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 …