My only regret upon finishing this book is that it’s taken me this long to get around to reading it. It has been some time since I have enjoyed the inane pleasure of drawing bemused glances on the morning commute from sniggering behind the covers of a book. Not only is it one of the funniest books I’ve ever read it’s also probably some of the most subtle and nuanced humour I’ve encountered. Several passages almost slunk past me when I almost missed the inherent sarcasm and wit, and I wager that a second read would unearth far more witty gems. Through a raft of characters and a snappy narrative, Stella Gibbons explores the gulf between classes with a light and teasing touch.
Flora finds herself suddenly bereft of both parents (although doesn’t waste too much time fussing too much over this) and sets about finding suitable family members to go and burden herself upon. Turning away from her other possible options of finding a suitable man on which to rely, or (god forbid) training herself up for some sort of job, she decides the best way to spend her future is meddling in the affairs of her relations. After much consideration, she chooses the unlikely and elusive Sussex farmhouse that has become the home of her aunt. The main thrust of the story concerns the delightful juxtaposition between the poised and elegant Flora and the animalistic country life and inhabitants that she finds on Cold Comfort Farm. The story positively delights in stereotypical characterisation and is openly tongue in cheek when we meet a variety of oddball, inbred and downright vile characters. We follow Flora through her painful journey to ‘make good’ these various misfits through giving them a thoroughly good dose of common sense.
The irrepressible Flora pained me at the start of the book with her flouncy ways and obsession with all things superficial. I found myself checking the date it was published (1932) to try to justify why she seemed to be so weak and inconsequential. I was soon pleasantly surprised. In a style that is at once understated yet fierce Flora provides an unusual female icon in the way she manages to retain the values of her delicate femininity without sacrificing her dominance of all those around her. How thoroughly refreshing to encounter a bold female character who doesn’t feel the need to take on male characteristics in order to dominate those around her. Through her strict adherence to Germanic writings and a head very firmly screwed on, she tends to belittle the need for romance and seems calculated in all her dealings with humanity. There is an underlying tenderness that allows us and the turgid inhabitants of the farm to slowly warm to her.
Stella Gibbons’ descriptions of the farm and its surrounding countryside ooze symbolism as every minute detail of the hedgerows, animal and weather are used to mirror the dreary mood and fatalistic attitude of all the inhabitants of the farm. She especially dwells on the fecundity of the natural environment. Lust and sexual abandon spurt forth from every bud and grass stem, reflected by the rugged inhabitants of the farm that succumb to their baser instincts and populate the surrounding countryside with their unwanted spawn. There is clear delight evident in her indulgent description. She constantly amuses through the calm and measured voice of Flora that cuts through this flamboyant and indulgent prose and dialogue. Often a character or description is surging forward, piling on melodrama and angst before her clear sense cuts through, rendering it inconsequential and delightfully absurd.
It could be quite easy to underestimate the crafting of this novel as it seems so effortless. While we are not offered something which necessarily challenges or breaks the convention of the novel, there are many clever touches that indicate its indulgence in parody. A few discrete nods to the reader along the way clearly signal to us that we are in on the joke. Some of the characters are also let in, commenting on the absurdity of the fellow inhabitants of the book. We follow a classic narrative arc which still manages to surprise at points of resolution. Even the ending doesn’t fully offer up the deepest secrets buried in the fertile Sussex earth. Will Flora ever find out what is lurking in the woodshed? I recommend you give yourself a treat to find out.