Desert Isle Keeper
Cold Comfort Farm
Once upon a time there was a genre of English fiction called the rural novel. These books were set in the country, often featured sexual themes, and were mostly pessimistic about the human condition. Some critics referred to rural novels as Lust In The Loam, and they were fairly popular with readers.
In 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was published and it all but killed the English rural novel.
Cold Comfort Farm is a satire of Lust in the Loam books. During her job at a newspaper, the author Stella Gibbons had to prepare a synopsis of The House In Dormir Forest by rural novelist Mary Webb, and thought it was simply absurd. Cold Comfort Farm was her reaction not only to Webb, but to other rural novelists as well.
Flora Poste is a sensible young woman who, when she is left an orphan, decides to let one of her relatives take care of her. She sends out a number of letters and gets a reply from some cousins, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders offer her a home to assuage their guilt over a great wrong Mr. Starkadder did to Mr. Poste years ago (we never find out what it is).
So Flora takes herself off to Cold Comfort Farm near the village of Howling in Sussex. From the time she first sees them, it’s clear to Flora that the Starkadders are all – shall we be kind and say eccentric? The matriarch, Judith Starkadder, is all long black hair and shawls, and has an incestuous love for her son, Seth, who spends his time impregnating the hired girls and dreaming of a career in the talkies. The oldest son, Ruben Starkadder, hates his father because he wants the farm for himself. The father, Amos Starkadder, hates the farm and wants to travel as an itinerant preacher for the Church of the Quivering Brethren. Elfine Starkadder is an airy-fairy girl who dances in the dells and looks picturesque. Even the hired hands would love to get away from Cold Comfort, but no one is going anywhere because they are all in thrall to the family matriarch, Great Aunt Ada Doom. Aunt Ada keeps the family in line and on the farm by threatening to go mad because when she was a little girl she “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”
It’s hard to convey just how funny this book is. The farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, speaks in dialect and takes care of the cows – Pointless, Feckless, Aimless and Graceless – as well as the stud bull Big Business. He also “cletters” the dishes, whatever that is. Flora attracts a local intellectual, Mr. Mybug, who tries to court her by taking her for walks where he sees phallic symbols everywhere. Mr. Mybug also expounds upon his pet theory, that Branwell Bronte wrote all the Bronte literary masterpieces. There are patches of purple prose scattered all about the book, and Webb thoughtfully marks these with asterisks.
Clearly, the Starkadders need a sensible young woman like Flora to set them straight, and she quickly begins her task. Pretty soon Flora has fixed up some of the problems at Cold Comfort Farm, but she has to confront Aunt Ada, who is about to summon the family for The Counting.
If I had to describe Cold Comfort Farm it would be the novel equivalent of a love child of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. But it really is a unique piece of writing. The rural novel as a genre may be dead, but this one lives on.
There is also a movie version from 1995, starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, with Rufus Sewell as Seth. Ian McKellen, who plays Amos, steals every scene he’s in, especially when he preaches at the Church of the Quivering Brethren.
Try this. Read Cold Comfort Farm, then pick up any novel of Thomas Hardy and read it. Hardy is as dour a writer as there is, but if you read him after this book – you’ll laugh.
LLB: Cold Comfort Farm is a wonderful movie, with terrific casting for each and every "eccentric," as Ellen says, in the story. When I saw the book for sale while I worked my daughter's summer book sale this spring (those at her school are required to do summer reading and this was one of the 11th grade choices), I snatched up a copy for myself. After reading Ellen's review it'll be moving up my tbr list. For those who haven't seen the movie, rent it; it's terrific.