Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
It is admittedly a shame that this sparkling and lighthearted book was the first novel published by the author and one that has overshadowed her later work, but this is a sparkling novel that deserves its praise and its reputation as a parodic masterpiece. There are several things that this book does right and in accounting for its excellence and its continuing relevance despite the obscurity of the books that it makes fun of, it is perhaps worthwhile to compare this book to the writings of Jane Austen. The comparisons between this novel and Jane Austen’s body of work seem particularly a propos, not least because the author herself refers to both Mansfield Park and Persuasion within the course of the novel itself and even uses a quote from Mansfield park as its frontpiece about letting other pens dwell on misery, which happens to be one of the subjects of this insightful novel. Just like Austen parodied gothic novels and their excesses in her Northanger Abbey, so too Gibbons makes fun of the overwrought literature of the English countryside in this novel, which paints Sussex out to be a deeply unpleasant wilderness for someone as London-bred as the main character, one Flora Poste.
The course of the novel is somewhat straightforward. The death of Flora Poste’s parents and her discovery that she is somewhat poor leads her to leave London and travel to Sussex where she becomes a guest of sorts to some unsavory relatives of hers in the Starkadders. The family is dominated by a miserable woman, Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a small child and has never let anyone else forget it. (One insightful character asks whether what was in the woodshed saw her.) As the family has been imprisoned in Cold Comfort Farm by her tyranny, Flora takes it upon herself to shake up the complacent misery of her relatives, which she does quickly and decisively. She fends off the unwanted advances of a creepy local second-rate intellectual in Mr. Mybug, encourages the fire and brimstone preacher Amos Starkadder to take his show on the road, which gives an opportunity for the sad-sack Reuben to show his competence in running the farm, helps Elfine escape the unwanted attention of Urk the champion of water voles by marrying a local gentleman, and gets Seth in the talking pictures and away from the farm. In the end, she too finds a good deal of happiness and an escape from being stuck forever in Sussex, having changed a family that was stuck in misery for the better in some profound ways.
This book can be considered as part of the larger works that have been made greatly better by being written by people who are deeply fond of Jane Austen. The author shows her own comic genius by doing to the writing of her own time what Jane Austen did in the early 19th century, namely taking an appealing target and hitting it with all kinds of wittiness through an appealing female lead character involved in various courtship plots that manages to simultaneously make fun of symbolism while also engaging in it at the same time, providing a reading that works whether the reader is an ironic and layered reader who is in on the joke or not. Whether you laugh at the Starkadders or laugh with the appealing Flora Poste, there is something to enjoy here. And the way that the author manages to have written this novel in part due to the insight she gained about family tyranny learned from her own abusive father adds a degree of emotional depth to this novel that has allowed it to stand the test of time. In turning her own childhood domestic tragedy into comic gold, Stella Gibbons deserves a great deal of praise and attention for this masterpiece of comic English literature.