I'm just going to say it: I think Stella Gibbons was a comic genius, in particular, a genius of the funny/mean variety (my favourite, as you know). It's disturbing to me that of all the novels she wrote, only Cold Comfort Farm is still in print. Not only that: while the TPL has many of her books, except for Cold Comfort Farm, they're all represented in single copies at the non-circulating Toronto Reference Library. Le sigh.
I may be forced to spend heaps of cash buying her other books on the interwebs because, you see, Stella Gibbons wasn't just funny and mean; she was also funny and mean about books, and a damned good writer to boot.
Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of Flora Poste who at 19, having recently been orphaned, decides that "whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one's friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one's own conscience, to the amount one may impose upon one's relatives" (p. 13).
All spoilers from here on in!
Having dropped this sage tidbit on her friend Mrs. Smiling, Flora promptly writes to all her eligible relations and decides, upon receiving a number of offers, to go to the Starkadders in Sussex, who inhabit the justly named Cold Comfort Farm. As someone who likes things to be very tidy and proper, Flora finds herself with a great deal of work to do, for all of said relations turn out to be terrifyingly hilarious character types drawn from the kinds of novels earnestly penned by Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. There are earthy folks, wild poetry-writing folks, over-sexualized folks, and emotionally imbalanced almost incestuous folk. For Flora, this simply won't do, and so she commences helping everyone liberate themselves from the bonds of family, the land, and novelists who may arguably have no sense of humour whatever. (Not that I don't enjoy Hardy and Lawrence; I do. But you must admit, they're both rather dour.)
Gibbons won me over with her dedicatory epistle in which she outlines how her book will serve as an antidote to those turn of the century novels so invested in Meaningfulness and Spiritual Struggles. She also helpfully notes that what she considers to be the "finer passages" in the book have been marked with stars (p. 6). And oh, friends, the passages she marks with stars are truly brilliant in their bitchiness a la making fun of the staid Hardy and Lawrence and their ilk. For example:
At the farm, life burgeoned and was quick. A think, shameless cooing was laid down, stroke on stroke, through the warm air from the throats of the wood-pigeons until the very atmosphere seemed covered with a rich patina of love. The strident yellow note of the cockerel shot up into the sunshine and wavered there, ending in a little feather-tuft of notes. Big Business [the bull at Cold Comfort] bellowed triumphantly in the great field. Daisies opened in sly lust to the sun-rays and rain-spears, and eft-flies, locked in a blind embrace, spun radiantly through the glutinous air to their ordained death. (p. 193)I am so happy right now. I can't stop giggling at this novel's sheer abundance of hilarity. Besides Gibbons' sending up of Hardy and Lawrence, I think she was also sending up Austen, which is likely not news to anyone but I haven't read anything about her or this book excepting the distressing news noted above, i.e., that all her other books are out of print, and that she makes fun of Hardy and Lawrence. I'm pretty sure I would have gotten the Hardy/Lawrence thing if I hadn't read about it.
The novel's main character, Flora Poste, is to me the most un-Austen-ish character imaginable but also and more specifically, the quintessential anti-Emma. Flora intrudes smoothly and intently into everyone's business precisely in order to change their lives in ways she sees fit but unlike the bumbling and annoying Emma, Flora is always fantastically and gracefully successful. More importantly, there are absolutely no lessons to be learned here; Flora is very charmingly pure id, as are all the characters around her and she simply helps them to fulfill their desires. And her desire for order having been satisfied she makes haste to boot it back to London (in style, of course).
Unlike Austen, Gibbons doesn't allow her characters to embody some heavy-handed pedagogical lesson and unlike Hardy and Lawrence, she doesn't allow her characters' pleasures to be in any way diminished by either spiritual concerns or consequences. Cold Comfort Farm is a good romp and a mighty fine satire.
So, fellow babies, I am off to a cottage for a few days where there will be no interwebs access whatsoever. I plan to loll about and read, perhaps a vampire novel and definitely Charlotte Bronte's Villette for Rohan's summer reading event at The Valve. But mostly it'll be about the eating and sleeping and hopefully playing card games or summink.