Cold Comfort Farm (reread)

Several years ago, I had the idea that the perfect job for me would be to go into an office and just work there as a regular employee for several weeks to see what needs to be fixed to make the place run properly. If the filing system were stupid, I’d fix it up. If the supply closet were a mess, I’d sort it out—and establish an easy system for replenishing supplies. And if someone were cleaning out dishes with a stick, I’d buy that person a little mop. Oh wait, that’s what Flora Poste, the main character of Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm, would do! Yes, there’s a little Flora Poste in me, and watching her bring order to the ridiculously gloomy and doomy farm called Cold Comfort is an almost pure delight!

Flora comes to Cold Comfort after the death of her parents when Flora “was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.” Instead of developing a method of earning her own living, Flora decides to go and live with relatives, observing that “whereas there still lingers some prejudice against living on one’s friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives.” Alas for Flora, the only relatives who seem able to provide an appropriate parrot-free place for her are the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm. Judith Starkadder, who tells Flora she can come, says that this will be a way to recompense for a mysterious wrong done to Flora’s father.

When Flora arrives at Cold Comfort, she discovers that she has quite a project on her hands. Everyone seems utterly miserable in one way or another, sometimes without even quite knowing it, as is the case with old Adam, who cleans the dishes with a bundle of twigs. The house itself is dark and poorly taken care of. Being unable to abide a mess, Flora immediately sets about tidying things up—and her tidying is not so much about cleaning dusty curtains (although she does that) as it is about applying the principles “The Higher Common Sense” to the Starkadders’ lives. Not only does she buy Adam a mop to clean the dishes, she also helps her cousins, aunts, and uncles find and embrace the things that will make them the most happy.

Flora herself is a delightful character. I can’t help but love someone who would say something like this about being forced to play miserable outdoor games in school:

I used to stand quite still and stare at the trees and not think about anything. There were usually some trees about, for most games, you know, are played in the open air, and even in the winter the trees are still there. But I found that people would bump into me, so I had to give up standing still, and run, like the others. I always ran after the ball because, after all, Mary, the ball is important in a game isn’t it? until I found they didn’t like me doing that, because I never got near it or hit it or did whatever you  are supposed to do to it.

When asked to explain what she did like to do, here’s what Flora said:

I said, well, I was not quite sure, but on the whole I thought I liked having everything neat and tidy and calm all round me, and not being bothered to do things, and laughing at the kind of joke other people didn’t think at all funny, and going for country walks, and not being asked to express opinions about things (like love, and isn’t so-and-so peculiar?)

I’ll just say it: I like having everything neat and tidy and calm all around me and laughing at jokes others don’t get and not being asked to express opinions about whether someone is peculiar. Here, Flora is definitely a companion on the page for me. But the especially delightful thing about Flora is that when faced with disorder, she doesn’t crumble or panic, she does something about it. The lovely thing is that her actions end up not just bringing her the order she desires, but also giving pleasure to others who never knew their lives could change.

Cold Comfort Farm is best known as a comedy, and it is indeed funny. I must confess, though, that rural comedies are a tricky thing for me. Having grown up in a rural area, I can get sensitive about depictions of rural people as ignorant or ridiculous. The first time I read Cold Comfort Farm, in fact, I did feel a little annoyance at the exaggerated depictions of country folk. The annoyance was not so great that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I did feel a little put out by it. On this, my second read, I was less bothered for a couple of reasons.

First, urban people, even Flora herself at times, also get the comic treatment. There’s some hilarious material early on about the plays that are popular in London, Flora’s friend Mary who collects brassieres, and the men who follow Mary around. Second, Gibbons does give each of her rural characters some pleasing quality or special talent that has merely been hidden. The rural setting mostly just allows those qualities to remain hidden in a way they would not be in a more populous area. The isolation also kept the Starkadders themselves from seeing a way out. It took Flora to show them.

The ending is wonderfully satisfying, with everything being just as it should be, even as some of the questions that bedeviled Flora—and her readers—remain unanswered. The ambiguity is, in fact, a brilliant stroke because it leaves the two big questions up to the readers’ imaginations. I suspect that any actual answer would have been a let down, so I’m happier not knowing.

And I have to share a new thing that I discovered on this reading, thanks to Wikipedia (where you can also find an extremely useful family tree). I knew that the book was a parody of the work of writers like my beloved Thomas Hardy, and you can see that in the storyline itself. What I didn’t know was that Gibbons included several intentionally purple passages that she marked with asterisks. (I wondered what those asterisks were about!) So I leave you with one of those doozies:

Growing with the viscous light that was invading the sky, there came the solemn, tortured-snake voice of the sea, two miles away, falling in sharp folds upon the mirror-expanses of the beach.

Also, I shall now no longer scrub my dishes, I shall “cletter” them. Somehow that seems like more fun.

