A Month in the Country by JL Carr

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Excerpt: A Month in the Country by JL Carr is the story of war veteran Tom Birkin and the unforgettable summer he spends in the country uncovering and restoring a medieval wall mural inside an old country church. It is a journey of discovery for Tom Birkin, both in regards to his work and rediscovery of self after the trauma and ravages of his war experiences.

When Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War steps off the train and sets foot in the small village of Oxgoodby in the English countryside on a dark night, little does he know of the masterpiece that awaits him in a little, old forgotten church, far away from the city and the eyes of the art experts of the world. Tom is just grateful to land a job, his first one after the War. He has been wounded, both physically and mentally from the War, and it is his hope that given time, he will be able to recover from it. The twitch that encumbers the left side of his face is a tell-tale sign of his past but what his face does not reveal is the disillusionment, the sense of futility that he feels regarding his part in the war.

Unceremoniously he is invited to sleep in the belfry of the church he is restoring. The Vicar, who has commissioned him, is a cold man who discusses the terms of the contract in exacting terms.

When Tom wakes up in the belfry the next morning he is surrounded by the immense beauty of the Yorkshire countryside captured at the height of summer. The countryside, the village people who slowly impinge upon his solitary life help Tom to slowly recover from the ravages of his past. In the Vicar’s wife, Tom discovers a lonely spirit. A lovely woman who seems trapped in a terribly lifeless marriage and who Tom secretly forms an attachment for.

As Tom toils, day after day to restore the mural to its former beauty and eminence, so too does Tom’s heart undergo a restoration of sorts.

The language of the book is not the most fluid but the writing conveys the immense beauty of the time spent in the country and the experiences had there. It is a book that has left a lasting impression on me, long after I have set it down.

This is a beautiful and meaningful summer read.

A Vivid ‘Portrait of Elmbury’ by John Moore

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‘Portrait of Elmbury’ by John Moore is the recounting of the author’s life, in the small market town of Elmbury in the interwar years.

It seems that the name Elmbury is a fictitious name. In all probability the town of Elmbury is the author’s childhood hometown of Tewkesbury. The names of the characters that show up frequently in the narrative have also been changed to preserve anonymity. What cannot be disguised, however, is the author’s fondness for his hometown, its valleys and fields, its orchards and woods, its rivers and farms ,along with the assortment of distinguished and motley characters that lend Elmbury, a character all its very own.

We follow the author’s life chronologically, starting from the years 1913-1918, when he was a small child, to his boyhood: 1919-1924, his early working life as an auctioneer’s apprentice at his uncle’s office in Elmbury: 1924-1927, a period of returning to Elmbury after four years writing in London: 1931-1935 and lastly a description of the years leading up to the commencement of the Second World War.

The narrative is extremely dense. One needs to devote absolute concentration during reading lest one misses out a detail of an incident, a character or a description.

One fact emerges quite early on in the narrative and that is the fact that Elmbury is not that idyllic English country town bestowed with bucolic charm. This is no James Herriot style storytelling. We learn of the beauty of Elmbury but it is always coupled with the not so beautiful, the derelict and the ugly. And it rears its ugly face in the form of the disreputable ‘Double Alley’.

Indeed, even among Elmbury’s slums, Double Alley was something to be wondered at. Respectable women drew their skirts closer about them as they passed its nauseous opening; even the doctor and the priest were unwilling adventurers on the rare occasions when they were summoned to visit it; and policemen, who were more frequent visitors, took care to go in pairs when their duties took them there.

The author grows up in what he describes as the ‘loveliest house in Elmbury’, Tudor House, which is plump opposite to the entrance to the squalor of Double Alley. Through the window, the young author and his sibling witness the goings on that occur on the high street of Elmbury, the daily rituals of Elmbury residents and the Punch and Judy like theatrics of the Double Alley residents. We learn of the town scoundrels-Pistol, Bardolph and Nym; the Colonel who makes faces at them through the window and emerges later on in the narrative as one of the author’s dearest friends.

