Stella Gibbons takes us into a world we all know, for it has permeated our literature and culture: rustic British melodrama. This world has been around forever, in Robin Hood's story, for example. It reached full flower in the Brontës' Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. It's populated by eccentrics, who struggle between the impersonal forces of nature and their own wild emotions.
Cold Comfort Farm has two presiding spirits: D. H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy. From Lawrence, we find an exuberant nature, life bursting up everywhere. As in Lawrence, all the flowers and water-voles and bulls mirror the ripening desires of the characters. From Hardy, we get the opposing hand of fate, a gloom pressing down on the hopes and hearts of all those poor souls who suffered the singular misfortune, of being born in a Hardy novel. In brief, the denizens of Cold Comfort Farm are not ruled by reason, but by Eros and Thanatos.
Never fear, rescue from this turbulent chaos is on its way. But before we meet Flora Poste, come with me to Cold Comfort Farm, where you can taste some of Gibbons' singular recipe, and meet the proud peacock of young manhood, Seth Starkadder:
Judith had crossed the muck and rabble of the yard, and now entered the house by the back door.Here are Seth, Judith, and the large Starkadder family, roiling in this porridge of passions and their thwarting. It is, in Gibbons light and skillful hands, entrancing to watch; but it's not going anywhere. For one thing, Aunt Ada Doom, the presiding matriarch, is determined it shan't. She saw "something nasty in the woodshed" as a child, was traumatized to her core, and she needs all her family around her. She will brook no changes. For "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm."
In the large kitchen, which occupied most of the middle of the house, a sullen fire burned, the smoke of which wavered up the blackened walls and over the deal table, darkened by age and dirt, which was roughly set for a meal. A snood [a net or fabric bag pinned or tied on at the back of a woman's head for holding the hair] full of coarse porridge hung over the fire, and standing with one arm resting on the high mantel, looking moodily down into the heaving contents of the snood, was a tall young man whose riding-boots were splashed with mud to the thigh, and whose coarse linen shirt was open to his waist. The firelight lit up his diaphragm muscles as they heaved slowly in rough rhythm with the porridge.
He looked up as Judith entered, and gave a short, defiant laugh, but said nothing. Judith slowly crossed over until she stood by his side. She was as tall as he. They stood in silence, she staring at him, and he down into the secret crevasses of the porridge.
"Well, mother mine," he said at last, "here I am, you see. I said I would be in time for breakfast, and I have kept my word."
His voice had a low, throaty, animal quality, a sneering warmth that wound a velvet ribbon of sexuality over the outward coarseness of the man.
Judith's breath came in long shudders. She thrust her arms deeper into her shawl. The porridge gave an ominous, leering heave; it might almost have been endowed with life, so uncannily did its movements keep pace with the human passions that throbbed above it.
"Cur," said Judith, levelly, at last. "Coward! Liar! Libertine! Who were you with last night? Moll at the mill or Violet at the vicarage? Or Ivy, perhaps, at the Ironmongery? Seth - my son . . . " Her deep dry voice quivered, but she whipped it back, and her next words flew out at him like a lash.
"Do you want to break my heart?"
"Yes," said Seth, with an elemental simplicity.
The porridge boiled over.
Stella Gibbons knew the world she was parodying, even though she grew up in the suburbs of London, because she had worked with it. Though Cold Comfort Farm is in the mixed worlds of Hardy and Lawrence, those two had many imitators. Gibbons was aiming more at two popular writers of her own time: Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Gibbons began her career as a journalist. She was working for the Evening Standard in 1928 when they decided to serialise Webb's first novel, The Golden Arrow, and Gibbons was given the job of summarising the plot of earlier installments.
I find Cold Comfort Farm very easy to like. But looking for flaws, I can either see or invent three. First, the book gets extremely silly in places. I think Gibbons carries it off with gusto and a light but sure touch; unless you're very stuffy, you'll just hang on to the dashboard and let her drive. Secondly, Gibbons occasionally seems slightly cruel, in a Mean Girls sort of way. She mocks people for being fat, and for being poor. I frequently consider, when looking at a comic writer, just how much they're laughing with, and how much they're laughing at their characters.
In the end, Gibbons has a lot of mischief to her, but she's not mean. Even the characters she skewers gleefully get happy endings, finding fulfillment in marrying an appropriate partner, or going off to Paris in a plane. The characters are one of the greatest achievements in the whole book. Half of them are ludicrous, but you can see Gibbons enjoys every single one, and she really brings them to life, and lets them breathe, grow and surprise us. Stella Gibbons must have had a great time writing this book.
The third flaw is, she loves playing with this rustic world, but it is secondhand, in that she seems to have woven it secondhand from books she read. It's fine for the reader, as we know the same fiction she's working from. But one of the authors Gibbons parodied, Sheila Kaye-Smith, has the sharpest riposte to Gibbons, in her book, A Valiant Woman. Lucia, a teenager in the country, decides to write a great Urban Proletarian Novel. Her philistine grandmother is dismayed: she prefers ‘cosy’ rural novels, and knows Lucia is ignorant of proletarian life:
"That silly child! Did she really think she could write a novel? Well, of course, modern novels might encourage her to think so. There was nothing written nowadays worth reading. The book on her knee was called Cold Comfort Farm and had been written by a young woman who was said to be very clever and had won an important literary prize. But she couldn't get on with it at all. It was about life on a farm, but the girl obviously knew nothing about country life. To anyone who, like herself, had always lived in the country, the whole thing was too ridiculous and impossible for words."
But Stella Gibbons had just enough material to craft this delicious folly of a book, and especially her effervescent but dry sense of humor, like a fine champagne. Here is Flora Poste, about to go into town to watch her Uncle Amos preach hellfire to the Quivering Brethren:
"Are you going down into Beershorn to preach to the Brethren tonight?"Stella Gibbons' own favorite writers were Austen and Keats. Flora Poste, our heroine, is a confident, modern, self-aware Austen Heroine. She is a piercing clear light of reason, order, calm and contentment, stepping into the dark tempest of the Id. The characters Flora comes up against have plenty of force and creativity of their own. We share in Flora's confident, proactive personality; but the many subplots each take their own time to develop. So there is this underlying sense of order, and of things getting untangled and becoming clearer. But the book is full of colorful incidents and characters, and wonderful surprises and smiles along the way. It was a very charming ride.
Amos looked at her, as though seeing her for the first, or perhaps the second, time. His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of trees were etched like aging skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anybody who happened to be out in it. High up, a few chalky clouds doubtfully wavered in the pale sky that curved against the rim of the Downs like a vast inverted pot-de-chambre. Huddled in the hollow like an exhausted brute, the frosted roofs of Howling, crisp and purple as broccoli leaves, were like beasts about to spring.
"Ay," said Amos, at last. He was encased in black fustian which made his legs and arms look like drainpipes, and he wore a hard little felt hat. Flora supposed that some people would say that he walked in a lurid, smoky hell of his own religious torment. In any case, he was a rude old man.
"They'll all burn in Hell," added Amos, in a satisfied voice, "an' I mun surelie tell them so."
"Well, may I come too?"
He did not seem surprised. Indeed, she caught in his eye a triumphant light, as though he had long been expecting her to see the error of her ways and come to him and the Brethren for spiritual comfort.
"Ay . . . ye can come . . . ye poor miserable creepin' sinner. Maybe ye think ye'll escape hell fire if ye come along o' me, and bow down and quiver. But I'm tellin' ye no. 'Tes too late. Ye'll burn wi' the rest. There'll be time to say what yer sins have been, but there'll be no time for more."
"Do I have to say them out loud?" asked Flora, in some trepidation.