The case for devouring two modern comic classics.
Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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).