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26 Responses to Cold Comfort Farm (reread)

  1. Jennifer Foucher says:

    Hi Teresa,

    I really loved your book review and opinion on the book Cold Comfort Farm. CCF has been a book i have always meant to read, but it is always put off. Now, with your review, i just want to go out and get the book and read it :-) but i have others in my queue :-( It almost sounds like a Thomas Hardy book.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jen! It’s always so cool when people I know in “real life” stop by and comment! I do know all about the lengthy book queue. This is a nice short book, so it wouldn’t distract you from the others on the list for too long.

  2. Steph says:

    When I first read CCF, just before blogging (I think), I didn’t love it like I thought I would. I think part of the reason is that it is a satire, but I’m not all that familiar with the authors Gibbons was satirizing – I’ve not read any Hardy or D.H. Lawrence, so I think I wasn’t clear on what was a parody and what wasn’t.

    I did wind up watching the film version with Kate Beckinsale and I did like that quite a lot; it made me think I’d like to revisit the text once I’m better acquainted with some of the those other authors!

    • Teresa says:

      Steph, As I think you know, I’ve read lots of Hardy (and a little Laurence), so that may have added to my appreciation. On my first read, though, I think I missed the fact that this was a parody of a type of book and thought she was making fun of the characters themselves, rather than the literary types they represent.

  3. softdrink says:

    I pulled this off the shelf the other day, but then it lost out to Broken Glass Park. Someday I’ll get around to it!

  4. Carin says:

    Love love love this book! And I thought the movie was very well-done.

    I saw something nasty in the woodshed!

  5. That sounds wonderful! I had heard of this, but had no idea what it was about. Although I like what I’ve read so far of Hardy’s books, I can see how he would be easy and fun to parody. I think I would identify with Flora as well, and it’s funny, because my husband is always saying he wishes he had a job where he could just go in an make workplaces more efficient – although he doesn’t seem to apply those same tendencies at home :) – so I had to laugh at your opening. And he loves Kate Beckinsale, so he might even be willing to watch the movie with me after I read it!

  6. Jenny says:

    I watched the film before I read the book, so the parody aspect of it was always very far front in my mind – that’s why I didn’t mind the teasing of the rural characters, because it was so plain from the film that they’re takeoffs on stereotypes written by other authors. And as you say, it’s the same with the ones in the city.

    I love those passages! I was enchanted to discover, when I did read the book, that the bits of writing we hear Flora composing are taken from Stella Gibbons’s asterisked passages. :)

    • Jenny says:

      Hear her composing in the film, that is.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly, Jenny. She’s parodying a literary type, not a type of person, a fact I think I missed on first read. And I forgot all about those passages being in the movie. (I really don’t think I’ve seen it since it was new.)

  7. I love Cold Comfort Farm. Like you, I am definitely a Flora, someone who wants to sort out everyone else and bring order and peace to the universe. Like Flora, I should also probably be gently mocked for some of my efforts. Whenever I reread CCF, I can’t help but think about the huge difference between Flora and female protagonists of modern novels, particularly the easily flustered messes that pass for heroines in ‘Chick Lit’ novels. Clearly, more people need to read Stella Gibbons.

    • Teresa says:

      Claire, That’s a great observation about Flora vs. so many chick-lit heroines. I like some chick lit now and then, but it drives me nuts that the characters seem not just to experience drama, but to desire it. This book is a wonderful example of how competence and and steady disposition can still be played for comedy.

  8. I loved this book! I saw the movie a long time ago, but I found the book even more delightful. And I’m glad you mentioned the asterisked passages, that was one of the best bits in the book.

    And what the heck is that nasty thing in the woodshed?

  9. Emily says:

    Love Cold Comfort Farm! And I would go so far as to say that Flora gets the comic treatment MOST of the time. For me (a person devoid of Flora’s desire to meddle in other peoples’ lives and sort them all out) she exists at about the same level of lovable ridiculousness as all the other characters, urban and rural. I don’t think I find her as appealing as many other readers do, but I still absolutely love the novel. So satisfying!

    • Teresa says:

      Your comment made me laugh, Emily! And just to reassure you, I don’t go around meddling where I’m not wanted–at least I try not to. But I do think my Flora-like need for order is the reason that I’m well suited to being the workflow/deadline guru for my department, so the tendency has served me well.

  10. trapunto says:

    I loved reading this review. “Clettering” is even better than “washing up,” which is better than “doing the dishes.” Which sounds carnal. Not the relationship I want with dirty plates.

  11. Iris says:

    This sounds wonderful. I have heard so many good things about this book and I can’t believe I still haven’t read it.

  12. Frisbee says:

    I enjoyed your review. It’s been a long time since I read Cold Comfort Farm and I’ll have to put it on the TBR list. Maybe I’ll actually put it on the stack on my table so I don’t forget about it.

  13. Pingback: In Which I Fall Short of Words (1) | Iris on Books

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