Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to write a review of Cold Comfort Farm. It piqued my interest because I’d read about it in Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine, and thought it sounded fantastic. Considering it has been dubbed “Probably the funniest book ever written”, and emerged in the period of inestimable comic talents like P.G. Wodehouse, I decided I’d give it a go.
The reason I didn’t know whether to write a review or not was probably because I didn’t know what to make of the book itself. Lest I show my ignorance (or my poor sense of humour, often inclined to the banana-peel school of comedy, if I’m honest, despite my best efforts to cultivate it), I put off writing anything about it.
But Cold Comfort Farm is a strange book, and I hope that writing a little bit about it will allow me to puzzle it through. If not – well, hopefully one of my lovely readers will help me out.
The book’s central character is Flora Poste, a recently orphaned young woman with time on her hands. Stuck wondering what to do now that her parents are gone, Flora rejects the suggestion of her friend, Mrs Smiling, that she move to London and “learn how to work” (Chapter II). Flora decides she’d much rather move in with one of her many relatives and, essentially, make a nuisance of herself (she claims she’s going to ‘tidy’ up their lives, but it comes to the same thing). Flora is, therefore, in training to become that scourge of the English countryside, that butt of every self-respecting comic writer’s joke: the ‘interfering old baggage’. Otherwise known as the ‘nosy spinster’, a character so beloved in books like Cranford and Austen’s Emma.
But this is not Cranford. Modern readers who find Flora’s dismissal of ‘learning how to work’ difficult to stomach probably need to remind themselves, as I had to constantly, that there is a dry undercurrent of irony running through this entire novel. At least, I hope there is.
Flora’s ambitions seem not to extend beyond the desire for comfort. Of course, it’s comfort that she creates for herself, as she has a talent for rearranging (read: meddling) that is second to none. Beyond that, she tells Mrs Smiling (half-jokingly, perhaps?) that “when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, “Collecting material”” (Chapter II). All this makes for a character who is a little difficult to like at first, obsessed as she is with rearranging everybody’s lives to her own satisfaction, and who seems to have little real ambition, besides her casual remarks about writing a book, as if it were as simple as baking a cake.
She goes to live with her cousins, the Starkadders, on a remote farm in Sussex. She rearranges lives, fixes marriages, kick-starts careers, and treats mental illnesses. By the end of the novel, you’ve got to admire the ruthlessness with which Flora sets about mending the lives of the Starkadders.
As you might expect, Jane Austen’s novels are frequently mentioned throughout a comic novel such as this. But although Persuasion is mentioned at the beginning, and a short reading of Mansfield Park gives Flora the brainwave necessary to complete her self-appointed task at Cold Comfort Farm, no mention is made in the text of the Austen novel which Cold Comfort Farm is most indebted to. I have no doubt that Gibbons leaned heavily on Emma, because it’s clear that Flora is a kind of twentieth-century version of Austen’s heroine. She, too, meddles in people’s lives, treating the people around her like playthings.
But Flora is Emma triumphant; she never feels the sting that Austen’s heroine does, when she discovers that her self-involvement has led her to complete and utter blindness. No. Flora retains the absolute self-assurance of a young Emma Woodhouse, and she succeeds where Emma fails. She doesn’t just marry off her Harriet Smith (a young girl called Elfine), but manages to whip the whole of Mrs Goddard’s orphanage into shape as well. At the end of the book, she reflects with pleasure on her achievements: “‘I,’ thought Flora simply […] ‘did all that with my little hatchet.'” (Chapter XX). Flora creates not with the ‘fine ivory brush’ of Austen fame, but with a hatchet. And she mows down everybody in her path.
Who couldn’t fall for a heroine like that? Flora is decisive, no doubt about it. Cold Comfort Farm is not moralistic, but at its centre is a hard centre of pure wilfulness which makes it compelling. Flora doesn’t have a gentle touch so much as a gentle shove, but she gets the job done. She may be a little difficult to get on board with at the beginning, but by the end of the novel you might just find yourself wishing you, too, were on the aeroplane that carries the triumphant Flora away from Cold Comfort Farm at last.
Rating: 4 Stars