Even though, the author accentuates the dirt and filth of Elmbury, ever so often, we are treated to pictures of pastoral perfection. It is in these descriptions of nature where the author excels.

It was a perfect autumn evening. There was mist like blue smoke hanging about the little wood they called the Dogleg Spinney and down in the vale you could see streaks of whiter mist over the the river. The sun was setting in a mass of airy pink clouds like flying flamingos and the Abbey tower, catching the light, burned like a beacon. The chestnut trees in the churchyard, with brown and yellow leaves, were incandescent also. Sprawled around the Abbey, half in light and half in shadow, lay the lovely and haphazard town.

If I had one word of criticism about the narrative it is this that: I found the author distanced his own personal life tremendously from the text. We know scant details of his life: that his father was the mayor of the village, that he lost his father early on in life, that he joined his uncle’s office as an auctioneer, that he disliked certain aspects of his job especially auctioning off the belongings of poor farmers in debt, that he started writing books and left for London to be part of the fashionable writing set, that he returned to Elmbury, after those years in exile with a greater appreciation for the place.

Emotion seemed larger here, pleasures were keener, sorrows sharper, men’s laughter was more boisterous, jokes were funnier, the tragedy was more profound and the comedy more riotous, the huge fantasy of life was altogether more fantastic. London, for all its street lights, was a twilit world; Elmbury on a murky February evening, seemed as bright as a stage.

When the author does return to Elmbury, it is the time of the Great Depression and this time of hardship is felt as keenly in Elmbury as any other place in Britain. It can be witnessed in the long line of people standing outside the Labour Exchange, of the large number of people loitering without a purpose on street corners, in the abject expression in the faces of the villagers…

Then there is a period of ‘uneasy peace’, a lull before the great storm of the Second World War. The people of Elmbury, are called away- some to distant foreign fields to wage a bloody war and some like the author take to the skies in mortal combat.

For my part, I had determined that when war came-we no longer thought of it as ‘if’- I should fight it in the air; for I had just learned to fly a Moth, had discovered a brave new world of cirrus and cumulus, and was bemused by the strange beauty of the sky’s snowy regions, its unearthly continents of clouds.

 

Many of these people never return to the green verdant fields of Elmbury…

‘Portrait of Elmbury’ is, as the title suggests, a vivid and minutely detailed historical sketch of the market town as seen through the eyes of the author. What is very evident is the author’s great love for the place. I enjoyed it for a unique glimpse at a way of life that occupies a special place in the rural history of England.

I’m eager to read the second book in the trilogy- ‘Brensham Village’,  to see exactly where the story takes us.

 

I received a review copy of ‘Portrait of Elmbury’ from the kind people at Slightly Foxed but all opinions about this wonderful narrative are entirely my own.

Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

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‘Summer Half’ by Angela Thirkell was my second foray into the Thirkell novels set in the fictional, rural English province of Barsetshire (derivatised from Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire of the Barchester Chronicles series).

I feel that one must be prepared mentally before embarking upon a Thirkell novel. While she lacks the sharp wit of Barbara Pym, the superior plot of Stella Gibbons, the excellent writing of Nancy Mitford, there is a soft sleepy British humour in her novels that makes them irresistible to me. Therefore, I feel that one should not start reading the novel with a lofty sense of literary expectation.

The books have a weak plot but are filled with a cast of unmistakably middle-class British characters who belong to a bygone era. Some of them are perturbed with the state of political affairs in pre World War 2 Europe, but for the most part, they are engaged in playing tennis, reading literature and enjoying summer picnics.

There are a few characters who share the same names as Trollope’s Barsetshire characters. A favourite of mine-Old Bunce appears in the new avatar of a boatman in ‘Summer Half’- a fact that I derived particular pleasure from.

The characters in ‘Summer Half’ are people who have epicurean qualities and so the book is liberally scattered with references to meals that will make your mouth water.

