Cold Comfort Farm
|8 September 1932|
|Media type||Print (hardback)|
|Pages||xii, 307 pp|
|ISBN||0-14-144159-3 (current Penguin Classics edition)|
Cold Comfort Farm is a comic novel by English author Stella Gibbons, published in 1932. It parodies the romanticised, sometimes doom-laden accounts of rural life popular at the time, by writers such as Mary Webb. Gibbons was working for the Evening Standard in 1928 when they decided to serialise Webb's first novel, The Golden Arrow, and Gibbons was given the job of summarising the plot of earlier instalments. Other novelists in the tradition parodied by Cold Comfort Farm are D. H. Lawrence, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Thomas Hardy; and going further back, Mary E Mann and the Brontë sisters. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 88 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
Following the death of her parents, the book's heroine, Flora Poste, finds she is possessed "of every art and grace save that of earning her own living." She decides to take advantage of the fact that "no limits are set, either by society or one's own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one's relatives", and settles on visiting her distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm in the fictional village of Howling in Sussex. The inhabitants of the farm — Aunt Ada Doom, the Starkadders, and their extended family and workers — feel obliged to take her in to atone for an unspecified wrong once done to her father.
As is typical in a certain genre of romantic 19th-century and early 20th-century literature, each of the farm's inhabitants has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred, or fear, and the farm is badly run. Flora, being a level-headed, urban woman, determines that she must apply modern common sense to their problems and help them adapt to the 20th century.
As parody of the "loam and lovechild" genre of historical novel, Cold Comfort Farm alludes specifically to a number of novels both in the past and currently in vogue when Gibbons was writing. According to Faye Hammill's Cold Comfort Farm, D. H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars, the works of Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb are the chief influence. According to Hammill, the farm is modelled on Dormer House in Webb's The House in Dormer Forest, and Aunt Ada Doom on Mrs. Velindre in the same book. The farm-obsessed Reuben's original is in Kaye-Smith's Sussex Gorse, and the Quivering Brethren on the Colgate Brethren in Kaye-Smith's Susan Spray.
The speech of the Sussex characters is a parody of rural dialects (in particular Sussex and West Country accents – another parody of novelists who use phonics to portray various accents and dialects) and is sprinkled with fake but authentic-sounding local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth's favourite activity, undefined but invariably resulting in the pregnancy of a local maid), sukebind (a weed whose flowering in the Spring symbolises the quickening of sexual urges in man and beast; the word is presumably formed by analogy to 'woodbine' (honeysuckle) and bindweed) and clettering (an impractical method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig or clettering stick).
Her portrayal of libidinous Meyerburg, "Mr Mybug", may have been aimed at Hampstead intellectuals (particularly Freudians and admirers of D. H. Lawrence), but has also been seen as anti-semitic in its description of his physiognomy and nameplay (Humble, 2001: 30).
Sequels and responses
Sheila Kaye-Smith, often said to be one of the rural writers parodied by Gibbons in CCF, arguably gets her own back with a tongue-in-cheek reference to CCF within a subplot of A Valiant Woman (1939), set in a rapidly modernising village (Pearce:2008). Upper middle-class teenager, Lucia, turns from writing charming rural poems to a great Urban Proletarian Novel: "… all about people who aren't married going to bed in a Manchester slum and talking about the Means Test." Her philistine grandmother is dismayed: she prefers ‘cosy’ rural novels, and knows Lucia is ignorant of proletarian life:
"That silly child! Did she really think she could write a novel? Well, of course, modern novels might encourage her to think so. There was nothing written nowadays worth reading. The book on her knee was called Cold Comfort Farm and had been written by a young woman who was said to be very clever and had won an important literary prize. But she couldn't get on with it at all. It was about life on a farm, but the girl obviously knew nothing about country life. To anyone who, like herself, had always lived in the country, the whole thing was too ridiculous and impossible for words."
