IN THE summer of 1940, I went with my mother and brother from suburban Essex, which was in imminent danger of invasion, to our great-uncle’s farm in Somerset. I saw through the half-comprehending eyes of a child something of rural life in a place where nothing much had changed since the Enclosure Acts. I sensed rather than understood the attachment to the soil, the closeness to the animals, and the unspoken animosities of age-old feuds.
I smelt new smells, and learnt wonderfully poetic dialect words; and I was intrigued by the biblical names and the semi-pagan religiosity of the villagers. It was only later, when I read Cold Comfort Farm, that I came to question the claustrophobic nature of the relationships, the inefficiency of the agriculture, and the constraints of the social structure; but warm memories of a childhood idyll remain.
Although it is essentially a parody, there is a recognisable substructure of social realism to Stella Gibbons’s masterpiece, first published in 1932 at the height of the popularity of the “loam and love-child” rural novel. The genre is at its best in its origins with Thomas Hardy, and its culmination in Laurie Lee’s Cider with Rosie; it lives on in the TV soap-opera Emmerdale, but it reached its nadir with Mary Webb, who was championed by Stanley Baldwin, and with some aspects of D. H. Lawrence. Gibbons had both in her sights.
Like Chekhov, she worked as a journalist, and, like him, she retained the journalistic virtues of brevity, clarity, and objectivity. His attitude to his characters has been called clinical (as befits a doctor) rather than moral. So is hers.
She is non-judgemental, except with pretentiousness and pomposity, when she becomes positively surgical. She has no room for sympathy as an emotion, only as a spur to action and alleviation. She privileges sense over sensibility. She gives bogus works of spiritual comfort and hell-fire preaching equally short shrift, but lets the Church of England and psychoanalysis off comparatively lightly. It is her fellow-writers whom she is satirising, not the simple country folk and their way of life.
The story is told in third-person narrative, entirely from the standpoint of the feisty Flora Poste: — urban, bossy, manipulative, and ultimately triumphant. The form is classical, with unity of time, place, and theme; and it is like a Greek tragedy in that a hero/heroine comes into a fraught but static situation, unleashes action, and brings about change. It even ends with a modern form of deus ex machina.
Flora, forced by financial circumstances to leave her life in London society, goes to stay with her extended family at Cold Comfort Farm on the Sussex Downs, where she is received as “Robert Poste’s child”, and given free board and lodging in reparation for some former wrong done to her father.
What it was, we never know, and nor does Flora — any more than we discover what was the “something nasty” that Aunt Ada Doom saw “in the woodshed”, which enabled her to take to her bed and tyrannise her family for years, and which has become a proverb.
Flora’s brisk commonsense makes its impact on the slow and sordid lives of the hapless rustics; it is only with hindsight that we ask whether contraception, mechanisation, and the introduction of “society” values and self-indulgence are really the answer to the underlying personal and social problems.
Questions like this, however, should not spoil the fun; this is not tragedy, but comedy — sly, delicate, and even malicious in the spoof foreword aimed at the metropolitan literary coterie — and uproariously, laugh-out-loud hilarious (do not attempt to read it silently in a public library).
This is partly due to the frequent and farcical clashes of culture and expectation between Flora and her relatives, and between the old way of life and the modern world of airplanes and the “talkies”; but it is more the result of Gibbons’s wonderful way with words.
She learnt at the feet of Jane Austen, and her book is rivalled only by Northanger Abbey as a parody that has outclassed and outlived its victims. She mastered the art of starting a paragraph or piece of dialogue in one style, only to change direction and speed, either subtly or more often with a clash of gears and grab of the steering wheel. (“‘There is a dark force in him,’ returned Judith. ‘It beats . . . like a black gong. I wonder you do not feel it.’ ‘Oh, well, we can’t all strike lucky,’ said Flora amiably.”)
She is mistress of the far-fetched simile and Tolstoyan generalisation; she enriches our vocabulary with wonderful, made-up dialect words such as sukebind, mommet, and scranlet, and she helpfully asterisks the steamiest and most purple passages à la Baedeker. Her descriptive passages are beautiful in their own right.
The pace quickens perceptibly about a third of the way through. (“It was now the third week in March. Fecund dreams stirred in the yearlings. The sukebind was in bud.”) By the time we get to the final stages, we do not want it to end; but, since the last two pages would not be out of place in a Mills and Boon romance, we may be grateful that Gibbons knew when to stop.
The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is published by Penguin Classics at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-141-44159-7).
COLD COMFORT FARM — SOME QUESTIONS
How romantic is Cold Comfort Farm?
What did you find most enjoyable about Gibbons’s depiction of the Sussex countryside?
“It was too true that life as she is lived had a way of being curiously different from life as described by novelists.” What did you make of this novel’s comparisons of life and art?
The Starkadders are “only too embarrassingly ready to do what was natural”; how is nature presented in Gibbons’s book?
“It is quite unnecessary for a young woman to resemble St Francis of Assissi,” said Flora, coldly.” What is the place of women in Cold Comfort Farm?
How sympathetic a heroine is Flora Poste?
Is Cold Comfort Farm an entirely happy novel?
“Aunt Ada had thoroughly realised what a nasty time she had had for twenty years, and had now made up her mind to have a nice one.” How far do you agree with the book’s philosophy of self-will and “the Higher Common Sense”?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 April, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Lila by Marilynne Robinson. It is published by Virago at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-84408-882-9).
Lila, orphaned and homeless, has wandered the countryside of the Midwest, in the United States, for years; the elderly preacher John Ames is a confirmed widower who has spent all his life in the town of Gilead. The moment she steps inside his church to shelter from the rain one Sunday changes both their lives for ever. Lila is a novel about secrets, kindness, trust, and redemption, framing the intimacy of human relationships in the earth and sky of the Iowa plains. It was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2015.
Marilynne Robinson was born in Idaho in 1943. Rowan Williams has described her as “one of the world’s most compelling English-speaking novelists”; the novels of her Gilead trilogy, consisting of Gilead (2004; Reading groups, 27 October 2006), Home (2008), and Lila (2014; Christmas books, 28 November 2014) each dwell on the experiences of a different inhabitant of an Iowan town in the 1950s, using their individual perspectives to explore American society and its past. Robinson’s work has been shaped by her theology, in particular the ideas of John Calvin, and she has preached at the Congregationalist Church in Iowa City, where she lives. Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth, described Gilead as “A stunning, multi-layered story that shows grace in action. Luminous writing by Marilynne Robinson, the only living author who writes religious novels that win widespread acclaim.”