The tea in Colin’s room looked perfectly delightful. There were mustard and cress sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, jam sandwiches, bloater paste sandwiches, cakes with pink icing, chocolate cake. a coffee cake and two plates of biscuits. Colin,  poking about in the village, had found a grocer who kept these joys of his early childhood, animal biscuits and alphabet biscuits and had bought a pound of each. There was also a huge bowl of strawberries, a large jug of cream and on the dressing-table beer and sherry for the late comers.

There were two specific points about the plot that drew me to this novel. The first was the school setting of the book (I adore school stories!). The second was the fact that it was set in the summer- and I felt like a month of light summer reading this month, after finishing Bleak House in June.

The story deals with the decision made by young and brilliant Colin Keith, a recent graduate of Oxford and destined for a career in law, to sacrifice his calling in life to take up a teaching job at the local Southbridge School, during the summer term. What he sees as a sacrifice, trying to earn a living instead of studying for the law, his parents see as a temporary summer diversion. Colin packs his bags and takes up a room in Southbridge School and is immediately charged with the difficult task of teaching the classics to the boys of the Mixed Fifth.

We are introduced to a bevy of school characters: the Headmaster Mr Birkett, his beautiful but shallow daughter Rose who is perpetually engaged, this time to another schoolteacher Mr Phillips, Mr Everard Carter- another schoolteacher and three boys from the Mixed Fifth- Tony Morland, Eric Swan and scholarly but absent minded ‘Hacker’.

Not only do we gain admittance to the  goings-on at Southbridge School via Colin Keith, we also get to know of his middle-class, respected family: Mr Keith (lawyer), matriarch Mrs Keith (placid and ever welcoming of guests), elder brother and lawyer Robert Keith and his family. sweet-tempered sister Kate and younger schoolgirl sister Lydia-loudvoiced, opinionated and on more than one occasion described as an ‘Amazon’.

When a number of unmarried young men and women meet frequently during summer picnics, school Sport’s Days, house parties during long Bank Holidays, this is most certainly a recipe for romance and matchmaking.

Read if you will, about this perfect snapshot of bucolic provincial life. There will be plenty of talk of sunshine and tennis matches, of the midnight mishaps of errant schoolboys, of scrumptious food where ‘hasty lunches’ consist of ‘salmon mayonnaise, roast beef, potatoes, peas, French beans, salad, chocolate soufflé,charlotte russe, cream cheese, Bath Oliver biscuits and raspberries and cream. ‘Summer Half’, published in 1937 is that perfect escapist novel that I am sure every Britain would have wanted to get lost in, at a time when a nation was poised precariously on the brink of war.

 

Bleak House is Not a Bleak Novel

 

 

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“LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.”

Thus starts the novel of epic proportions named ‘Bleak House’.

The opening paragraph of Bleak House grabbed my attention from the very onset of reading the book. It is truly memorable.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of the introduction of Bleak House that

‘Dickens’s openings are almost always good; but the opening of Bleak House is good in a quite new and striking sense’.

Notice how fragmented the sentences are.

The opening is in fact a one word sentence. The fragmented dialogue, in my opinion, give a sense of frenetic activity. Combined with the present tense that it is written in, there is a sense of unrest, tension and suspense- one feels anything could happen at any time.

And the dull, smokey, dusty, foggy picture of London thus presented, serves almost as a metaphor for the state of Victorian society – in dire need of social reform.

It is the perfect way to introduce the reader to the frustration the author feels regarding the cumbersome judicial system which is one of the themes at the heart of this great novel.

‘Bleak House’ is the story of a legal case called ‘Jarndyce and Jarndyce’ which has gone down in the annals of history, for being one of the most long-standing legal battles in British judicial history. Several people’s financial fates are entangled in the trappings of the legal battle. Of them, we are introduced to Mr. John Jarndyce, owner of Bleak House and his wards, Richard and Ada. There are other beneficiaries but despite the different age, social backgrounds and diversity of the persons involved, they all share one thing in common: the feeling that their lives are in a permanent state of unrest. There is a lack of settlement and finality. There is a hope that an outcome will soon be reached in the case and an expectation that life will vastly improve when that occurs. But in the meantime life is exceedingly hard to bear. There is bitterness and resentment.

