One of the things about being generally regarded by your friends and family as “well read” is this: you are subject to stares of utter disbelief when you admit to not having read a book that someone else consider “classic.” “YOU haven’t read Kafka on the Shore? I can’t believe it! You went on and on about The Belly of Paris last month, and you haven’t even read Murakami? Even my Cousin Waldo the Luddite has read THAT one!”
It’s kind of hard not to take it personally.
One of the books that I routinely got berated for not reading was Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. English friends in particular could not believe this galling oversight in my reading biography. So needing a 20th Century classic for the Back to the Classics 2013 Challenge over at Sarah Reads Too Much, I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
Finally, I realize why everyone was amazed that I’d waited so long to read this book. There aren’t too many novels I’ve found as absurdly funny as Cold Comfort Farm. And believe me, that’s saying something. Because absurdly funny is one of my favorite things.
The novel is mostly set in rural Sussex in the early part of the 20th century. Flora Poste, an orphan at 19 and possessing a tiny inheritance and virtually no work ethic, decides her best course of action is to sponge off her distant relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders agree to take her in because they seem to believe that they have some grave wrong to make up to her – a wrong about which she has absolutely no clue. However, on arrival, she finds her inherent need for tidiness immediately assaulted by the very messy condition of the Starkadders lives, due mostly to the imperious machinations of the formidable matriarch of the family, Aunt Ada Doom. So she immediately sets to work solving the Starkadders various problems.
The novel has a large and sometimes confusing cast of characters, complete with ridiculous and evocative names and neuroses to match. Flora puts her city street smarts to bear on the bucolic chaos, arranging and rearranging marriages, careers and personal habits. Her snarky insights and polite inability to take no for an answer were hilarious – she sort of reminded me of Katherine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby: ditzy like a fox!
It is Flora’s great strength that she sees clearly who her kin are, and works her fixes for them without ever trying to change their natures. Local gigolo Seth, for example, has fantastic looks, no brains and a desire to be the center of attention. Flora’s solution? Make a matinee idol out of him! So she arranges a meeting between Mr. Neck, the producer, and her wayward cousin:
A silence fell. The young man stood in the warm light of the declining sun, his bare throat and boldly moulded features looking as though they were bathed in gold. His pose was easy and graceful. A superb self-confidence radiated from him, as it does from any healthy animal. He met Mr. Neck’s stare with an impudent stare of his own, his head lowered and slightly forward. He looked exactly what he was, the local sexually successful bounder. Millions of women were to realize, in the next five years, that Seth could be transported in fancy to a Welsh mining village, a shoddy North country seaside town, a raw city the plains of the Middle West, and still remain eternally and unchangeably the local irresistible bounder. (pg. 184)
I loved watching Flora’s plans come together, and laughed out loud at her insights more than once. I did find the dialect that the cousins’ dialogue was written in a bit slow going, but it didn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the story. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves British comedy. And to anyone tired of the incredulous looks – it’s quite painless to banish them in this case!
Okay, better late than never for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I am finally on the board. Thanks to Sarah for hosting.
FTC disclosure: I did not receive a free copy of this book to review.