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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 5: Far From the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy

‘Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenour of their way.’

‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’

Thomas Gray

Far From the Madding Crowd marks the second Hardy novel of my challenge, following hard on the heels of Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Book 3), and it is another novel which is dominated by a strong female figure, although a markedly less tragic one than the unfortunate Tess.

Bathsheba Everdene is Hardy’s headstrong heroine in this earlier pastoral text that follows her trials and tribulations in love. Placed in a remarkably independent position by the inheritance of her uncle’s farm, spirited Bathsheba decides to go it alone and manage the farm herself, seeing no need for marriage. Yet the captivating protagonist’s beauty is out of her control and earns her a trio of admirers in the form of loyal Gabriel Oak, obsessive Farmer Boldwood and dashing but dangerous Sergeant Troy.

Bathsheba’s position is quite extraordinary for a nineteenth century literary heroine, being the mistress of her own property and having no form of parental restriction or guidance. It is no surprise, therefore, that she has been of particular interests to feminists over the years. Her pursuit of an independent destiny and her determination to succeed by herself certainly make her a strong female exemplum, but she is by no means a feminist ideal.

Much like Tess’s ‘goodness made interesting’, Bathsheba is a complex character of competing passions and is all the more fascinating for it. While possessing rational judgement, she is often swayed by the force of her whim and becomes the puppet of desire after encountering serial seducer Troy. Bathsheba is also a victim of vanity and in this fault and in the strength of her passions embodies many feminine stereotypes of her time, a criticism that seems to rule out Hardy’s novel as a feminist text.

Yet for all these stereotypical tendencies, Bathsheba never fails to be a multi-faceted and fully believable character. Hardy’s insights into her mental turmoil demonstrate how passion erodes at reason and uncover the essential goodness she has at heart. She also, despite her surrender to her desires, remains a remarkably feisty and modern heroine and admirably protests against the patriarchal framework of her world, complaining that ‘it is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in a language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs’.

The men are, however, frequently incapable of expressing such emotions. Farmer Boldwood in particular is repression personified, suffocating emotions that fill him with ‘a fearful sense of exposure’ and forming an increasingly unhealthy obsession for Bathsheba. Unchecked passion may be warned against through Bathsheba’s fate, but Hardy’s depiction of Boldwood demonstrates that unacknowledged or hidden passion is just as undesirable.

Equally unappealing is Troy, another of Bathsheba’s suitors and also the lover of unfortunate maid Fanny Robin. While the handsome Sergeant can string together a pretty speech or two in his wooing of Bathsheba, his fickle and boyish nature soon becomes repellent rather than attractive and he stands as little more than a rakish stereotype, much like Alec in Tess of the D’Urbervilles – perhaps, however, not quite so despicable.

To continue the Tess parallels, this is another novel in which the male characters cannot live up to the heroine. There is one hero, however, in the unwaveringly loyal and frankly adorable Gabriel Oak, Bathsheba’s first sweetheart and one staunch friend and supporter throughout. In his constant love, simple goodness and harmonious connection to nature, the only real objection that might be made to Gabriel’s character is that he is a little too perfect; the good shepherd in every respect.

This brings me to the wealth of Biblical references in the novel and its ambiguous attitude towards religion. Both Gabriel and Bathsheba have Biblical namesakes whose characteristics can be seen reflected to some extent in their natures, while Gabriel’s profession as a shepherd, united with his many virtues, has obvious Biblical resonances.

Yet Gabriel’s goodness seems more innate and tied to the natural world than connected to religion and despite the constant influence of Christianity, most of the inhabitants of Hardy’s rural world are casual churchgoers at best. Indeed, the most ardent follower of religion, Joseph Poorgrass, is little more than a rustic butt of jokes; a hypocritical and ridiculous would-be preacher. Where, then, can we locate Hardy’s standing on religion?

Ambiguous too is the novel’s viewpoint on the rural world that it depicts, a world that during Hardy’s time was under the threat of encroaching modernity. This text does not engage much with the wider world beyond the farms and villages of the central characters and has as a result been criticised for ignoring social issues, but there is subtle mention of the modernisation sweeping across Britain and an implicit warning against threatening outside influences in the form of the corrupting Troy.

Although Hardy’s text takes its title from the Thomas Gray poem quoted above, his rural community is one that is far less peaceful and manages to have its fair share of noise and drama despite being remote from the bustle of the city. At the same time as enshrining the myth of the pastoral ideal, Hardy in another sense smashes it apart through the tragic disruptions caused by death and sorrow.

With a richly textured setting and cast of characters, Far From the Madding Crowd is a deliciously English novel that celebrates the pastoral without shying away from life’s bleak realities. While often idyllic, Hardy’s ‘sequester’d vale of life’ is far from a rural idyll.

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