Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons is a marvelous send up of brooding romantic literature in the vein of the Bronte sisters. In addition to a crazy woman upstairs, a dark and hunky cad, crazy gibberish talking locals, and a plucky dauntless heroine, Gibbons gives her reader some hilarious dialogue and overall goofiness that is difficult to resist. Gibbons represents the best of British humor a la Wodehouse and Jerome K Jerome and of women writers of the 1930s such as Dawn Powell and Edna Ferber.
As with many literary classics, our heroine Flora Poste finds herself at 19 without family or fortune. She has been educated but is uninterested in finding a job even though the measly 100 pounds per annum bequeathed her in her father’s will is clearly not enough to support her needs. Against the advice of her friends, Flora contacts her known living relatives with a specific goal in mind.
When I have found a relative who is willing to have me, I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then, when it pleases me, I shall marry.
Ultimately, Flora would like to become a writer and she imagines that living with these relatives for 30 years-ish will provide the fodder for a great novel. After contacting her relatives, Flora sets her sights on the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The letter received from her cousin Judith made this irresistible for Flora:
Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed.
When Flora arrives at Cold Comfort, she resolves to “tidy up” and “civilize” the large and dysfunctional Starkadder family at whose core resides “the curse of Cold Comfort” and “the Dominant Grandmother Theme … found in all typical novels of agricultural life” — Aunt Ada Doom. Aunt Ada, aka Mrs. Starkadder, stays to her room, dines five times daily, and avoids the family except on two especially appointed days of the year. The rest of the clan live in fear of her and her fits, brought on by having seen “something nasty in the woodshed” when she was a girl. In addition to crazy Ada, Gibbons gives us the deeply depressed cousin Judith and her husband Amos, whose calling in life is to preach hellfire and damnation to large crowds; 17-year-old Elfine, who wanders the fields wild-eyed and adoring poetry; and, my favorite, Judith’s son Seth who …
… looked exactly what he was, the local sexually successful bounder.
On one notable occasion, Seth “looked like a panther in evening dress.” I imagine Seth looking a lot like Aiden Turner fresh from the set of Poldark. While Seth manages to get the serving girl pregnant on a regular basis, his real passion is “the talkies.”
Gibbons provides a much larger caste of characters than these few I’ve mentioned (including a bull named Big Business), and they are all quite colorful. Each has some hidden desire or problem which Flora resolves to address. Ultimately, Flora must tackle the problem of Aunt Ada Doom herself. The scene in which Aunt Ada confronts the family is absolutely hysterical, and Flora’s solving of the problem of Ada is as funny as it is unexpected. Flora is like the perfect combination of Jeeves and Mary Poppins.
Cold Comfort Farm is an enormously entertaining book and a nice break if you’ve been reading a lot of serious novels. Recommended for fans of British lit and humor.