When middle aged John Jarndyce, offers his wards Richard and Ada a home under his own roof, he extends the same gesture to young Esther Summerson, a young orphaned girl, who knows nothing about her parents, her past or the reason that she should be so favoured by Mr John Jarndyce. Esther’s personal history is a mystery but it is known to her, that the circumstances of her birth are tinged with shame. Esther is brought to Bleak House as Ada’s companion and is soon entrusted with the housekeeping duties of Bleak House. She has a sweet, kind temperament and it is through her eyes that we are told part of the story.

Bleak House is considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece. For one, the narrative technique is extraordinary. In Bleak House we observe Dickens using two different types of narrative.

The first is the omniscient narrator who is impersonally telling the story in the third person. The second is the first person narrative via the character of Esther.

Whilst reading the story I immediately felt I was drawn intimately into the story in the ‘Esther chapters’. The tone of the young girl is fresh and innocent although meek and considerably self-deprecating. This contrasts sharply with the satirical rather jaded tone of the omniscient narrator.

In providing this vivid contrast in narrative and the tense in which the story is told (present tense for the omniscient narrator, past tense for Esther) we are alternately pulled in and out of the narrative.

The use of the omniscient narrator broadens the scope of the novel, however. There are certain situations that Esther cannot be part of although we do see the narratives intersecting in certain parts of the novel.

There is another story running in parallel to the ongoings at Bleak House and introduced to the reader by the omniscient narrator. This is the story of Lady Dedlock, an aristocratic, middle aged lady and wife of Sir. Leicester Dedlock, Baronet. We learn that she is sad, exceedingly bored with life, excessively privileged but she has a secret to hide and that secret is known to the family lawyer, Mr Tulkinghorn.

There are other remarkable characters: the ‘childlike’ Mr Skimpole, the mercenary Mr. Smallweed, down on his luck George Rouncewell, conniving Mr Tulkinghorn, annoying Mr Guppy , charitable but short-sighted Mrs Jellyby and more. What amazed me was how Dickens was able to bring all the loose threads of these seemingly unrelated narratives and weave a cohesive tapestry of a cogent story.

It is impossible to do a book of Bleak Houses’s stature true justice through a book review. Nevertheless, I will strive to list some of the reasons why this book mattered so much to me.

1. Spontaneous combustion 💥(need I say more?).

2. A detailed historical glimpse of Victorian London.

“Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

 

3. A social commentary on the poor and their pitiful state.

“I thought it very touching to see these two women, coarse and shabby and beaten, so united; to see what they could be to one another; to see how they felt for one another, how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

4. A seething description of the havoc that legal proceedings can have on the life of common man.

“The lawyers have twisted it into such a state of bedevilment that the original merits of the case have long disappeared from the face of the earth. It’s about a will and the trusts under a will — or it was once. It’s about nothing but costs now. We are always appearing, and disappearing, and swearing, and interrogating, and filing, and cross-filing, and arguing, and sealing, and motioning, and referring, and reporting, and revolving about the Lord Chancellor and all his satellites, and equitably waltzing ourselves off to dusty death, about costs. That’s the great question. All the rest, by some extraordinary means, has melted away.”

5. The emphasis on relationships, particularly the love between children and parents.

6. Wicked satire.

7. Excellent characters that seem real enough and relevant, even today.

8. Beautiful descriptive writing.

“I found every breath of air, and every scent, and every flower and leaf and blade of grass and every passing cloud, and everything in nature, more beautiful and wonderful to me than I had ever found it yet. This was my first gain from my illness. How little I had lost, when the wide world was so full of delight for me.”

