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.