Another month, another book read for my Classics Club list. And this one was terrific! Quirky, funny, engaging – a book to sink into and escape the world a little bit. Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm is a real treat! I have not seen the film but I hear it is also good and I will try to find it somewhere.
Flora Poste’s parents died of the “annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish plague which occurred in her twentieth year” (yikes!) and they have only left her a hundred pounds a year. She decamps to a friend’s house, a Mrs. Smiling, a wealthy young widow, to figure out what to do next. Mrs. Smiling suggest that she get a job and eventually get a flat of her own. Flora is having none of that. Her plan is to write to one of her long lost relatives and get them to host her indefinitely.
“I think it’s degrading of you, Flora,” cried Mrs. Smiling at breakfast. “Do you truly mean that you won’t ever want to work at anything?” Her friend replied after some thought.
“Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, “Collecting material.” No one can object to that. Besides, so I shall be.”
The most appealing reply comes from her cousin, Judith Starkadder. Appealing is a relative term, of course. She offers her a place at Cold Comfort Farm, in Sussex, along with the strange and intriguing lines, “So you are after your rights at last… my man once did your father a great wrong.” Mrs. Smiling says, “it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”
So Flora decides to go to Cold Comfort Farm and finds a very quirky, rather dirty and unkempt place full of bizarre and somewhat pathological characters. In addition to Judith, who seems strangely and overly attached to her son, Seth, who is menacingly overly sexual and obsessed with the “talkies,” there is fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Judith’s husband. Their other son Reuben is convinced that Flora wants to steal the farm from him. She also encounters Adam, the old hired farmhand who is obsessed with the livestock and calls Flora “Robert Poste’s Child.” The place is absolutely bonkers and yet Flora is not intimidated by anything, really, showing a great sense of humor as she goes about her business of righting all the wrongs at CCF. She also has to avoid the zealous attentions of a Mr. Mybug, a writer whom she had met once at a party in London and who is staying in the nearest town of Howling. The pompous Mybug absurdly thinks that Branwell Bronte actually wrote the books that his sisters did.
“There’s a quality in you…” said Mr. Mybug staring at her and waving his fingers. “Remote somehow, and nymph-like… oddly unawakened. I should like to write a novel about you and call it ‘Virginal.'”
“Do, if it passes the time for you,” said Flora.
Flora has plans for setting things in order at Cold Comfort Farm, but her most formidable adversary is Aunt Ada, who only comes down from her attic room once or twice a year and holds the purse strings and controls the family with her imposing will. We find out that Ada had seen “something nasty in the woodshed” when she was little and that it had scarred her for life.
You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed, years and years and years ago. If any of them went away, to any other part of the country, you would go much madder. Any attempt by any of them to get away from the farm made one of your attacks of madness come on. It was unfortunate in some ways but useful in others… The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain, seventy years ago.
Will Flora’s plans for improving the farm and it’s residents’s lives work? Will she find out why she is owed a debt because of her father? Will we ever find out what Ada saw in the woodshed? This was a hilarious, wickedly smart, very entertaining read. I have no knowledge of the rural melodramas of the 1930s that this novel is supposed to be a “merciless parody” of, as the book jacket says. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. Flora’s plucky determination, as improbable as it might have been, was charming, and I loved seeing her figure out the best ways to work her magic on the sad, lost, hapless residents of the farm. I can see myself reading this again sometime in the future and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it.