9. Superlative narrative structure and plot construction

10. Aspects of a murder mystery story that I think Agatha Christie would have approved of.

I spent an entire month reading the 1000 or more pages of Bleak House. It was time very well spent. Could the novel have done with some editing? Perhaps. But then again, it wouldn’t be the same. The ending of Bleak House is satisfying. All the loose ends of the plot are perfectly tied and Dickens, realistically doesn’t provide happiness to all the outcomes. Bleak House is not a bleak novel. It is a beautiful social commentary and the narrator, Esther Summerson is one of the sweetest people to grace the pages of Victorian fiction.

 

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Someone At A Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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‘Someone At a Distance’ by Dorothy Whipple is the story of a young French girl called Louise Lanier. Born of hard-working, simple parents who have worked happily all their lives as small booksellers in the small French town of Amigny, they have never climbed high in the social ladder, much to the chagrin of their aspiring daughter. Based on this lack of pedigree, Louise is jilted by her secret, longtime sweetheart: the son of the town squire who decides to marry a woman from a reputed family instead. Broken-hearted, but refusing to show it, Louise escapes to England to serve as a companion to a wealthy, old lady called Mrs. North.

Mrs. North lives near to her son Avery, a prosperous publisher and his family, consisting of his wife Ellen, daughter Anne and son Hugh.

Avery North and his family have the perfect life. He is a devoted father. He is admired and respected in his publishing firm. He and his wife Ellen have a trusting, committed relationship. And then all of a sudden cool, calculated and beautiful Louise steps into their lives…

Louise needs to preoccupy her mind and at first is unsure of how to engage herself. Finding nothing better to do, she takes charge of old Mrs. North’s dressing, paying attention to every little detail of adornment. Mrs. North is charmed with the attention that the young French girl pays her and grows to care and depend on her.

Mrs. North gifts the French girl a diamond ring upon her return to France. But even Louise is surprised when Mrs. North leaves a considerable amount of money to Louise in her will.

Louise returns to England to claim the bequest for herself. Unwillingly, Avery and Ellen North let her into their perfect home but Louise shows no signs of leaving. She is jealous of the Norths’ happiness, of the love they share in their small family and she is determined to ruin it.

When Ellen discovers the affair that is going on in the very same house that she lives in, she is shell shocked. It seems impossible to her that her devoted, loving husband could forsake all that he holds dear, to be with a callous, cruel young woman.

In her moment of strife she looks towards religion but can find no comfort.

“All those books, all those prayers and she had got nothing from them. When everything went well for her she had been able to pray, she couldn’t now. There was such urgency in her present situation that until the pressure was removed she couldn’t think about God. She hadn’t the patience to pray. It was a shock to her. Surely God was for these times?”

Avery does not return to her. Ellen regards his desertion as a sign of his love for Louise but nothing could be further from the truth. He despises Louise and takes to drink to drown his sorrows and to forget that he has lost everything that he holds dear.

He marries Louise out of his need to cling to someone and Louise holds onto him for financial gain.

Ultimately it is a situation where no-one is happy. Is there retribution for Louise? Are Avery and Ellen able to reconcile their differences? I will leave you to find out.

The book is a story about adultery. It is a story about a husband’s weakness, a wife’s short-sightedness and a young, ambitious girl’s yearning to rise up from her provincial upbringing and to destroy the happiness of others. But the book is more than the sum total of these individual parts and the title reveals this.

The title ‘Someone At a Distance’ is a curious one. It is only towards the latter part of the novel that the significance of the title emerges and one realizes it has been used with much thought.

The title deals with the idea that a person’s negative actions and thoughts can have a far-reaching consequence on the lives of people far removed from them. It is like a ripple effect. A strong undercurrent of ill-will may wreak havoc on the hitherto peaceful lives of people on distant shores. Such is the inter-connectedness of the world and its people.

