Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest book I’ve read this year and one of the funniest I’ve ever read. It combines the dry wit of vintage Wodehouse with the social commentary of Waugh and the literary satire of Henry Fielding. It is hard to believe it was Gibbons’ first novel, written when she was just 23, when it is so note-perfect.
Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of recently orphaned Flora Poste, whose parents were scarcely part of her life anyway, and who ends up staying with some distant relations in the south of England on the farm of the book’s title. Said farm is populated by a cast of ridiculous (and ridiculously named) characters, led by the mysterious Aunt Ada Doom, who stays in her room all but two days of each year and refers ad nauseum to the time when she was a little girl and “saw something nasty in the woodshed!” Aunt Ada keeps all her relations tied to the farm, threatening to go mad if any should leave, so everyone on the farm is horribly repressed in some way – most romantically or sexually, but some in other ways.
Gibbons was parodying the romantic rural novels of the time period, most of which have been forgotten even as her novel has remained popular, with Flora herself referring to them and joking about fearing finding two cousins with names like Seth and Reuben when she gets to the farm, which, of course, turns out to be the case. Gibbons even took aim at one of the leading lights of the literary establishment: the simpering, sex-obsessed Mr. Mybug stands in for D.H. Lawrence, seeing phallic symbols everywhere he looks and, of course, falling hopelessly for Flora without any provocation on her part.
The introduction to the current edition of Cold Comfort Farm features an introduction by Lynne Truss that does an excellent job of breaking down the novel’s power to amaze even readers who aren’t familiar with the saccharine novels Gibbons was satirizing:
Flora finds at Cold Comfort Farm a group of people who have been reduced to novelistic clichés – rather like the curvy cartoon-figure Jessica Rabbit in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, who famously drawled her existential plight, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”Flora helps each character out of his or her difficulties and they quickly find happiness. She is a character in a novel who reads the other characters as characters and rewrites them as people. It’s the ultimate narrative miracle
Think of it as a precursor to Jasper Fforde*, where, instead of the protagonist ‘jumping’ into a novel, she simply lives it, and takes the stock characters she meets and gives them each a third dimension (or, in the case of Seth, simply discovers it and opens it up to the world), working as an extension of the novelist within the book.
*Gibbons even dabbles a little in Ffordian futurism (if you’ll excuse the chronological error) in the book, continuing the parallel with Fforde, setting the book about 15-20 years after the year in which it was published, mentioning video-phones and air mail and and an Anglo-Nicaraguan war in 1946.
As Flora fixes or fills out each character, Gibbons exposes the stereotypes or just flimsy drawings through humor. The ancient Adam Lambsbreath is supposed to be simple and rustic, cleaning (“clettering”) dishes with a twig, and yet Flora wins him over by treating him as more than a prop. Even the farm’s bull, Big Business, is just looking for a bit of a release, and gets it in a passage where Gibbons seems to be having fun with us by channeling her own inner Mybug/Lawrence. And when someone finally replies to Aunt Ada’s cries of “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” … well, I won’t spoil the book’s funniest line, a brilliant four-word riposte that turns the old bat’s story on its head.
Next up: Almost done with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a book good enough that I’m holding off on the revised Klaw 100 until I finish it.