Friday, June 26, 2015

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

If she intended to tidy up life at Cold Comfort, she would find herself opposed at every turn by the influence of Aunt Ada.  Flora was sure that this would be so.  Persons of Aunt Ada's temperament were not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings forever, and misunderstandings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!  They were the sort that went trampling all over your pet stamps collection, or whatever it was, and then spent the rest of their lives atoning for it.  But you would rather have had your stamp collection.

Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm was one of this year's pleasant surprises for me: a genuinely funny satire that, while not particularly profound, succeeds by lampooning the pretensions of much more self-serious novels.  Its heroine, Flora Poste, finds herself needing a new place to live, so she accepts the invitation of her distant cousin Judith Starkadder to live at their rural farm, Cold Comfort.  Judith claims that her family owes Flora for something that happened long ago between the Starkadders and Flora's father, but she won't say what it is, though she won't refrain from alluding to it mysteriously.

Flora, accustomed to life in London, vows to turn Cold Comfort Farm into a model of tidiness and efficiency, and to improve the lives of everyone who lives there.  It turns out not to be easy.  She buys the octogenarian servant, Adam, a little mop with which to clean the dishes, rather than "cletterin'" them--which involves scraping the food from them with a tree branch.  But he's so taken with the gift that he hangs the mop on the wall, too fine an object to be soiled with work, and goes on cletterin'.  In addition to Adam, there are Seth, the "wild" son who spends his days seducing women; Elfine, who runs freely around the woods like a sprite; and Amos, who spends his days telling his family how they'll all burn in hell.  And most of all, Flora must deal with Ada, the matriarch of the family, who hasn't left her room in decades yet somehow still rules the family with an iron fist.

Cold Comfort Farm is a satire, I understand, of several popular novels of Gibbons' contemporaries which depicted the gothic aspect of the English countryside.  It was funny enough to me without knowing any of those books, but it seemed to set its sites on Thomas Hardy, too, and his fetish for Wessex dialect:

After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence:

'I ha' scranleted two hundred furrows come five o'clock down i' the bute.'

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply.  Was it a complaint?  If so, one might say, 'My dear, how too sickening for you!'  But then, it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be 'Attaboy!' or more simply, 'Come, that's capital.'  Weakly she fell back on the comparatively safe remark: 

'Did you?' in a bright, interested voice.

She saw at once that she had said the wrong thing.  Reuben's eyebrows came down and his jaw came out.  Horrors!  He thought she was doubting hisword!

'Aye, I did, tu.  Two hundred.  Two hundred from Ticklepenny's Corner down to Nettle Flitch.  Aye, wi'out hand to aid me.  Could you ha' done that?"

Scranleting, like cletterin', and like the sukebind that grows throughout the countryside, is a completely made up thing.  These made-up Hardyisms were probably my favorite part of the novel, which satirizes the way Gibbons' contemporaries devoured these country narratives without really having any idea what was going on in them.

In the end, Cold Comfort Farm stands firmly for the superiority of London precision and neatness over the mysterious, brooding countryside.  True to the comedic form, everything turns out all right in the end, thanks to Flora's machinations, and there's never really any sense of conflict or danger.  But for a novel in which Flora draws back the curtains to let light in to the old, musty farm, that seems appropriate.

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