Characters (in order of appearance)
- Flora Poste: the heroine, a nineteen-year old from London whose parents are deceased.
- Mary Smiling: a widow, Flora's friend in London.
- Charles Fairford: Flora's cousin in London, studying to become a parson.
In Howling, Sussex:
- Judith Starkadder: Flora's cousin, wife of Amos. She has an unhealthy passion for her own son Seth.
- Seth Starkadder: younger son of Amos and Judith. Handsome and over-sexed. Has a passion for the movies.
- Ada Doom: Judith's mother, a reclusive, miserly widow, owner of the farm, who constantly complains of having seen "something nasty in the woodshed" when she was a girl.
- Adam Lambsbreath: 90 year old farm hand, obsessed with his cows and with Elfine.
- Mark Dolour: farm hand.
- Amos Starkadder: Judith's husband, and hellfire preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. ("Ye're all damned!")
- Amos's half-cousins: Micah, married to Susan; Urk, a bachelor who wants to marry Elfine; Ezra, married to Jane; Caraway, married to Lettie; Harkaway.
- Amos's half-brothers: Luke, married to Prue; Mark, divorced from Susan and married to Phoebe.
- Reuben Starkadder: Amos's heir, jealous of anyone who stands between him and his inheritance of the farm.
- Meriam Beetle: hired girl, and mother of Seth's four children.
- Elfine: an intellectual, outdoor-loving girl of the Starkadder family, who is besotted with the local squire, Richard Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture (pronounced "Howchiker") Hall.
- Mrs Beetle: cleaning lady, rather more sensible than the Starkadders.
- Mrs Murther: landlady of The Condemn'd Man public house.
- Mr Meyerburg (whom Flora thinks of as "Mr Mybug"): a writer who pursues Flora and insists that she only refuses him because she is sexually repressed. He is working on a thesis that the works of the Brontë sisters were written by their brother Branwell Brontë.
- Rennet: unwanted daughter of Susan and Mark
- Dr Müdel: psychoanalyst.
- Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless: the farm's cows, and Adam Lambsbreath's chief charge. Occasionally given to losing extremities.
- Viper: the horse, pulls the trap which is the farm's main transportation
- Big Business: the bull, spends most of his time inside the barn.
The interrelations of the characters are complex. The family tree below is an attempt to illustrate them as they stand at the end of the novel.
The novel ends when Flora, with the aid of her handbook The Higher Common Sense, has solved each character's problem. These solutions are:
- Meriam: Flora introduces her to the concept of contraception.
- Seth: Flora introduces him to a Hollywood film director, Earl P. Neck, who hires him as a screen idol.
- Amos: Flora persuades him to buy a Ford van and become a travelling preacher. He loses interest in running the farm and hands it over to Reuben.
- Elfine: Flora teaches her some social graces and dress sense so that Richard Hawk-Monitor falls in love with her.
- Urk: forgets his desire for Elfine and marries Meriam.
- Mr Mybug: falls in love with and marries Rennet.
- Judith: Flora hires a psychoanalyst, Dr Müdel, who, over lunch, transfers Judith's obsession from Seth to himself until he can set her interest on old churches instead.
- Ada: Flora uses a copy of Vogue magazine to tempt her to join the 20th century, and spend some of her fortune on living the high life in Paris.
- Adam: is given a job as cow-herd at Hautcouture Hall.
- Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless: go with Adam to Hautcouture Hall
- Big Business: Flora lets him out into the sunlight.
- Reuben: inherits the farm after Amos leaves to preach (in the 1995 movie, he, not Mr. Mybug, gets together with Rennet).
- Flora: marries Charles.
The story was set in the future. Although the book was published in 1932, the setting is an unspecified near future, sometime after 1946 as an "Anglo-Nicaraguan War" of that year is alluded to in the experiences of some characters
The book contains technological developments that Gibbons thought might have been invented by then, such as TV phones and air–taxis and also refers to future social/demographic changes, such as the degradation of Mayfair into a slum district. Some of the book's attitudes to class and Jews are archaic to modern readers, but consistent with fiction of the period.
