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R&R 089 | Cold Comfort Farm

My apologies for taking a long time to update. I had to really kick myself to continue updating this project and site, because I do love writing these reviews and thinking of silly self-portraits to go with them. I just haven't felt like it much the past month.

Stella Gibbons
Cold Comfort Farm
First published in: 1932
This edition: Penguin Books, 2006 (Introduction by Lynne Truss)
ISBN: 0-14-303959-8
Genre: classics, humor, satire
Pages: 233
(Awesome) Cover illustrations by R. Chast

R&R 089 | Cold Comfort Farm

Honestly? It's the cover of COLD COMFORT FARM which made me want to read it. Yes. But it is an irresistible cover. Designed by R. Chast, the cover depicts the cast (and cows) of Stella Gibbons's book perfectly; I expected a humorous book about silly people, and that's exactly what I ended up getting.

Flora Poste, a recently orphaned young woman, is on a mission: to save her relatives (the Starkadders) from drama suitable for novels, and to steer them to a path of normalcy. There's Judith, who seems to be suffering from a reversed Oedipus complex. Seth can't keep his pants on. Ninety year-old servant Adam insists on using twigs to do, or "cletter", the dishes.
Optimistic and determined, Flora heads out to Cold Comfort Farm to change the lives of the gloomy farming family, the members of which are undeniably under control by Flora's strange aunt Ada Doom, who has locked herself up in a room upstairs ever since she "saw something nasty in the woodshed".

I immediately took a liking to Gibbons upon reading her faux-"introductory letter" (addressed to one Anthony Pookworthy), which explains that she has a background in literature, and doesn't beat around the bush via pretty words. The whole letter is feisty and funny. She takes it one step further, (sarcastically) giving actual ratings to passages that would be deemed "literary enough" by that day's standards. These passages and their starred ratings can be found occasionally and at random throughout the text.

I also immediately liked Gibbons knowing that Virginia Woolf really did not like her. I've read a few books by Virginia Woolf; it's not that I'm "anti-Woolf" and would therefore immediately like anything she didn't. No, I was curious to know: what kind of a book would bring out a passionate dislike in, or (in Woolf's own words) "enrage", an author such as Virginia Woolf? Because it was a commercial success – and thus, snobbishly, not "real literature"? Because it was, finally, different? The controversy it apparently sparked in literary circles… that's what got me rather excited about this book. I couldn't help but have an instant respect for anyone who dared to be different.

Apart from being a funny book about strange people – colourfully described – COLD COMFORT FARM is a blatant parody of popular rural British literature by authors such as DH Lawrence (famous for, among many others, LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER – which I do intend to read and review at some point as well). Yes, rural literature has long ago moved over for other genres and interests; however, COLD COMFORT FARM seems to be rather timeless in that the parody and humor of it are still strong today. Just because right now the world reads Harry Potter and the Millennium trilogy doesn't mean COLD COMFORT FARM is dated, or hard to understand.

The character Mybug (Meyerburg, actually) is the personification of the rural genre. Mybug is especially funny because he's rather pathetically sexist – it makes him almost endearing. According to him, Flora's repressed sexually – all women are – and thus cold. Also, how Freudian: any landscape with hills reminds Mybug of breasts. Oh and he believes the Brontë sisters didn't write their famous books, but their brother Branwell did. Because women couldn't possibly…
Though I believe Mybug is the hot potato English version – "Myyyyyyyyyywwwbuuuuuwwwg" – of the man's actual name, I couldn't help thinking Flora must have misheard Meyerburg's name on purpose, "My Bug" – like he's one of those flies who keeps wanting to make physical contact, landing its irritating, tickling little legs on your arm, refusing to leave you alone. Only squashing it with a large swatter will stop it from bothering you.

Flora is a wonderful character. She always seemed a little elusive though, and could easily be deemed slightly self-righteous in how she wishes to steer her relatives in a certain way, the way she feels to be the correct one; however, the Starkadders simply are too dramatic for their own good, and it would have been a far worse character trait had Flora done nothing at all, observing their misery without caring (because they are all so miserable – even the cows). The Starkadders may be emo, but they are good people. The reader wants change for them, too, not just Flora.
Besides, I always understood Flora's character to be a parody as well – overeducated, a city girl with an easy fix, and she reminded me of Austen's Emma – not a character above the rest.

A final noteworthy aspect to COLD COMFORT FARM is that the story takes place in the future – and this is what makes me even more excited about this book. At first I was confused; there were mentions of two specific years (1942 and 1946)… wasn't this book written in 1932? It appears that the story takes place in the mid- to late 1940's. (Later on I discovered I had missed the small note in front of the book saying the story takes place in the near future.)
Stella Gibbons at some point mentions 'video calls', people pretty much use airplanes as personal transportation – like a car – and the author suggests that an intense war (albeit not World War 2, but the Anglo-Nicaraguan war) had taken place. Slightly strange, because there doesn't seem to be a particular reason why the book would be set in the future, meaning, it served no particular purpose… but I loved this about the book.

Gibbons seemed to be eerily ahead of her time, not just when it comes to airplanes: she's none too shy about mentioning (and having Flora recommend to another female character) contraception. That? Awesome.

The one thing I had trouble with was the dialect in this book; I'm fluent in English, but I'm not fluent in Sussex. I couldn't follow a large portion of the dialogue because of the dense Sussex dialect. It took a few reads before I got it.

But that's it, really.

I disagree with Woolf; I loved this book. I imagine in those days it must have been refreshing to get away from the domineering, romanticized novels. Imagine having nothing on television but soap operas. Good stuff surely, depending on personal preference, but imagine having no fun shows and funny people on TV. No Friends, no Liz Lemon (oh noes).

England, for the longest time, was stuck with drama – and absolutely no offense to Virginia Woolf, but she wasn't quite one to lighten the mood, either. I think Gibbons was appreciated so much because she didn't take herself too seriously. Perhaps readers and a chunk of critics were just relieved to have a few laughs for a change in those days. I know I was.

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R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)