to London, we are made to think that the Starkadder farm – Cold Comfort Farm – is very remote. She is met by a very peculiar family. They call her Robert Poste’s child. Apparently, they did something terrible to Robert Poste (her father) but won’t say what it was As a result they feel obligated to help her but, at the same time, are worried that she wants to take the farm from them as recompense. Judith is the daughter of the late Fig Starkadder and his wife Ada Doom, who stays in her room all the time, eating large meals but refusing to see anyone but the maid who brings her food, and her daughter. It is sometime before Flora gets to meet her. Nevertheless she is an imposing presence. Judith is married to a distant cousin called Amos. Amos is a hell-fire preacher and goes to the local Quivering Sect chapel every week, telling all the brethren that they will all suffer eternal torment. Other members of the family include Judith’s children. There is Reuben, the oldest, who wants to inherit and improve the farm. Seth is his mother’s darling. Indeed, her doting on him seems almost incestuous. Seth spends his time mollocking, particularly with Miriam, daughter of the housekeeper, Mrs. Beetle, with the result that Miriam has a baby every year. The youngest child is Elfine, a kind of hippy young woman, who loves the outdoors and wearing strange clothes. She has been promised since birth to her cousin, Urk, but loves and is loved by Dick Hawk-Monitor, the local squire. Assorted cousins and farm workers make up the rest of the farm, along with the bull, called Big Business, and four cows who keep losing limbs.

The farm is filthy and badly run. There are continual squabbles and various things go wrong. Flora is not only not despondent but sets out to organise the various people, using her handbook The Higher Common Sense. The curse of the farm – there is nasty something in the woodshed Ada Doom continually repeats when she finally does appear – is something that hangs heavy over everyone. But Flora is not to be deterred. Gibbons’ skill is to show how Flora’s organisational approach can deal with the doom and gloom that she faces. Gibbons’ use of language is superb. She invents words such as mollocking, mentioned above, and sukebind, an ubiquitous plant, used also for framing all the pictures in the house and also used as a metaphor by the Starkadders. In short, the novel is a witty satire and not afraid to make fun, whether mocking the gloom of the Starkadders or mocking the literary man Mr. Mybug (real name Meyerberg) allegedly based on D H Lawrence, as he is obsessed with sex and is writing a book proving that Branwell Brontë wrote all his sisters’ books. This book should be better known and be accepted as part of the canon.

Publishing history

First published 1932 by Longmans, Green