DeBookworms: “Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons


I get it: reading for pleasure is about the last thing you want to do during those precious moments you have to yourself while at school. For those of you in an English class, you’ve got a whole reading list to get through, while the rest of you are probably not taking English classes for a reason.

But really, I think that needs to change.

Since I’m sure you all rushed out to buy and read my last recommendation, “Nelly Dean” by Allison Case, here I am, just in time, to suggest a new one. Though a new novel by no stretch of the imagination—it was written in 1932—“Cold Comfort Farm” by Stella Gibbons has a fresh feel that, I firmly believe, will keep it relevant now and forever.

When Flora Poste’s parents pass away “within weeks of each other during an annual epidemic,” she is more determined than grieved, and decides that she has been presented with the perfect opportunity for collecting material for the great novel she plans to write one day. Leaving behind her brassiere-obsessed friend, Mrs. Smiling, and her horde of suicide-prone suitors, she joins her relatives in Howling. As she points out to Mrs. Smiling, at least Cold Comfort Farm sounds “interesting and appalling,” while the offers from her other relatives are simply appalling.

On the farm, Flora’s no-nonsense attitude is met with the Gothic moanings of an extended family that is eclectic to say the least. There’s Cousin Seth: the apple of his mother’s eye and sexual predator to farm maids for miles around, but with a secret love for “the talkies.” Cousin Reuben is consumed by a fear that Flora is after the farm for herself, and Cousin Elfine is in love with a member of the gentry, but her untamed hair and penchant for wearing colors that don’t suit her as she runs wild on the moors doesn’t bode well for the couple. Not least, there’s Aunt Ada Doom, who comes downstairs only twice a year, and spends the rest of the time muttering that she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.” And Aunt Ada does not appreciate Flora’s meddling.

Throughout the novel, Gibbons satirizes and parodies the Gothic English novels that were so popular at the time. She presents her readers with a group of people writing about in despair, and then, in stark contrast, in walks Flora: ready to very sensibly straighten everything up. From showing Elfine how to more appropriately dress, to teaching Seth’s conquests all about birth control, Flora refuses to be bogged down by the shadows of Cold Comfort Farm.

Though the humor is sharp (the cows are named Aimless, Feckless and Graceless), the language in general by no means suffers. Gibbons considered herself a poet, but the times led her to pursue novels and journalisms as more sure ways of making money. The poetry that Gibbons so loved, however, is clear in many of her turns of phrase, and adds a lovely touch to her biting wit.

A masterpiece in so many ways, “Cold Comfort Farm” for some reason doesn’t often make it onto syllabi, but I recommend you take that as a positive. This way, you get to enjoy all of the humor without being forced to analyze it. Not that analyzing is all bad, but when a book makes you laugh out loud, as “Cold Comfort Farm” will, sometimes it’s nice to just let yourself enjoy it.

So please, enjoy.