Cold Comfort Farm

Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm  in 1932, but her contemporary observations are as pointed and humorous today.  At first, Flora Poste may seem to be the predecessor of Bridget Jones or one of Sophie Kinsella’s characters, but if you listen carefully, you may find more of an Oscar Wilde or Jonathan Swift.  Even if you don’t catch all the references, you’ll still enjoy the story and have some good laughs.

The beginning lines could rival Jane Austen (whose Persuasion is reverently acknowledged by Flora):

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

Unwilling to continue to impose on her wealthy friend, Mrs. Smiling, who had taken her in after her parents’ death, Flora decides to tap into the only inheritance she has – her relatives, while she is “collecting material” for her novel.  Only one responds favorably to her letters – the Starkadders on Cold Comfort Farm – distant cousins who imply they owe Flora from a mysterious wrong done to her family years ago.  Undeterred by the prospect of substituting her social circle for a farm with cows named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless, and a cousin who washes dishes with a twig, Flora packs her favorite book (The Higher Common Sense) and takes the train to her new adventure.

Gibbons eccentric characters are clever foils for Flora’s organizing skills  – Aunt Ada Doom, who saw “something nasty in the woodshed” that drove her to barracading herself in her bedroom for twenty years; her son, Amos Starkadder, an aspiring fire and brimstone evangelist (“there’ll be no butter in hell”); her grandson, Seth, “who looked exactly what he was, the locally sexually successful bounder,” whose favorite person is himself; Mr. Mybug, the author who is exposing the Bronte sisters for stealing novels from their brother; Elfine, the granddaughter who is a free spirit in need of a makeover; Adam, the old hired hand who likes cows better than people.  As Flora manages to adjust each life to her spirited view of how they should be – “{she} liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her” – the conversations are hilarious.

Flora, the model of propriety, always maintains her outward composure while her silent quips betray her true feelings:

“The {wedding} decorations…were really charming…only white flowers were suitable to Elfine’s extreme youth and undoubted purity…Flora repressed the unworthy reflection that it reminded her of a White Sale…”

Gibbons uses the sparse plot to not so gently mock the country bumpkin and the city sophisticate.  Flora has her way in the end, and the Starkadders are all reformed into a civilized life,  with  their  “mode of living {molded} to suit {Flora’s} taste.”

I found this book through one of my book clubs, and I am so looking forward to discussing the innuendos while laughing at the characters’ foibles – maybe some we all have in common.