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Cold Comfort Farm

November 15, 2011

Often my daughter reminds me of Flora Poste, the protagonist of Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm, because she can cut through a lot of hand-wringing with a single raised eyebrow, or dispel a dark cloud that’s been hanging over my head with a brisk wave of her hand. Love? She’ll get to that when she’s ready to do the thing right.

Flora has a good heart, and a scheming nature. It takes her only a few months at Cold Comfort Farm to see to what all needs to be done, including cleaning up the ancient house and grounds, and dispelling belief in various nebulous curses that have kept the Starkadder family mired in generations of misery.

The famous comic line, so memorable in the movie version, is “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” Much of the comedy of novel and movie hangs on the fact that it doesn’t matter what the “something nasty” was; that it’s time to move on. I love the way even Flora is unsuccessful at getting to the bottom of every one of the ancient mysteries. But she doesn’t let it bother her; the past is gone and her face is firmly turned towards the future and the airplanes she has summoned to take everyone there.

This novel is my pick for the Imaginary Friends Book Club because I never get tired of rereading it, and want to introduce a few more people to its many pleasures.

The fun begins when, after a brief introduction to Flora’s matter-of-fact philosophy, she receives a letter from her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, a letter liberally sprinkled with hints of gloom and (literally) doom:

“I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these last twenty years.
Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed….
Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you?”

Flora’s practical response to this letter is to agree with a friend “that at least it had the negative merit of keeping silence upon the subject of sleeping arrangements.”

When she gets to the farm, she learns from an old man who likes to “clean” the dishes with a twig from a thorn bush (another of the comic touches portrayed so well in the movie) that “Mrs Starkadder was the curse of Cold Comfort. Mrs Starkadder was the Dominant Grandmother Theme, which was found in all typical novels of agricultural life…Flora should have suspected her existence from the beginning.” By putting people into categories from the novels she’s read, Flora sees clearly how to tidy them away in real life. I would love to see her handle Heathcliff as she does Mr. Mybug, a character who tells her he is writing a book about how Branwell wrote all the Bronte novels. I already pretty much know how she’d handle me—as my daughter does. Neither of them have much patience for “doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, and faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings for ever, and misunderstandings….”

Flora finds the courage to confront one of the first miserable souls on the farm, by taking the direct route; she goes up to a door no one else dares approach and knocks on it, asking if she may come in. The response is

“’What do ‘ee want wi’ me and mine?’
Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists call a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake. The most ordinary actions became, to such persons, entangled in complicated webs of apprehension and suspicion.”

Once she has sorted out that difficulty, she begins on the others. Her conversation with her rural cousin Seth is one of my favorites. He begins belligerently asserting that “women are all alike” and proceeds to a dissertation on how women “eat” men

“’if a man let’s ‘em.
Now I—I don’t let no women eat me. I eats them instead.’
Flora thought an appreciative silence was the best policy to pursue at this point. She found it difficult, indeed, to reply to him in words, since this conversation in which she had participated before, (at parties in Bloomsbury as well as in drawing-rooms in Cheltenham) was, after all, mainly a kind of jockeying for place, a shifting about of the pieces on the board before the real game began. And if, as in her case, one of the players was merely a little bored by it all and was wondering whether she would be able to brew herself some hot milk before she went to bed that night, there was not much point in playing.
True, in Cheltenham and in Bloomsbury gentlemen did not say in so many words that they ate women in self-defence, but there was no doubt that that was what they meant.
‘That shocks you, eh?’ said Seth, misinterpreting her silence.
‘Yes, I think it’s dreadful,’ replied Flora, good-naturedly meeting him half-way.”

At the end of the novel, when everything has been dragged out into the light of day, Flora notes with satisfaction:

“There they all were. Enjoying themselves. Having a nice time. And having it in an ordinary human manner. Not having it because they were raping somebody, or beating somebody, or having religious mania or being doomed to silence by a gloomy, earthy pride, or loving the soil with the fierce desire of a lecher, or anything of that sort. No, they were just enjoying an ordinary human event, like any of the other millions of ordinary people in the world.”

Her question “And did the goat die?” will forever remain unanswered, like “why is there a watermelon there?” and even my own prosaic “what are we going to do tonight?” to which my daughter’s answer is always “the same thing we do every night, Pinky—try to take over the world!”

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29 Comments leave one →
  1. PAJ permalink
    November 15, 2011 7:00 am

    This sounds like fun. I’ll look for it when next I’m in the library. I know a couple of real-life Floras.

    • November 15, 2011 8:20 am

      Plus you know my own real-life Flora. Now I’m curious as to who the others could be! I really can’t believe you haven’t read this book yet; it is right up your alley.

  2. November 15, 2011 7:51 am

    Hahaha, LOVED this review. Have you seen the film? The scenes with Mr. Mybug (Stephen Fry) are marvelous. And darling Seth! I haven’t read the book yet (because I was afraid I would love it less than the film) but now you have enticed me. And luckily Jenny left her copy here when she ran off to the big city lights.

    • November 15, 2011 8:22 am

      I can’t remember if I saw the movie before I read the book. It might have been that seeing the movie made me want to read the book. I definitely didn’t realize that it’s Stephen Fry playing Mybug!

