I’m just back from a very enjoyable meet-up in London with some bookish people, more on that in the near future. Today, I just couldn’t leave you mystified as to my opinions concerning Ms. Gibbons and her Farm of Cold Comfort. So interesting to read the views of others before I throw my own out there, must try that again some time.
And what an interesting disparity there is amongst you! Some love; some loathe; some fairly indifferent. Well, it’s time to nail my colours to the mast – I love, love, love Cold Comfort Farm and think it’s in the top ten funniest books I’ve ever read. Quite a bold statement to make, and knowing that lots of you have already read it, I probaly have to justify my position… I’ll do my best. But I think humour in a book is the most difficult thing to define, encapsulate or explain. Why do I find something funny? Goodness knows. And trying to work out why something is funny kills the humour. Oh well. I’ll do my best…
I read Cold Comfort Farm in January 2004, and re-read it last week for Book Group – what had been enjoyed at 18 was delighted in at 22. Perhaps my pleasure will go up in four-yearly increments, leaving me in delirium by the time I’m 98. What made the most difference, I think, is that I have read some Lawrence, some Hardy, some interwar psychoanalytical novels in the interrim. For Cold Comfort Farm is pastiche on every page – mostly, apparently, of Mary Webb, whom I have not read – and not a word is intended to be taken seriously.
Ironically, Cold Comfort Farm is both pastiche and wholly unlike any other book in the world. It couldn’t be. Flora Poste, the chic London ‘heroine’, finds herself orphaned and decides to live with a relative. She tries several, including the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm, albeit reluctantly: ‘ “because highly sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin’s name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like.” ‘ It is this sense that Flora is walking into a cliche – which is evident even if one has never touched a rural novel of the type being satirised – which characterises the whole situation, and the rest of the novel. She breezes into Cold Comfort Farm, and encounters every type of absurd, farcical and outlandish character imaginable. And I loved every one of ’em.
90 year old Adam, who cares only for his cows Feckless, Aimless, Graceless and Pointless; over-sexed Seth who is perpetually undoing shirt buttons and believes women only want “yer blood and yer breath”; Mr. Mybug who sees Flora’s revulsion towards him as ‘inhibitions’ and claims Branwell Bronte wrote Wuthering Heights; preacher Amos who doesn’t plan his sermons but “I allus knows ’twill be summat about burnin’…”; most famously Aunt Ada Doom, confined to her room, who once “saw something nasty in the woodshed”. And a host of others, all of whom are keen to impress on Flora that “there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort”.
In response to Angela’s comment yesterday, I do think the characters are supposed to be cartoonish – or absurd, anyway. It is the clash of their melodramatic sayings and Flora’s unflustered sense which gave me the moments of greatest mirth. For example, this exchange between Flora and Cousin Judith:
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
‘Curtains?’ she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. ‘Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.’
‘I’m sure it is; but do you think I might have them washed, all the same?’
Flora’s tidy dismissal of the rural histrionics would be callous and arrogant in real life, but real life is not something which impinges on Cold Comfort Farm. Self-confidence propels Flora through solving all the Starkadder dilemmas, even the domineering matriach Ada Doom, whose only defence tactics are thwacking people with Cowkeepers’ Weekly Bulletin and Milk Producers’ Guide.
I find Cold Comfort Farm a hilarious romp from beginning to end, as well as an example of brilliantly measured and controlled writing, but I can quite see it’s a novel which is either hit or miss. Those who haven’t read it, do give it a go – if, after 40 pages, you don’t love it then you never will. If you do, you always will.