NOVEL: Cold Comfort Farm
AUTHOR: Stella Gibbons
YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1932
This is one of the funniest novels I’ve ever encountered. I’m not the only one who thinks so. The Sunday Times agrees with me. In fact, their reviewer (Julie Burchill) called it “very probably the funniest book ever written…a brilliant novel along classic lines.” Robert McCrum, writing for the Guardian, recently named it one of the 100 best novels written in English. Nancy Pearl of NPR called it “quite simply one of the funniest satirical novels of the past century.”
The plot isn’t complicated. Flora Poste, aged 19, possessed of “every art and grace save of earning her own living” finds herself, upon the death of her parents, unexpectedly impoverished. She invites herself to stay with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, and finding them numerous, ignorant, backwards, disorderly, alarming, eccentric, and unhappy, attempts to impose some order into their lives and bring them (kicking and screaming) into the 20th century.
It’s a set up similar to Jane Austen’s Emma, as the young and inexperienced woman thinks she knows what’s best and immediately sets about managing everyone in sight; but in this instance, it actually all works absolutely swimmingly.
Stella Gibbons mocks the country cousins. She mocks the urban sophisticates. She mocks the landed gentry. She mocks D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and the Bronte sisters. But she does it all with such exceeding good humor that despite the foibles of Aunt Ada Doom (who saw something nasty in the woodshed as a child and has become an insane matriarch in the attic), Adam Lambsbreath, the 90-year-old cowhand (and his cows, named Graceless, Feckless, Aimless, and Pointless), Amos Starkadder (part-time fire and brimstone preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren) and the rest of the lot, we readers really want to see all of their problems resolved.
Fortunately, we do. Flora Poste introduces the concept of contraception to Meriam Beetle, the hired girl with more children than sense. She gives Elfine (the intellectual and romantic maiden in love with a neighboring aristocrat) some polish and a London makeover, rather improving her worth on the local marriage market. She gets the smolderingly handsome and oversexed Seth an introduction to a Hollywood film director and changes his life forever. It’s all wrapped up with a lot of happy ever afters, and we enjoy the journey there, laughing all the way.
A friend of mine recently had a rather brilliant idea: a Cold Comfort Farm / Downton Abbey crossover. Surely, Flora Poste and Lady Mary Crawley know some of the same people? Someone really ought to write this…
There’s a 1995 BBC adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm, with a young Kate Beckinsale starring as Flora, which, although tinkering a bit with some minor plot points, gets the light touch and the humor exactly on point. If you like one, you’ll like the other. And if you don’t, I’m really not sure if we’ll be able to be friends.
RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 4 Whistles
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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.
Laura can be contacted at email@example.com