Star the fourteenth

I’m creating a virtual star chart, to record my progress in Dry July. The star for making it through Wednesday 14 July without touching the demon drink is Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989), author of Cold Comfort Farm.

Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1932, and it is very, very funny. If you are old enough to read it, that is. I first tried it when I was a teenager, and Did Not Get It. At all. The satire just went whoosh over my head. But a few years ago, my book group decided to read it, and I found it riotously funny.* Stella Gibbons doesn’t just neatly skewer the conventions of lust and loam and lovechild novels: she drives a bloody great truck through them, in delicious prose, and leaves the genre whimpering on the dusty backshelves of the library.

The heroine of the story is Flora Poste, aged 19, who has been left orphaned and impoverished. She goes to live with her rustic relations at Cold Comfort Farm. Each of the relations suffers from some problem, but with a bit of modern common sense, Flora drags them out of rural misery, and into the no nonsense twentieth century.

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. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and cry of cows, the trampling bridge-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his . . .

“Will you have some bread and butter?” asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea. “Oh, never mind your boots. Adam can sweep the mud up afterwards. Do come in.”

Defeated, Reuben came in.

He stood at the table facing Flora and blowing heavily on his tea and staring at her. Flora did not mind. It was quite interesting: like having tea with a rhinoceros. Besides, she was rather sorry for him. Amongst all the Starkadders, he looked as though he got the least kick out of life. After all, most of the family got a kick out of something. Amos got one from religion, Judith got one out of Seth, Adam got his from cowdling the dumb beasts, and Elfine got hers from dancing about on the Downs in the fog in a peculiar green dress, while Seth got his from mollocking. But Reuben just didn’t seem to get a kick out of anything.

Cold Comfort Farm, Penguin 2006, p. 78

Cold Comfort Farm is also where “something nasty in the woodshed” comes from. It was Aunt Ada Doom’s seeing, and she uses it to great ill (and in Gibbons’ hand, comic) effect.

I enjoyed the comic genius of the book, but I also enjoyed the peeks into Gibbons’ imagined future. Flora talks to her second cousin Charles on a video-phone, and he fetches her from the farm in his small private aircraft, which he lands in a nearby field. It’s clear that many people have their own planes, in much the same way that many people have cars.

The cows are named Aimless, Feckless, Pointless and Graceless, and the bull is Big Business. What’s not to like about that?

Many thanks to my lovely Uncle Tony for suggesting Stella Gibbons to me, ‘though it was possibly a little unfair of him to mention that he was off to pour himself a glass of shiraz.**


* My book group specialised in reading classics, all those books that we were forced into reading when we were younger and didn’t appreciate, but now that we were a little older, we loved them. It was (is!) a fabulous group of well read, informed, witty and articulate women. Our book group sessions would start with whatever book we were reading, then segue to Jane Austen, and from there to gossip, in the richest sense of the word. When we head home to New Zealand at the end of the year, although we won’t be back in the same town as most of the group, we will be close enough that with a bit of luck and organisation, I will be able to rejoin it.

** Tony is outrageously learned. He holds a doctorate in moral theology, of quite a radical kind. Some years ago Mr Strange Land and I were grumbling that the list of distinguished alumni of the university we were at wasn’t all that distinguished. Tony pointed out that his university had a list of distinguished alumni that was divided into two categories: Saints, and Popes.


7 responses to “Star the fourteenth

  1. My sister-in-law recommended Cold Comfort Farm to me and I read it a few months ago.

    I’m pleased I hadn’t tried it earlier because I suspect I’d have missed most of the humour.

  2. I trust you saw the 1995 Cold Comfort Farm

    — with the utterly edible Rufus Sewell as Seth, forever undoing yet another button. ‘Plenty of red meat at Cold Comfort Farm!’

  3. Funny you should mention Rufus Sewell. From time to time at our book group, my aunty (who joined the group completely independently of me) used to give a Rufus Sewell report. I think she was quite taken with him in his turn as Will Ladislaw in 1994. As were some other members of the group.

  4. Oooh yeah. But I don’t think anything quite beats his turn as Mark Gertler opposite Emma Thompson in Carrington, in spite of the period haircut.

  5. I rather enjoyed his eccentric transvestite aristo in “The Taming of the Shrew” modern version.

    Don’t you love Stella Gibbons’ idea of the asterisks to mark specially purple passages that may be skipped – couldn’t one save a lot of valuable reading time if other authors adopted this useful practice?

  6. English teachers would love that – go to the asterisk on page whatever and describe why this passage may be described as purple…or with certain novels why the whole thing could be described thusly.

  7. Coming in late here – Oh I loved that book so much! There was a sequel which we had when I was a child, but I’ve lost it – “conference at Cold Comfort Farm” featuring a conference of crunchy-granola literary types. Hilarity ensues, probably not up to CCF standard, though. Second Album syndrome.