Monthly Archives: July 2011

Book 7: Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

‘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.’

My reading challenge has taken me very swiftly from pastoral life as depicted by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Far From the Madding Crowd to Stella Gibbons’ parody of the rural tradition. Published in 1932, Gibbons’ witty and playful narrative about the eccentric, cursed Starkadder brood, a dilapidated farm and nasty goings on in the woodshed lightly pokes fun at the rural tragedies of the kind made popular by Hardy and his contemporaries.

Lively heroine Flora Poste has been orphaned and is left with nothing to live on but her wits and a hundred pounds a year. Blithely rejecting any suggestion that she works for a living, the resourceful Flora decides instead to live with some of her many relatives and writes out to a motley collection of aunts, uncles and cousins, eventually ending up with the Starkadders on their farm in Sussex. But her rural cousins turn out to be an odd bunch and the whole messy situation is clearly begging for Flora’s own foolproof brand of common sense to tidy it up.

While much of the novel is hilariously and pointedly funny, the opening is a little confusing in tone. The early scenes in London are light, comic and clearly satirical, but when the location shifts to Sussex the reader, like Flora, is left somewhat disorientated. Our first introduction to Cold Comfort Farm, glimpsed as ‘Dawn crept up over the Downs like a sinister white animal’, while supposedly mocking the hauntingly picturesque descriptive passages of the pastoral tradition, is a rather wonderful description in its own right.

With the Starkadders and their kin, however, we are on safer ground. Gibbons creates a cast of deliciously grotesque characters, from foolish old cow-loving Adam, to zealous preacher Amos, to reclusive, apparently mad matriarch Aunt Ada, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed. The ghosts of Hardy’s farm hands can be heard in their exaggerated rural dialect and so primitively rural are their ways that they do not even have afternoon tea – imagine! Gibbons also builds up a series of tantalising mysteries, once again in line with the genre she is parodying, from the unspecified incident in the woodshed to the hushed up wrong that has been done to Flora’s father. This may all be the framework of Gibbons’ satire, but it doubles up to make for a genuinely intriguing premise.

Before long Flora is industriously putting her common sense to use in mopping up the lives of the Starkadder clan, transforming eccentric dresser and nature-loving free spirit Elfine into an elegant but bland beauty, tempting Amos to pastures new and generally either moulding everyone to fit her idea of civilised company or conveniently removing them elsewhere. While all this is evidently written in sardonic mode, the novel loses some of its charm as it moves into this all too self-conscious phase of parody and I prefer Gibbons’ earlier imaginative portrait of the strange, ridiculous and often repulsive Starkadder family (beautifully complemented in my edition by Quentin Blake’s spot-on watercolour illustrations; Gibbons provides him with subjects barely less marvellously grotesque than those he so memorably depicted in Roald Dahl’s The Twits).

In another of the novel’s literary nods, almost every loose end is neatly tied up with a marriage and previously troublesome characters have their destinies settled in the turn of a page in true Jane Austen style; Flora’s ambition of one day writing a novel like Persuasion is very nearly achieved in life if not in literature. Meanwhile, the really interesting threads are left frustratingly hanging, no doubt in a deliberate move on Gibbons’ part to eschew the narrative resolution of the texts she parodies and to point out how essentially ridiculous such mysteries are. Yet – and I’m sure this makes me a very unsophisticated reader – I really did want to find out what, for goodness’ sake, happened in that woodshed!

One of the oddities of the text, apart from its collection of weird and wonderful characters, is the unspecified and only ever vaguely alluded to future setting. While written in the early 1930s and retaining much of the social machinery of its own age, including a class structure that is entirely intact, the novel incorporates futuristic elements such as video phones, frequent air travel and a war of some kind that has occurred in 1946, placing the world of the book at some time after this date. This patchy future setting, which seems to essentially be a society that is, apart from a handful of differences, identical to that of 1932, has no obvious function whatsoever and merely serves to bewilder readers.

Disappointing ending and technological inconsistencies aside, Cold Comfort Farm is an entertaining read and Flora is a charmingly flawed heroine; rather in the Emma mould, to return to Austen, although Flora never receives a scolding for her interferences. While the ending is again satirically making a point by aping other texts of the time, I could not help but feel a little let down by the spirited and politely feisty Flora’s very conventional and submissive fate.

Sadly, the eventual return to supposedly civilised society feels dull after the colourful world of Cold Comfort and Gibbons’ novel is always at its best when in the company of the bizarre but fascinating Starkadders. Just make sure you stay away from that woodshed …

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Book 6: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

‘Space […] is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is.’

It’s not often that a book begins with the end of the world. But the destruction of the Earth is the very premise that kicks off Douglas Adams’ series of five books about rescued Earthling Arthur Dent and his exciting, dangerous and sometimes downright bizarre adventures around the Galaxy.

Poor Arthur Dent is not having a great day. After waking to discover a bulldozer about to demolish his house to make room for a new bypass, he is soon faced with the rather more catastrophic prospect of the entire Earth being obliterated in favour of a hyperspatial express route. If this were not enough, he also discovers that his eccentric friend Ford Prefect is in fact not a human at all but an alien from somewhere called Betelgeuse. A lot to take in before lunchtime.

Douglas Adams’ collection of science-fiction books started life as a radio series and these origins can still be detected in the novel. Filled with countless sparklingly witty lines, the focus of Adams’ fiction is surface dazzle, cleverly playing around with language and constantly cracking jokes – all aspects that would have jumped out of the radio – rather than delving into character progression. Arthur Dent, for instance, ends the book in much the same way as he began it: weary, confused and in search of a cup of tea (and who blames him?). Granted, he knows a bit more about space, but this doesn’t essentially alter his personality.

Not that this is a criticism. Despite having barely any character progression, each of Adams’ vivid cast of players leaps from the page fully formed and they all feel surprisingly real – if a little alien in some cases. Where else would you find a depressed robot, a man with two heads and speaking mice all in one book? Furthermore, this is far from being a character driven narrative and it is the dazzling cleverness and imagination of it all that makes an impression. Often not only laugh out loud but side-splitting, belly laugh, tears streaming down the face funny, it is a delight of a read that indulged both my funny bone and my inner geek. Taking on a whole genre and successfully, gently spoofing it while simultaneously maintaining a geeky sort of respect for it is no mean feat.

There is the feeling, however, that this is only a fragment of the whole, one jigsaw piece of a bigger picture. While it is packaged as a complete novel, I cannot help but feel that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is only really setting up the later episodes, and while it is very entertaining in its own right I do now think that I need to go away and read the subsequent four books. This, I suppose, is the intended effect, but it would have been a little more satisfying for the novel to be more of a complete entity in itself.

Funny as it is, I would hesitate in recommending this to any readers who do not have at least a small measure of appreciation for sci-fi, as the jokes may fall slightly flat for those who do not enjoy the genre. But for a closet sci-fi fan like me, Adams’ book is a hilarious trip around the stars that is very British, very clever and very very funny.

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