In many ways, I would quite like to be Flora Poste, protagonist of this novel. The basic plot of the book is this: girl goes to live on farm, sorts out all their problems and then leaves by plane. What’s not to like? [This is not a spoiler, this is not the kind of book that has massive plot twists] Orphaned and disinclined to pursue a career, Flora Poste decides with some trepidation to go and stay with her relatives the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm. Armed with her trusty copy of The Higher Common Sense, Flora is completely ready to tackle whatever Cold Comfort Farm can throw at her and she is all too aware of what she is walking into. There is not a single sentence in this novel which is intended to be taken seriously, it is pure pastiche from beginning to end and there are oh so many quotable lines. It manages to satirise melodrama, rural communities and even Flora herself.
|Cold Comfort Farm on film, 1995|
Flora grimly tells her friend beforehand that most farms are full of over-sexed young men called Reuben or Seth and notes that her relative on the farm Judith will no doubt have a husband called Amos and check, check, check upon arrival. Every single conceivable cliché is present and correct to be chided gently and tidied up by Flora. She sympathetically explains about contraception to the fecund farm girl Meriam who is constantly being impregnated by various sons of the family. She gets a good hair cut and a new set of clothes for the daughter of the house, Elfine, who has worryingly taken to poetry. Flora also sorts out new careers off-site for some of the more troublesome members of the household such as screen idol for Seth and to go preaching in ‘one o’them Ford vans’ for Amos. There are rather a lot of Starkadders and they are quite an unruly group, meaning that there has to be a Count every year to check that none of them have been murdered. Despite such a large number of characters though, they are all perfectly drawn and universally hilarious.
The head honcho at Cold Comfort is Aunt Ada Doom who has lived in a state of catatonic terror since seeing ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ as a small child. I’ve read that the main author being skewered in this novel is Mary Webb but I’ve never read anything of hers. It is pretty clear that the Bronte sisters and specifically Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is coming in for a bit a of an affectionate beating. Seth is Heathcliff, Elfine is Cathy and although the farm may be in Howling, Sussex (I know, Gibbons never lets anything slide by), Cold Comfort Farm really does embrace the same kind of bleak and depressing moor thing that Wuthering Heights had going on. There’s even the ghastly Mr Meyerbug/Mybug writing a big biography of Branwell Bronte to explain why it was really him who wrote the books credited to his sisters.
Gibbons’ insertion of Flora into this setting is complete genius since Flora is so very much an Austen heroine rather than a Bronte, Flora even notes that just like Jane Austen she does not like untidiness. No Austen heroine would stand for all of the yokel dialects and melodrama, they do irony and common sense. An example of this conflict comes when Flora asks Judith to help her replace the curtains, Judith bleakly intones that it has been many years since such trifles had any meaning for her, to which Flora blithely responds that well that might be so, she would like to get on and wash them. For anybody who doesn’t read lit-crit for fun like myself, the Austen-Bronte debate is basically brain over heart; Charlotte Bronte loathed Jane Austen’s work because she thought they were like tidy flowerbeds without passion. Jane Austen died before the Brontes ever published so her opinion of them is unknown but I can imagine she would have thought that a lot of the Bronte passions were excessive. So does Flora.
I think a big thing that I loved about Cold Comfort Farm as a teenager was how stress-free Flora’s courtship with Charles was. When she was good and ready, Flora just gave him a call and he came to get her in a private plane and she told him delightedly that he had ‘the most heavenly teeth’. I loathed romance novels on principle during my adolescence which is probably why it appealed then but even now I do think that is how it should be. Not that there needs to be a private plane although that’s always a bonus but I like that there is such a good understanding between them. Plus, as a feminist, I love that Flora gets the guy on her own terms.
Of course, it’s true that parody can get a bit much after a full novel of it and the characters are types and some people might find them difficult to relate to but all the same I just totally love it. It is one of the wittiest pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. A few years ago AA Gill rambled on about how women don’t know how to be funny – I don’t know what he was smoking because not only are there many side-splittingly and pricelessly hilarious women in the world of stand-up, but there are also an incredible number in the world of literature. From the slapstick ridiculousness of characters like Adam who washes the dishes with a stick and thinks the scrubbing brush Flora buys him is too beautiful to use to the more subtle – it’s just comedy gold.
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Published by Penguin UK on October 26th 2006
Genres: Fiction, General, Classics, Humorous
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