Since I wrote about comfort reading a couple of weeks ago I’ve been thinking about my favourite books. Elaine’s lovely post on the justification for having two, three or more copies of favourite books also made me think about my own duplicates & triplicates. All of them are comfort reads, so I thought I’d write the occasional post about my favourites.
I recently bought this beautiful Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons to replace a very boring Penguin edition I already own & I immediately started dipping in, reading my favourite bits & laughing over my favourite phrases. Why do I love Cold Comfort Farm? It’s a parody of the rural novels of the early 20th century. I’ve read lots of Thomas Hardy, some D H Lawrence but no Mary Webb or Sheila Kaye-Smith. The kind of novel that Stella Gibbons was laughing at is well-described by Josephine Tey in The Daughter of Time, as Alan Grant contemplates the pile of new novels on his bedside table in hospital,
The Sweat & the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy & spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid out after his ninth downstairs, eldest son lying to the Government in the cow shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silas never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture.
But the humour of Cold Comfort Farm doesn’t rely on knowing the sources of the parody. The characters & situations are funny, no context is necessary. If you’ve read Jane Austen’s Emma, then you recognize Flora Poste as another Emma Woodhouse. Sure of herself & determined to sort out these backward rural relations. Flora knows what’s best for the Starkadders & she’s going to make sure they get it. Flora is left homeless after the death of her parents &, after writing to all her relations asking for a home, her cousin Judith replies to “Robert Poste’s child” inviting her to stay at Cold Comfort Farm. Flora is intrigued by this letter & determined to visit, even though her sophisticated London friends are worried about her fate in the wilds of Sussex.
Flora arrives to find lots of scope for her organizing abilities – & lots of experiences for the novel she plans to write. Old Great Aunt Ada Doom rules her family from her room. The manipulative old woman keeps her family around her by impressing on them that “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm” & she can’t be crossed because, when she was a girl, she saw something nasty in the woodshed & must be humoured. Cousin Judith is a mournful woman, determined to make up to Robert Poste’s child for the mysterious ill her family did him many years ago & obsessed with her son, Seth. Amos is a hellfire & brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren.
Elfine is a free spirit who drifts around the countryside writing poetry, communing with nature & nursing an unrequited passion for Dick Hawk-Monitor, the young squire. Seth is a brooding hunk of a man, obsessed with the talkies & full of sex appeal. The manservant Adam spends his time washing the dishes with a little thorn twig & predicting doom & gloom for all. His only consolation in life is his love for the four cows on the farm, Feckless, Graceless, Aimless & Pointless. The serving girl Miriam is another child of nature, unable to help herself when the sukebind is in flower & therefore adds another illegitimate child to her family every year.
Flora has a lot to work on here. She also meets Mr Mybug, a literary critic who sees phallic symbols everywhere & is convinced that Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights. Flora breezes in with her modern attitudes to cleanliness, cooking & contraception & transforms their lives. One by one the Starkadders are dragged out of their ruts & their lives are changed forever. Cold Comfort Farm is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Adam’s clettering the dishes with his thorn twig until Flora buys him a little mop with a handle. Meriam resigned to having a child a year until Flora explains about contraception. Flora taking Elfine up to London for a complete makeover so that she can go to the ball & captivate Dick Hawk-Monitor.
This is also one of the few books I love that has been made into a good film. The BBC version of Cold Comfort Farm was made in 1996 & it’s wonderful. Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Rufus Sewell as Seth, Eileen Atkins as Judith, Ian McKellan as Amos, Rufus Sewell as Seth, Stephen Fry as Mr Mybug, Freddie Jones as Adam & did I mention Rufus Sewell as Seth? It could hardly be anything but wonderful with a cast like that. Maybe it’s not surprising that, although Stella Gibbons wrote many other novels in a long career, the success of Cold Comfort Farm dominated her reputation & until Virago recently reprinted Nightingale Wood, it was the only one of her novels in print.
I was interested to read recently that Vintage Classics are going to be reprinting several more of her novels next year, including the two sequels to Cold Comfort Farm, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm & Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Starlight & Westwood (which I know nothing about) are the other titles & they will also have more Gibbons available as Print on Demand. I’m looking forward to reading more Stella Gibbons although I can’t imagine another novel that will delight me as much as Cold Comfort Farm has whenever I’ve been in the mood for a little comfort reading.