1940 saw the publication of Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (actually a collection of short stories, of which Christmas was the first). It is a prequel of sorts, set before Flora's arrival at the farm, and is a parody of a typical family Christmas.
A sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, was published in 1949 to mixed reviews.
Cold Comfort Farm has been adapted several times, including twice for television by the BBC.
In 1968 a three-part serial was made, starring Sarah Badel as Flora Poste, Brian Blessed as Reuben, Peter Egan as Seth, and Alastair Sim as Amos. Joan Bakewell was the narrator. This BBC adaptation was released on VHS but as of April 2014 is no longer available commercially.
In 1981, the BBC produced a four-part radio adaptation by Elizabeth Proud, who also narrated. Patricia Gallimore played Flora, and Miriam Margolyes played Mrs. Beetle. In January 1983, a sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, set several years later, when Flora is married with several children, was broadcast (Part 1: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm", and Part 2: "Reuben's Oath – or Seven Good Men and True").
The book has also been turned into a play by Paul Doust in 1991. The plot was simplified a little to make it suitable for the stage. Many characters, including Mybug, Mrs. Beetle, Meriam, Mark Dolour and Mrs. Smiling, are omitted. Meriam's character was merged with Rennet, who ends up with Urk at the end. As a consequence, both Rennet's and Urk's roles are much bigger than in the book. Mrs. Smiling is absent because the action begins with Flora's arrival in Sussex; Charles appears only to drop her off and pick her up again at the end. Mark Dolour, though mentioned several times in the play as a running joke, never appears on stage. Finally, instead of visiting a psychoanalyst to cure her obsession, Judith leaves with Neck at the end.
In 1995 a television film was produced which was generally well-received, with critics like the New York Times' Janet Maslin writing that this screen version "gets it exactly right." The film starred Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Joanna Lumley as her friend and mentor Mary Smiling, Rufus Sewell as Seth, Ian McKellen as Amos Starkadder, Eileen Atkins as Judith, Stephen Fry as Mybug, Miriam Margolyes as Mrs. Beetle, and Angela Thorne as Mrs Hawk-Monitor. The 1995 version was produced by BBC Films and Thames International, and was helmed by Academy Award-winning director John Schlesinger, from a script by novelist and scholar Sir Malcolm Bradbury. It was filmed on location at Brightling, East Sussex. In 1996, this version also had a brief theatrical run in North America and Australia. Schlesinger reportedly used his own money to enlarge the 16mm BBC version of the film to 35mm, which was turned down by several US distributors before being distributed by Gramercy Pictures. As of April 2014, the film is still available on DVD in both the US and UK.
Other uses of title
- "BBC – The Big Read". BBC. April 2003, Retrieved 18 November 2012
- Cold Comfort Farm, D. H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars, Faye Hammill, Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 831–854
- Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm
- Conference at Cold Comfort Farm
- Plays by Paul Doust
- Maslin, Janet (10 May 1996). "FILM REVIEW;Country Cousins, Feudal And Futile". The New York Times.
- Review by Roger Ebert
- Tanfani, Joseph (25 July 2013). "Late heiress' anti-immigration efforts live on". Los Angeles Times.
- Bleiler, Everett (1948). The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Chicago: Shasta Publishers. p. 126.
- Cavaliero, Glen (1977) The Rural Tradition in the English Novel 1900–39: Macmillan
- Humble, Nicola (2001) The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s – 1950s: Oxford University Press
- Kaye-Smith, Sheila (1939) A Valiant Woman: Cassell & Co Ltd
- Pearce, H (2008) "Sheila's Response to Cold Comfort Farm", The Gleam: Journal of the Sheila Kaye-Smith Society, No 21.
- Trodd, Anthea (1980) Women's Writing in English: Britain 1900–1945: Longmans.