‘Cold Comfort Farm’ by Stella Gibbons

1932, 307 p.

This was the April selection for my face-to-face bookgroup, and for me it was a re-read, but ah! who can begrudge reading such a little gem of a book?!!  It’s laugh-out-loud funny (or at least, I found it so) and if you haven’t read it- DO!

The book is set, as the small note on an opening page says, in the ‘near future’.  As twenty-first century readers, this is immediately unsettling because a book written in 1932, as this one was, is very much set in the past for us.  Some of her predictions, like air-taxis for short-distance travel, the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of ’46  or video-phones jar you into thinking “hold on, when was this set?”  In many ways it feels like a novel set in the 19th century both in its setting and characterization with the ramshackle manor house and loping rural farmworkers, but it was set in the future at the time it was written.

It was intended, apparently, to be a satire on the rural-gothic novels of the Mary Webb and Thomas Hardy ilk, which are hardly bestseller material these days. Satire, unfortunately, generally requires at least a nodding acquaintance with the subject or genre being satirized.  So here we have the odd situation where we are reading a satire that feels oddly familiar, as if we have met all these characters before-   the mad great-aunt in the attic, the simple farmhands, the young girl unaware of her beauty- and yet it seems that they have seeped into our consciousness without  being able to identify where they have come from.

The orphaned young Flora Poste decides that instead of getting a job, she will sponge on her relatives for her upkeep.  When an answer to her request for board comes back on a grimy piece of paper, followed by a warning to stay away, she decides that of the lukewarm responses she has received from her surviving relatives, it is this one from Cold Comfort Farm that attracts her the most. So off she bustles to Cold Comfort, bringing her modern girl sensibilities and common sense to an aging, rambling manor house where all the closely-intertwined Starkadder family are in thrall to the matriarch of the family, Great-Aunt Ada Doom.  Great Aunt Ada, who has sequestered herself in the attic after seeing “something nasty in the woodshed”, has ensnared the extended family around her, afraid to leave the farm to pursue their own destinies, declaring that “there’s always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort”.  Into this comes young Flora who, with her aid of her trusty handbook “The Higher Common Sense,” schemes and plans to set up some with marriages and to nudge others into following their vocations.  It’s all thoroughly good fun.

As I reached the end of the book, I was struck by how completely and deftly within just over 300 pages the author has sketched out such memorable minor characters.  In a closing scene, she lists the guests at a Starkadder wedding, and as she numbered them off, one by one, I felt a little jolt of recognition and affection, as if I was attending a family wedding myself, where the guests were all known to me.  And as for “something nasty in the woodshed”…..well, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

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