Stella Gibbons wrote this comic novel in 1932. It’s a satiric look at English novels like those by Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and the Bronte sisters, where the tone is gloomy and nature reflects the moods and attributes of the characters.
I picked up this book for a few reasons. First, I’m trying to read more classic literature by women, and this fit nicely into my Back to the Classics challenge. Second, Thomas Hardy is my favorite author, and I was curious to see what a parody of Hardy would look like.
You may know by now that I don’t care for satiric versions of things I love (e.g., the works of Gregory Maguire and the Wizard of Oz), so I approached this book with a bit of trepidation. That turned out to be unnecessary. Gibbons’ tone may mock one of my favorite authors, but it’s done lovingly (or so it seems to me). Gibbons mocks what we can fairly mock about these often melodramatic and overly symbolic works. In fact this book was a pleasure to read from start to finish.
The greatness in Hardy is how he portrays nature and fate as obstacles in the lives of even well-meaning people. Also his books live and breathe the life of rural England in the 1800’s. Cold Comfort Farm aims to breathe some spirit and humor into that model. Gibbons takes aim at a number of authors in this book, some that I’ve never heard of. I just happened to read in with Hardy in mind.
The main character is Flora Poste, a young woman who goes to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, and decides she’s going to have to make some improvements. The Starkadder family is miserable. There’s a creepy bedridden grandmother, the father is a religious fanatic, and the younger son goes around “mollocking” all the country lasses (Gibbon’s made-up word but you know exactly what she means) . And there’s a young daughter who sneaks around the countryside in an elf-like costume and talks to no one.
The best way I can describe this book is Thomas Hardy meets Georgette Heyer’s The Grand Sophy. I enjoyed this book more than The Grand Sophy because the writing, especially the dialogue, is so clever and funny (be warned if you don’t like reading dialect, there’s a lot of it in this book).
Gibbons alternates between her direct, humorous tone and passages that are dark, moody, and full of nature-based similes and metaphors. She even notes these paragraphs with asterisks, not that you need her to. For example:
The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman… Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast.
Some of the things that are really funny about this book: the repeated references to Grandmother Ada Doom seeing something “nasty in the woodshed” as a child (everything is blamed on this), Amos Starkadder’s preaching to the Church of the Quivering Brethren, and pretty much everything about Adam and the animals on the farm. I love the way Hardy names his characters, but Gibbons outdoes him, with Ada Doom, Adam Lambsbreath, the cows Graceless, Feckless, Aimless, and Pointless, and even place names like Hautculture Hall.
The character of Mr. Mybug feels a little more mean-spirited than the others, and critics have noted that there are some anti-Semitic undertones to his character. Although most of the criticism is aimed at his obsession with sex and his theory that a brother of the Bronte sisters must have written all of their works.
One odd thing about this book, which to be honest I barely noticed, is that it’s set in the “near future”. Gibbons makes up an Anglo-Nicaraguan war and occasionally imagines technologies that didn’t exist at the time. I’m not really sure why.
I haven’t seen the movie but I’m curious if anyone else has? It’s got a great cast and this seems like a perfect book to make into a movie.