This is a beautiful book. I read it in one breath. It was virtually unputdownable. Whipple’s storytelling is superlative. The psychological tension she develops in taut situations can be felt acutely. When Ellen grieves in the aftermath of her husband’s desertion, which has been dealt to her out of no wrong-doing of her own, we grieve along with her. We feel and comprehend her every emotion. We sympathize with her and we yearn for her strength and salvation. On the opposite side of the spectrum we despise Louise’s every movement and intention. And we hope and pray for some kind of justice. Whipple manipulates our emotional well-being, during the reading of the novel to good effect and delivers yet another stellar story.

 

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

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This review of Margaret  Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’ is in celebration of Margaret Kennedy Day, hosted by Jane from Beyond Eden Rock’s Blog.

The Constant Nymph is Kennedy’s most celebrated novel. Published after the First World War, in 1924, it was met with much critical acclaim. It is certainly a well written novel and the storyline is smooth without any stops and gaps. The subject matter is a little sensitive but quite intelligently written.

The story for the most part is set in Austria, in the Tyrolean Alps and I must say that the setting was one of my most favourite things about the book. It tells the story of the Sanger family. The father, the avant-grade composer Albert Sanger, is an unusual man. A gifted but not very successful English composer he has spent most of his life in exile, inhabiting various European towns and cities and simultaneously acquiring a large host of wives, mistresses and children.

Sanger, finally settles down in a remote chalet, high up in the Tyrolean Alps, in a location that can be accessed only by train, boat and a steep climb. Here, he lives with his slovenly mistress and seven children in a lively cohort frequently referred to as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Many of Sanger’s artistic friends, mostly bohemian in temperament, visit and stay with the family.

One of them is the talented composer Lewis Dodd, a young man who is a regular visitor and is so well loved by the family that he almost seems part of it. In particular Lewis and fourteen year old Teresa have a very close relationship. Teresa worships Lewis and Lewis is very tender and loving towards Teresa.

 She was guided by the constant simplicity of her young heart. He was himself the only man who could ever betray it and she had been his, had he known it, as long as she could remember. Her love was as natural and necessary to her as the breath she drew…

The family is considerably disturbed when Sanger quite suddenly dies. The orphaned children look towards their maternal relations for support and are sent to English boarding schools, much to their disgust. Prior to their dismissal, a maternal cousin, Florence visits them up on the alm. Beautiful, sophisticated and well educated, she beguiles Lewis and the two of them decide to marry after a quite short courtship. Teresa, heartbroken, watches as Lewis is swept off his feet.

In England, Florence and Lewis settle down to married life which Lewis quite quickly finds very stifling. He realizes the mistake that he has made and looks again to fifteen year old Teresa, for comfort. Constant in her love for him, Teresa must choose between the calling of her heart and her moral obligation towards her cousin.

One cannot but help draw mental comparisons between Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Kennedy’s ‘The Constant Nymph’. I will not say more, but I do believe that Kennedy has dealt with a very sensitive topic with great skill.

I find the love triangle at the heart of the novel to be quite unique. The different people in the novel have quite unusual, unconventional relationship dynamics amongst themselves. Teresa’s love for Lewis can be likened to that of a teenage infatuation but what makes it unusual is that it remains quite strong and that it is equally reciprocated by Lewis.

 

Lewis and Florence have an unusual relationship as well. Lewis is mesmerized by Florence’s beauty and sophisticated demeanour and Florence is drawn to his passion and talent for music. Lewis holds great power over Florence and knows it all too well.

The story I think is quite modern. Nearly a century later, the bohemian lifestyle of the Sangers’ seems quite unconventional  to say the least.

There are frequent references to the importance of the need of formal education in a person’s life. Though Kennedy advocates it, she also shows us that it is not a requisite for forming a moral sense of right and wrong and steadfastness of character.

I find the title to be quite curious. When I look up the exact definition of nymph in the dictionary it refers to ‘a mythological spirit of nature imagined as a beautiful maiden inhabiting rivers, woods, or other locations’. As I ponder over the meaning I realize that the title is so very apt.