      The book is just as much fun–maybe even more fun, because you get some of the intertextual jokes that the movie has more trouble making.

  3. freshhell permalink
    November 15, 2011 9:17 am

    Each time I read this book, I find something new and wonderful to love. But, I have a nagging question. Is Judith supposed to be Ada’s daughter? Or daughter-in-law? Or, if she’s also a Starkadder by birth did she married her brother? I can’t quite figure it out. I know it’s beside the point but it’s a sticking one.

    • November 15, 2011 10:00 am

      She married her cousin, perhaps? Very rural thing to do. I thought Judith was Ada’s daughter, but now I am rethinking it. What fresh hell is this?

      • freshhell permalink
        November 15, 2011 10:05 am

        Well, it’s the last name and the whole “There’ve always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort” thing that makes me wonder. Aunt Ada Doom. Is Doom a married name or a maiden name? She married INTO the Starkadders? I can completely believe Judith married a cousin but there’s no mention of it and I would think that perfect parody fodder right there. Judith always seems to be referred to as Ada’s daughter but…Amos is a Starkadder too. So…these are the ridiculous little details that keep me up at night. I can forgive Stella Gibbons any slip because it’s really beside the point in a novel like this but I STILL WANT TO KNOW.

        • November 15, 2011 10:44 am

          I wouldn’t be so sure it’s a slip. I think the point is obfuscated so you can’t ever know, and you’ll always suspect that there’s some kind of rural gettin-it-on-with-yr-first-cousin thing going on.

  4. November 15, 2011 11:39 am

    My book club is reading this one next year. I’m excited to finally get to it!

    • November 16, 2011 7:43 am

      As you should be. And it sounds like we’re all agreed that it’s fun to watch the movie first!

  5. November 15, 2011 12:10 pm

    I’m with Jeanne on the deliberate obfuscations on some of the characters and their relationships with each other. Did Seth father the future jazz band? I finally gave up and googled ‘water vole’ since the only voles I’ve ever seen were rather the worse for wear after meeting up with a cat.

    The last five pages are truly excellent – I mean, I enjoyed all of it, but the last five pages were truly lovely.

    • November 16, 2011 7:45 am

      I was convinced that Seth did father the future jazz band, and then flew off to Hollywood without another thought of anyone from the farm in his handsome head. So realistic.

  6. November 15, 2011 12:10 pm

    OK so now I feel bad that I didn’t try harder to find the book since it’s your pick. I’ll be late but I will read it, I promise. Plus I’ve met your Flora too and just based on the opening paragraph in your review, I’m intrigued.

    • November 16, 2011 7:47 am

      I think you might have a little fellow-feeling with Flora.

  7. November 15, 2011 3:02 pm

    I finished Gibbons’ Westwood yesterday, and it made me fall in love with her writing and her sense of humour all over again. So it made me extra happy to revisit this through your eyes today.

    • November 16, 2011 7:47 am

      Glad my timing was good! I’ve only read one of her many other books, but mean to get to them eventually, especially now that some have been reissued.

  8. November 15, 2011 6:36 pm

    I need to reread this book again, it’s been a while. I saw the film first and loved it best, if only because, yeah, of Stephen Fry’s hilarious Mr. Mybug. Oh, God, and Ian McKellan playing Amos is absolutely superb. There are back-to-back scenes of Amos’s sermon and Mr. Mybug pestering Flora at a coffee shop that had me practically on the floor.

    • November 16, 2011 7:48 am

      It was Ian McKellan crouched in that dark corner? You’re right; it was. No wonder I loved that movie!

  9. November 15, 2011 8:15 pm

    I really must read this book!!

    • November 16, 2011 7:49 am

      Yes, you really must. We’ll wait right here to see what you think.

  10. trapunto permalink
    November 16, 2011 1:53 am

    This review made me happy. It was exactly the same kind of up-cheering as comes from spotting a favorite on the library shelves and leafing through to the best parts. What a good book! Yet somehow I can’t picture you as the handwringing type in need of a Flora.

    • November 16, 2011 7:52 am

      Perhaps it’s mostly in opposition to my Flora, who is intensely rational, but you might be surprised how Judith-like I can be, especially around my family. We had a dent in the acoustic tile of our basement ceiling from someone throwing a table.

  11. November 16, 2011 1:39 pm

    I’ve seen this book around and have always thought I’d read it. After reading your description, I’m not so sure. I’m adding it to my wish list.

    • November 16, 2011 4:49 pm

      If you can like southern gothic (Flannery O’Connor) then you can like this–it’s sort of the opposite. Sunny, despite peoples’ twisted nature.

  12. November 23, 2011 10:06 am

    I give. Onto the heaping pile of tbr this goes. I’ve always thought it sounded ‘boring’ without ever ever researching it. I also dislike the word cold in a title of a book. I always assume it will put me a-shiverin’ and not from fun-beasties but from, well, COLD.

    • November 23, 2011 10:08 am

      and ‘farm’. yawn.

      • November 23, 2011 10:55 am

        the “farm” part is mostly for the many jokes that can be “milked” out of it…
        Also, why not watch the movie first?

  13. November 29, 2011 10:02 pm

    Enjoyed the movie years ago, when I was too young to realize it was satire. Maybe that’s why I’ve tried to act like Flora ever since.

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