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.

Eight Books that Remind Me of Summer

Summer is receding into Autumn here in the north east corner of North America. Soon summer will be a warm fuzzy memory that one can wistfully think about when there is five feet of snow piled high on the ground. There are certain books that remind me of summer. They are not always set in the height of that particular season but they are often easy to read stories that make me relax, feel good and smile in equal measure. For me, summer is not only a season, it’s a state of mind…

Here in no particular order are eight books that remind me of summer.

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1) My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell- This is the sun-drenched account of a young boy’s encounters with the natural life of the Greek Isle of Corfu. What makes these memoirs eminently readable are the hilarious descriptions of Durrell’s family. Be prepared to laugh aloud with every turned page.

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2) Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome- written in a time when young English children returned from boarding school to spend summer holidays sailing around the serene water bodies of the English Lake District. There is a charm and innocence and way of living captured in these children’s books which is magically locked in time.

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3) A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle- alright, technically this is not a summer specific book. However, the location plays the most important part in this ‘year in the life’ narrative and when I think of Provence I immediately think of sunshine, good wine and summer markets. The language is lovely, descriptive and yet easy to read. After you’ve read the book you feel as if you have taken a good long holiday without having moved a physical step.

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4) Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie- this is not the kind of book that will give you a warm fuzzy feeling, being interlaced with murders, but it does have all the ingredients for a tremendous beach read. Set in a English seaside resort in Southern England the plot is brilliant and you have none other than the esteemable Hercule Poirot to help you along with your sleuthing.

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5)An Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim- Four English women, due to their own individual reasons, escape their dreary life in London to spend a month in a rented Italian castle. The warmth and beauty of the location strikes a change in each of these women. They find themselves embracing circumstances and causes they had long given up on…

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6)Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons- this is a feel good Cinderella-esque love story set in 1930s rural Essex. What sets it apart from any other frothy romance is Gibbon’s exceptionally witty writing style, her simultaneous interweaving of several plots and her sometimes very profound observations about life.

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7)The Darling Buds of May by HE Bates- this book is just ‘perfick’ to read in the summer if you should choose to use Pop Larkin’s (the protagonist of the book) favorite adjective. A young tax collector comes to Pop Larkin’s Essex farm for an audit only to find himself totally carried away by the love, laughter and excesses of the Larkin family. He falls in love with Mariette, the eldest Larkin daughter, Ma Larkin’s cooking and also Pop Larkin’s philosophy of living life to the lees. The descriptions of nature, summer and especially food make this an exceptional book.

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8) Something Fresh by PG Wodehouse- to end our summer feast of stories we have some of the eccentricities of Blanding’s Castle for you. The absurdities of the English aristocracy, unlikely situations, unusual characters like Lord Emsworth and his large household and the series of misadventures that assault you will have you alternatively laughing and cringing. Wodehouse as always is at his ascerbic best.

Library Haul-Week Thirteen -2015

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Week 13 is the week that Spring was supposed to arrive. Instead we had snow in Massachusetts. Admittedly, not knee deep, masses and masses of snow. But enough snow to remind us that the idyllic springtime picture of daffodils, violets, cherry blossom, green buds on trees and chirping birds was a far cry away. On a positive note, cold temperatures are conducive to staying indoors and enjoying books and movies.

We brought home books for Little M- namely The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf and video content in the form of Bambi. This was a re-watch, clearly Little M liked this movie enough to want to see it again.

For me this week was hit and miss- I followed up my recent reading of Christianna Brand’s wonderful mystery novel ‘Green for Danger’ with its Criterion Collection movie counterpart. As (nearly) always the movie failed to live up to the original book. One of the major problems was that the book was still very fresh in my memory- I remembered all the subtle nuances of plot and had already even etched out how the characters looked in my mind. One of the major characters had been omitted and also a major love story completely wiped away and this thoroughly upset me. Do read the original book if you get a chance and have an inclination for reading crime fiction. I loved the book so much that I even painted the cover in my journal.

‘Nightingale Wood’ by Stella Gibbons was a beautiful, 1930s Cinderella story told to perfection. Read the full book review here. Cannot wait to read EVERYTHING else by her starting with Cold Comfort Farm. I will leave you this week with an attempt at sketching the cover of Green for Danger in my journal. Cheerio!

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Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons

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Title: Nightingale Wood

Author: Stella Gibbons

Published: 1938

Main Characters: Viola or young Mrs. Wither ( 21 year old widow of Teddy ), Mr. Wither (Viola’s father-in-law), Mrs Wither (Viola’s mother-in-law), Madge (elder daughter of the Withers), Tina (younger daughter of the Withers), Saxon Caker (the Wither’s chauffeur and Tina’s love interest), Victor Spring (rich neighbor of the Withers and Viola’s love interest), Hetty (Victor Spring’s orphaned cousin).

Book Setting: Rural Essex (England) in the late 1930s.

Short Synopsis of the Story:  Recently widowed and impoverished Viola Withers finds herself forced to live with her in-laws -the Withers in their dull, gloomy country house in Essex. Mr. Wither is obsessed with his money and investments. Madge the elder daughter longs for a companion and finds it in a newly adopted dog.  Viola finds a companion in Tina who has a secret obsession for their handsome chauffeur Saxon. Viola meets their rich neighbour Victor Spring and finds in him her Prince Charming. Whether Victor Spring reciprocates her love and fully appreciates the seriousness of her regard is however another matter.

Thoughts About the Book: Superficially, Nightingale Wood is the quintessential Cinderella story. If the relationship between Viola and Victor Spring had been the soul focus of the book- then perhaps Nightingale Wood would have been a good but unremarkable story. However, the book has many layers to it. There are many relationships and stories that are simultaneously unravelling before our eyes. There is the unconventional relationship between Tina and Saxon. Herein, Gibbons shows us that money and status can overnight convert the opinions and regard of the English middle class. Whilst Viola longs for the sparkling, gaiety filled social life that the Spring’s enjoy, Hetty longs to leave her privileged existence at the Spring household and is fascinated by the gloom, austerity and ‘Chekhovian’ atmosphere of Mr.Wither’s house.

Gibbons narrates the story with great finesse. The fairy tale like romantic scenes of the book are described with beautiful language and description. Where I find Gibbons excels is her ability to bring the reader down to earth with her juxtaposition of romantic description with down to earth wit.

The following is a description of events and Tina’s feelings upon returning home to their dour house after a romantic summer ball and saying goodnight to her love Saxon.

The moonlight, the stillness of the woods, the solemn glimmer of tiny stars, acted powerfully upon her senses. How pure the moonlit air smelled! moving very slowly across miles of country where hawthorn and bean-blossom, orchards and gardens, could yet out-perfume the towns and garages, as they had conquered the middens of Charles II’s day. The old earth keeps her sweetness. And I have to go indoors, to bed, thought Tina, with all this beauty outside. I should like to drive all night, away to the sea. She could hear, in fancy, the long waves rolling in.

Mr Wither shut the front door.

‘Oh dear, I am so tired.’ Mrs Wither patted away a yawn and ruefully bent to rub her evening shoe, wherein a faithful corn was undergoing martyrdom.

Conclusion: I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There were many interesting characters and events to enjoy along with Gibbon’s exceptional descriptive storytelling and humour.