The Magazine

Funny Girls

The case for devouring two modern comic classics.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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So you are after your rights at last. Well, I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these last twenty years.

Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed.

We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort, and we will do our best to welcome Robert Poste’s child.

Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.

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:

Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, and faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings for ever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing. Oh, they did enjoy themselves!

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

Neo-Expressionist attempt to give dramatic form to the mental reactions of a man employed as a waiter in a restaurant who dreams that he is the double of another man who is employed as a steward on a liner, and who, on awakening and realizing that he is still a waiter employed in a restaurant and not a steward employed on a liner, goes mad and shoots his reflection in a mirror and dies. It had seventeen scenes and only one character. A pest-house, a laundry, a lavatory, a court of law, a room in a lepers’ settlement and the middle of Piccadilly Circus were included in the scenes.

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

were as dead as the eyes of fishes, reflecting the dim, pallid blue of the fading west. The crenellated line of the roof thrust blind ledges against a sky into which the infusion of the darkness was already beginning to seep. The livid silver tongues of the early stars leaped between the shapes of the chimney-pots, backwards and forwards, like idiot children dancing to a forgotten tune.

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:

So I’m back to .  .  . April’s Lady by Mrs. Hungerford (bet you’ve never heard of her—Anglo-Irish, some 30 novels, circa 1880-1895) in which people go deadly pale in moonlit gardens and the distant fountain sobs. They also give each other veiled looks—not surprising in 1895, as the two of them are married to other people, the ladies have snowy arms and are always “getting overdone” at dances, which accounts for the interesting air of weariness.

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).