Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Daisies opening in sly lust


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.

11 comments:

Book Psmith said...

Well fine then...I won't read the rest of your post because after your first three paragraphs this is going on my TBR list...then I will come back and read the rest:)

Christy said...

This is one of my faaaavorites. From what I have read (that is, the introduction to my copy), much of what Gibbons satirizes comes from Hardy and Lawrence, but also from the novels of Mary Webb. I have not read any of Webb's books (I have no idea if they are even available), but that's apparently where she found a lot to poke fun at.

Incidentally, I quote this book a lot, but very few people get what I am saying. Such is my life.

Sarah said...

I love this, so am glad you did as well!

In the UK, Virago have republished Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons, a retelling of Cinderella set in 1930's England. I found it very funny and also surprisingly moving, definitely worth getting hold of a copy.

Colleen said...

BP: I'll be interested to hear what you think. I know you like British funny, but will you like British funny with bite? :)

Christy: I would totally appreciate your quotations from CCF. I think people who don't are very silly.

Sarah: Oooh, I will check Amazon UK for this book! Thanks for telling me about it.

heidenkind said...

I've seen the movie and I really love it. The book is one I considered reading but it never really made it onto my TBR pile. I will definitely see if the library has it now, though! It sounds very entertaining.

Amateur Reader said...

The movie is a treat, but it has to jettison, and has no substitute for, all of the brilliant stylistic parody, like Colleen's sample.

Colleen said...

Amateur Reader: Hmm, yes, I suppose the film would have to jettison the hilarious narrative descriptions, wouldn't it? That makes me much less inclined to see it, I admit.

Amateur Reader said...

On the other hand, the movie has nothing but good performances. Ian McKellen's hellfire preacher, Kate Beckinsale's irrepressible cheerfulness, Eileen Atkins doing everything she does. Some great line readings - "The Starkadders have always lived at Cold Comfort Farm."

And the physical set, the dank house, render a lot of description unnecessary. It's all just there.

Colleen said...

Amateur Reader: Alright, I will reverse my reversal on the film version of Cold Comfort Farm and promise to see it.

Anonymous said...

I would most definitely read the book BEFORE you watch the movie. The book is accessible at many different intellectual levels but the movie is just one interpretation and tends to play the whole thing for laughs. If you read the book you can spend more time thinking about all the disfunctional people you know with traits similar to those of the characters Miss Gibbons so wonderfully paints.

LisaPerry said...

So, so late to the party on this post(e) of yours. But I had to chime in and second the joys of Nightingale Wood. It took me two tries to get into it, but once I did, I was hooked.
Also, I believe Vintage is reprinting a slew of her back catalog in August.