The beauty and spirit of this book lies in the Tyrolean chapters, where the children roamed free and uninhibited in the bosom of nature. Teresa, whilst described as being far from beautiful by Kennedy, is always described in the most loving terms by Lewis. Teresa’s constancy of heart can be witnessed at every step of the story, proving to us that this  blessed trait can be found in the very young too. It is a valuable lesson to be reminded of.

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No Comfort at Cold Comfort Farm

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This was my second experience with reading Stella Gibbons, the first book being Nightingale Wood.

Nightingale Wood had enchanted me. It was such a romantic, Cinderella-like story and so intelligently written. I was naturally very eager to read more Gibbons and so all my bookish friends recommended ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ to me. I expected the same soft, dulcet toned storyline but I was quite surprised with the strangeness of Cold Comfort Farm.

It was cold, there was no comfort and it was extremely raw.

If I were to describe Cold Comfort Farm in a single word, suitable descriptions might be: parody, satire and melodrama.

The story centres around the adventures of city-bred, sophisticated Flora Poste. Born of affluent parents and blessed with a sound education, Flora finds herself orphaned in her twentieth year, when both her parents die during the annual epidemic of Spanish flu. Her parents leave her penniless except for a small annual income of one hundred pounds. Flora though highly educated is completely uneducated in the ways of the world and means to earn a living.

She is full of ideas though, which she propounds to her friend Mrs Smiling. One of them is to unburden herself onto one of her distant relatives. There are several options: a Scottish bachelor cousin of her Fathers, a maternal aunt who breeds dogs in Worthing, a female cousin of her Mothers who lives in Kensington, and a motley band of relatives who live on a decaying farm in the depths of rural Sussex.

The only positive invitation arrives from the depths of rural Sussex. Flora trying to put a positive outlook on the rather bleak prospect of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ comments to her friend Mrs Smiling:

 

“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.”

 

“You have the most revolting Florence Nightingale complex,’ said Mrs. Smiling.

It is not that at all, and well you know it. On the whole, I dislike my fellow beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”

Flora bundles up her Florence Nightingale complex and heads to the farm on a mission to resurrect the fortunes of the farm and the lives of her rustic relatives. She feels excited to embark on this unknown rural adventure.

“On the whole, Cold Comfort was not without its promise of mystery and excitement.”

On arrival at the farm, she finds that the Starkadders are a strange cast of characters, each more unusual than the last.

There is the aged matriarch of the family: Aunt Ada Doom. She could not have been more aptly named. Continually haunted by memories of a traumatic event from her childhood she is wont to say, in times of trauma,

“I saw something nasty in the woodshed.”

We are not privy to the nature of the nastiness in the woodshed but Aunt Ada certainly knows how to use this proclamation to her own benefit. Whenever, any of the Starkadders threaten to leave Cold Comfort she goes into a frenzy of hysteria and recalls past memories of the woodshed.

Another character is Ada’s daughter Judith Starkadder, married to Amos. Judith, perpetually depressed, just wants to be left to wallow in her own misery. Her son Seth, a prime example of manhood is the apple of her eye and her daughter Elfine, a free wandering spirit seems to have slipped out of a scene from  Wuthering Heights.

There is sad Reuben, Adam the helping hand on the farm who washes the dishes with a twig and last but not least a bevy of unfortunate cattle, aptly named Feckless, Graceless, Aimless, Pointless and Big  Business. All these characters, suffused with the heady aroma of the profusely growing sukebind, a sign of fertility and growth, make for the dramatic cast of characters that render Cold Comfort Farm so memorable.

Of course there are extraneous characters: like the author Mr Mybug who add even more variety to the story:

“The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which are not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all.”

The story is based on how and if Flora can change the course of the lives of each of the members of the Starkadder clan.

Fraught with extreme melodrama, comedic moments, strange situations and very memorable one-liners it is a very unusual book. Not at all what I was expecting. Very, very strange but so very memorable.