The case for devouring two modern comic classics.
Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
They wouldn’t have much to say to each other at a dinner party, but there are few more delightful young women in modern literature than Miss Lorelei Lee and Miss Flora Poste, the indomitable, and conniving, heroines of two of the best comic novels of all time, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) and Cold Comfort Farm (1932).
Jane Russell, Charles Coburn, Marilyn Monroe in ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ (1953)
Some people, I suspect, may only know these two masterpieces by the films made from them. I recently checked out a VHS tape from the local library of Cold Comfort Farm, directed by John Schlesinger from a screenplay by Malcolm Bradbury and starring a radiant Kate Beckinsale. Before I’d even handed over my library card, a middle-aged stranger approached and said that this was one of her favorite movies and she watched it over and over. I asked if she’d ever read the book. No. Yet for all the pleasures of the film, the novel is ten times as good. This is true, too, of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which was turned into a musical comedy directed by Howard Hawks with delicious performances by Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, and Charles Coburn. In it the divine Miss M even sings her classic showstopper, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
Still, if you’ve never read the novels, you’re really missing out on much of the comedy, for both Anita Loos (1888-1981) and Stella Gibbons (1902-1989) are irresistible prose stylists. Lorelei Lee’s wide-eyed ditziness is nothing less than a joy forever. Take just the opening sentences from this “illuminating diary of a professional lady”:
From the very first, Anita Loos’s novel was a hit, almost a craze, and won the fervent admiration of some of the most unlikely people, including Edith Wharton (who said it was the best thing of its kind since Manon Lescaut), the future Duke of Windsor, who bought multiple copies, and the formidable critic-poet William Empson, who composed a villanelle entitled “Reflections on Anita Loos.” To this day, Lorelei Lee remains a source of worldly wisdom that even Lord Chesterfield would envy: “I mean I always seem to think that when a girl really enjoys being with a gentleman, it puts her to quite a disadvantage and no real good can come of it.”
Her reputation notwithstanding, Lorelei never views herself as a gold digger; she’s simply “one of the kind of girls that things happen to.” Consider how she came to leave Little Rock, Arkansas. While taking a stenography course, the young blonde attracted the eye of a lawyer named Mr. Jennings, who quickly offered her a job:
Pages go by before Lorelei reveals whether Jennings survived the shooting or not.
Now living in New York, the former stenographer and actress has become the special friend of Gus Eisman, the Button King. Lorelei resides in an apartment with her black maid Lulu, spends a lot of time with her girlfriend Dorothy, and dines regularly at the Ritz. She has a passion for shopping and expensive jewelry. As she memorably observes during a trip abroad, “I really think that American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire bracelet lasts forever.” It’s hard not to hear Marilyn Monroe’s little girl voice pouting that sentence.
In the course of the four months covered by the diary, Lorelei manages to convince Gus to finance an “educational” trip to Europe, during which she meets a succession of besotted admirers. In England she inveigles a diamond tiara out of the stingy Sir Francis Beekman; in France she and Dorothy pal around with a father and son duo named “Louie” and “Robber” (who have been hired to retrieve the tiara). The two women find French customs puzzling: “I mean Louie is always kissing Robber and Dorothy told Louie that if he did not stop kissing Robber, people would think that he painted batiks.” While in Paris the two friends take in all the famous historical sites and names, “like Coty and Cartier.”
Eventually, Lorelei casts her spell over a rich social reformer named Henry Spoffard. When Spoffard proposes in a letter, Lorelei naturally has “quite a lot of photographs taken of it because a girl might lose Henry’s letter and she would not have anything left to remember him by. But Dorothy says to hang on to Henry’s letter, because she really does not think the photographs do it justice.” There’s nothing naïve about Dorothy.
Once back in New York, Lorelei grows convinced that if she is going to marry into Society, she needs to have a debut, a coming-out party. So she throws one for herself, inviting the wealthy drones of the Racquet Club, the bootleggers of the Silver Spray Social Club of Brooklyn, numerous reporters, at least one judge, and all the chorus girls from the Follies. Lorelei’s diary entry for June 19 opens this way:
Anita Loos wrote other books, including a semi-sequel to this one—focused on Dorothy—called But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, as well as a memoir nobly titled A Girl Like I. To most readers, however, Loos remains a one-book author. But since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes looks to be immortal, she can hardly complain.
Stella Gibbons, though, came to feel that the immense success of her first novel prevented people from giving her later work its due. There’s truth to this. But then Cold Comfort Farm would overshadow almost anything; it’s as refreshing and sparkling in its way as Pride and Prejudice. Listen to the Austen-like opening sentences:
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is, in some measure, an example of dialect humor. Lorelei Lee descends from Huckleberry Finn and Mr. Dooley; her transatlantic cousin is A. P. Herbert’s breathlessly gushing debutante Topsy, and her progeny include such screwball blondes as Jean Hagen (aka Lina Lamont) in Singin’ in the Rain and the Valley Girl played by Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Yet while Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is funny and even rather sweet, Cold Comfort Farm is supremely witty. Like Beatrix Potter and Georgette Heyer, Stella Gibbons is one of the head girls in the School of Jane.
