Published by Longmans, Green & Co in 1932
Reprinted by Penguin Books in 2006
"Oh Charles. You do have heavenly teeth." Could there be a more bizarre introduction to a novel than that? And yet, that was exactly how I first learned of Stella Gibbons' comic novel Cold Comfort Farm.
So what is Cold Comfort Farm about? Perhaps you're like me and have never heard of this book. If so it might be best summed up as this: A beautiful young socialite named Flora (recently orphaned) decides to move in with her country relatives, the gloomy Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. Each relative has their own unique problem and Flora soon turns life upside down on the farm as she applies some "modern common sense" to each situation in an effort to bring everyone a happily-ever-after.
Cold Comfort Farm is a comic novel that satires or parodies many of the late 19th century and early 20th century novels, particularly those by D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy.
At first I found the story to be a bit of a muddle. Not only was I trying to piece together the characters (there are so many!) and settings (see below re: the time), but I was also trying to sort out the deliberately convoluted prose and "strained metaphors" that are supposed to add to the entertainment of the book. I learned later that some of the most "purple" paragraphs are marked with asterisks, which once you know this helps prepare you in your reading. Of course, with some books all of this might be enough to bog me down and cause me to lose interest, but not so with Cold Comfort Farm. Despite it all I still found the book to be a quick read and by the time I reached Chapter 6 I found myself adjusted to the writing style and that the characters and settings were fitting together like pieces to a puzzle.
As to the heroine... I can't say really whether I liked Flora or not. At times I found her noisy and annoying and yet, I couldn't help cheering a little as she tied up the loose ends and set off to her own happy ending. She's not a favorite character, but she was so much of this story I'm willing to overlook the annoying moments.
Looking back I realize it might have helped me if I had watched the movie first, but since everyone who's read the book raves about it I decided to wait until after I'd finished reading. Once finished I did request the movie from my library, I couldn't resist. This book just begs to be adapted to the screen and the 1995 adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale is a fairly true version. There were some modern aspects to the story, but nothing too shocking. (i.e. where something is implied subtly in the book it is semi-subtly depicted or stated in the movie, but nothing graphic.) The only loss is that due to time constraints some of the minor characters are dropped or morphed into other characters. If you want the story at it's fullest you should read the book first then watch the film.
One other interesting note I want to make about the book is its setting in time, which I referred to earlier. While Cold Comfort Farm was written in the early 1930s Stella Gibbons set the story to occur "some time in the future." This future date is not obvious at first, but does appear in some unexpected moments. Like the mention of the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946, characters sending mail by air, and most strange of all when Flora has a conversation with a friend on the phone and he "tunes" in the television screen so he can see her while he talks with her. As I said, these are a little unexpected because so much of the story refers to what one might expect to find in the way of houses and machines, clothing and culture of the 1930s.
In the end I found Cold Comfort Farm a witty and very entertaining read, albeit very bizarre at times. There were numerous passages that I jotted down as they were just too funny not to quote. It is definitely one-of-a-kind novel and yet had hints of other stories. If I had to compare Cold Comfort Farm with other literature or films I'd seen I might describe it as: Mary Poppins meets Emma Woodhouse meets Jane Eyre meets Far From the Madding Crowd. No, it's just not your typical 1930s novel. And yet I found much of the plot predicable. From the introduction of each Starkadder and their peculiar situation I had an idea of how things would be resolved, but this didn't spoil the read. If you haven't read Cold Comfort Farm and you're looking for something entertaining and as they say "wickedly funny" then look no further.
For those curious about the author, Stella Gibbons began her writing career as a journalist, but eventually penned more than 30 novels and books of poetry from the 1930s through the early 1970s. Cold Comfort Farm was her first novel and the book that made her famous. She did write a couple short sequels in the 1940s, but I have not yet read them. For more information check out her Wiki-biography or these news articles.
Cold Comfort Farm (Google Books)