Cold Comfort Farm: a Jane Austen heroine in an episode of the Beverly Hillbillies

Book Review: Stella Gibbons mocks the novels of country life that were enormously popular in the 1920s

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989): despite the great success of  Cold Comfort Farm, most of her other novels are centred on  urban middle-class life.  Photograph:  Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

Stella Gibbons (1902-1989): despite the great success of Cold Comfort Farm, most of her other novels are centred on urban middle-class life. Photograph: Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images

 

None of Stella Gibbons’s subsequent 22 novels achieved the same critical and popular success as this, her first. Aspects of her style, such as characterisation, power of description and cutting humour, caused her to be compared to Jane Austen. Indeed, Cold Comfort Farm is like having an Austen heroine stumble into an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, according to one perceptive critic.

Flora Poste, a sophisticated Londoner orphaned at 19, goes to stay with distant cousins, the Starkadders, on their eponymous farm in the aptly named village of Howling. Amos, the family patriarch, is a fire-and-brimstone preacher (think Joseph in Wuthering Heights); his wife, the misery-addict Judith, is obsessed with their no-good son Seth (a Heathcliff-Mellors mix); while the elderly farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, practises such rural traditions as washing dishes with a twig (“clettering”) and looking after the cows named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless.

Ruling the unruly roost is bedroom-bound Aunt Ada Doom who, when she was young, “saw something nasty in the woodshed” (a phrase the novel has bequeathed to the language), which she never misses the chance of reminding everyone about.

Undaunted by the seemingly hopeless situation she finds herself in, Flora is determined to “tidy up affairs” among this bizarre, semi-savage, motley crew, and the results make for hilarious reading.

While it’s true that Gibbons was mocking the novels of country life by writers such as Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith that were enormously popular in the 1920s, and indeed was parodying in a sophisticated and intricate way very much bigger fish such as Hardy, Lawrence and Emily Brontë, Cold Comfort Farm can be enjoyed for the lively and funny read it is without knowledge of this literary background.

Gibbons curiously did not repeat the formula, despite its great success, and most of her other novels are centred on the urban, middle-class life with which she was familiar.

In 1966, reflecting on its harmful effect on her long-term career, she likened the novel to “some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance but is often an embarrassment and a bore”.

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