Yet this is Austen tinged with naughtiness. Take Flora’s friend, the 26-year-old widow (of, it turns out, the racketeer “Diamond” Tod Smiling), whose hobbies are collecting men and brassieres: “She was reputed to have the largest and finest collection of these garments in the world. It was hoped that on her death it would be left to the nation.” Even more surprising, we learn that the well-bred Flora is capable of instructing a country slattern in the elements of contraception, what she calls “the precautionary arts.” (I feel sure that Lorelei Lee would find such topics shockingly indelicate.) But then Cold Comfort Farm addresses throughout the various ways that the natural and instinctive may be converted into the civilized.
After her parents’ funeral, Flora writes to several relatives, asking if she might come stay with them. The first three letters in reply sound quietly off-putting—“there was some most interesting bird-life to be observed in the marshes which surrounded the house on three sides”—but the fourth is positively ominous:
The letter is signed by J. Starkadder. What plucky young girl could resist such Gothic touches, straight out of Northanger Abbey? Before you know it, Flora is descending on Cold Comfort Farm, which “crouched, like a beast about to spring, under the bulk of Mockuncle Hill.” But as it turns out, Flora is the one who springs. The Starkadders don’t have a chance.
Cold Comfort Farm sends up what has been called the “Loam and Lovechild School of Fiction,” the numerous Starkadders being, essentially, backwoods English hillbillies. As in Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence, or in the sentimental novels of Mary Webb, country life is portrayed as bleak, dirty, passionate, and Biblical. Thinking of her Aunt Ada Doom’s influence on the household, Flora sums up this tradition:
By contrast, Flora likes things “to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable.” A believer in the Higher Common Sense, she resolves to improve the lives of a family that would challenge Freud. Aunt Ada has never gotten over a traumatic event in her childhood. As she endlessly (and famously) intones: “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” Cousin Judith dresses primarily in red scarves, speaks in an affectless voice of the utmost despair, and displays 200 pictures of her son Seth in her bedroom. Her husband, Amos, is a lay preacher, who twice weekly harangues the miserable faithful of the Church of the Quivering Brethren. His message is simple: Everyone is damned.
This ill-matched couple have two sons and a daughter. Reuben hates his father and longs to take over the farm. He is so penny-pinching that he collects the feathers dropped by the chickens and compares them to the hens’ empty feather-sockets, being convinced that someone is robbing him of a valuable farmyard commodity. Seth, by contrast, spouts Lawrence-like tripe about the call of the blood and women wanting to eat you. He spends most of his time “mollocking” with the local girls, at least when he’s not going to the movies, his real passion in life.
Their sister Elfine lives up to her name. She dresses in green, writes poetry, and gambols through the woods like a sprite. However, she has recently fallen in love with the heir to the local grand estate, much to the annoyance of her loathsome cousin Urk, a “foxy-looking little man who was always staring at Flora’s ankles or else spitting into the well.” Elfine’s only protector is the equally besotted, but ancient, Adam Lambsbreath, who tends the cows Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless. When the half-senile Adam shakes his head, “a curious veil, like the withdrawing of intelligence from the eyes of a tortoise, flickered across his face.”
At first, it’s all a bit much for Flora, and she escapes to the nearby town of Howling for a pub lunch at The Condemn’d Man. Alas, there and elsewhere, she encounters the visiting writer Mr. Mybug, who is convinced that Branwell Brontë actually wrote the novels so ludicrously attributed to his sisters: “There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights.” In fact, he explains, those sots Emily, Charlotte, and Anne Brontë stole the manuscripts from Branwell and sold them for money to buy drink.
As this suggests, intellectuals and the avant-garde don’t come off any better in Gibbons’s novel than the rural peasantry. In London Flora attends a performance of a
To give that extra dollop of authenticity to her narrative, Gibbons regularly makes up rural-sounding words, such as “scranletting” (ploughing), “mollocking” (love-making), and “clettering” (dish-washing), and even imagines a sinister aphrodisiac plant called “sukebind.” Even better—or rather worse—are her deliberately overwritten purple passages, which she thoughtfully highlights with three asterisks to alert us to their extreme beauty. At night, for instance, the windows of Cold Comfort Farm
Now that’s writing.
In the end, Flora manages to bring happiness and fulfillment to all the Starkadders. Like a fairy godmother, or even a god, she looks out on her handiwork and finds it good. The public, in its turn, found Stella Gibbons’s work not simply good, but phenomenally so. Some people actually suspected the book must have been written by Evelyn Waugh. Today, the 1932 novel might even be loosely regarded as a work of science fiction, since the action takes place around 1950, a character dials a videophone, and there is mention of the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946.
Gibbons went on to write 23 other novels, all largely forgotten, though her biographer (and nephew) Reggie Oliver argues that at least four should be rediscovered, in particular Nightingale Wood, a sprightly, modern retelling of “Cinderella.” His splendid life of Gibbons, Out of the Woodshed, makes clear that his aunt remained winning and witty throughout her life. As an old lady, she once summarized the plot of one of the many forgotten Victorian novels she adored:
Like all the best comedies, both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Cold Comfort Farm end with marriages and joy all around. They are, in short, perfect holiday escapes, ideal for a quiet evening or two before the mad hurly burly of September or January kicks in. They are that rare thing, happy books, and they will make you happy, too.
Michael Dirda is the author of several collections of essays, including Classics for Pleasure, and has just published On Conan Doyle (Princeton).