by Stella Gibbons
‘You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed.’
Aunt Ada Doom is in her eighties. She hasn’t left the farm for twenty years. Indeed, she only comes out of her room once a year to do ‘the Counting’ – a kind of on the spot census of her numerous and eccentric relations, the Starkadder Family. When she was a young girl (we are told), she saw something nasty in the woodshed. No one truly knows what she saw, but she has never been the same since.
Flora Poste, recently orphaned at the age of nineteen and possessing an income of one hundred pounds a year, goes to live with her aunts and cousins at Cold Comfort Farm. With names like Amos and Seth, Reuben, Elfine, Mark, Luke, Micah and Harkaway, the extended family and their contingent of domestic help are as crazy as they sound. We meet nonagenarian Adam Lambsbreath and his four cows, Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless. We make the acquaintance of Mrs Beetle, a sort of housekeeper, and her philoprogenitive daughter Meriam. And we encounter from time to time minor characters like Claud, Mr Mybug, and a collection of Starkadder wives who live in the nearby village rather than with their men folk at the farm.
‘You would expect, by all the laws of probability, to find a mad grandmother at Cold Comfort Farm, and for once the laws of probability had not done you down and a mad grandmother there was.‘
But Flora, rather reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Emma, has a plan!- a plan to change the farm and its inhabitants – to give to all an opportunity to achieve their ambitions, to fulfil their hearts’ desires.
She begins with Amos, a fiery preacher of hellfire and damnation, and persuades him to go on a world tour in a Ford van. Next, she arranges for Elfine to marry into the County set. Seth’s passion – apart from Meriam – is the Talkies, and Flora brings a Hollywood director to Cold Comfort to sign him up as a star. She seems to know all sorts of people, does our Flora!
Reuben has his heart set on the farm, and she removes all the obstacles to his taking possession of it. His suspicion of his cousin removed, he begins to make some long-overdue changes.
The problems and the solutions are as many and varied as Gibbons’s characters, and Flora sets about changing the world without giving much thought to her own happiness. For her cousin Judith, she enlists the help of a German psychoanalyst. Her penultimate triumph is a total make-over for Aunt Ada, who is reborn as Cold Comfort’s version of Amelia Earhart/Amy Johnson, complete with black leather flying jacket.
Finally, Flora – like Emma – needs to sort out her own love life, which she does without dissembling, in typical Flora fashion.
Published in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was Stella Gibbons’s first novel, and is one of the funniest books ever written. And it gets funnier on the second (or third) reading. It is supposedly a parody of a genre that was popular at the time, a satire on country life, but it is so much more. We laugh with the author at the rural folks’ breeding habits (both animal and human), their quaint dialects and stubborn attachment to the soil of England. But we laugh too at the fashionable world of Flora’s friends, and at the ‘County Set’ and their seemingly pointless existence.
Cold Comfort Farm is a novel to brighten up a dull day, full of crazy but lovable people. An added bonus in my Folio Society copy are the delightful illustrations by the talented Sir Quentin Blake. (See first illustration!)