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.