Review Fridays: Cold Comfort Farm

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic, and prolonged. –Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Stella Gibbons wrote over 20 novels, but her most enduring is Cold Comfort Farm, the tale of Flora Poste, who loves things to be ordered and neat, and her quest to impose that sense of rationality on her relatives. After her parents die, Flora decides that, instead of finding a job, she will go to live with family. She writes them all letters. The response from the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm promises both horror and interest. Addressing her as “Robert Poste’s child”, her cousin Judith writes that her man once did a wrong to Flora’s father and that she always knew Flora would be after her rights at last. Flora has no idea what this means, but she is intrigued, so she resolves to go to them.

The book is a satire of dark, rural novels of the time. Aunt Ada Doom, the aptly named matron of the farm, once “saw something nasty in the woodshed” and now uses that excuse to keep the inhabitants of the house under her control. Gibbons is making fun, but, through Flora, she helps the characters to realize that everything need not be so doom and gloom, that they are not trapped, that it is good and right to follow happiness wherever it might lead. All one needs is a bright attitude and a sense of purpose, and one can order things as one likes.

The novel embraces a lively use of language, names, and plot situations. There are cows named Aimless, Feckless, Pointless, and Graceless (the latter of which loses a leg), a bull called Big Business, a landscape marked by sukebind, and a congregation of Quiverers. While reading, the immense amount of fun Gibbons must have had writing the book comes across. Nothing is safe from her sharp observational powers. She even laughs at the idea that important landmarks can be reduced to a number of stars in travel guides, using a rating system to point out the really exceptional sentences in the book to make life easier for the critics.

The relationship of the characters is suitably confusing and hilarious, having a Wuthering Heights feel to it, but taking it a step farther. Don’t bother trying to make a family tree of the Starkadders. The exact blood relationship matters less than trying to sort out the personal relationships, to heal old hurts, and to get the characters acting in a way that makes better sense. There is no point in being miserable. One should not stay unhappy merely to please a miserable relative. Flora sees how the characters could be put to better use and sends them on their ways.

Cold Comfort Farm is a brilliant and very funny book. Flora mentions, at one point of the novel, that she wants to eventually write a novel as good as Persuasion except set in the present day. In the meantime, if anyone asks what she does for a living, she can say she is collecting material. Isn’t this the dream of every writer, expressed so concisely and rationally?

Underneath the humor, there is a wonderful sense of optimism. If you’re unhappy, simply reorder things in the way you like. And don’t forget to feed the parrot!