[I decided to read this 1932 comic novel in two halves. I wrote about the first half before I read the rest.]
23 April 2020
Nearly half-way through, and it feels like a good place to pause. Flora, Stella Gibbons’s super-resourceful heroine, wants to ‘tidy up’ the labyrinthine family mess that is Cold Comfort Farm, and she’s sure her plans are going well…. Meanwhile, in the chapter I’ve reached, we finally get inside not only the room of the materfamilias but right inside her head. Her favourite grandson has told Flora how women are like spiders—the female likes nothing better than to eat the cock-spider—and old Mrs Starkadder has been in control, at the centre of her web, for 20 long years. She knows Flora would like to meet her, but so far she’s kept her away for a month. She aims to keep things exactly as they are—and I’ll come back to her later.
I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy this book. Everybody knows about it, especially the line about ‘something nasty in the woodshed,’ and I was worried that the archly knowing tone of the first few pages was indicative of some fairly self-satisfied attitudes. This is Evelyn Waugh territory, where bright young things like Flora will do anything to avoid engagement with a world outside their particular London bubble. The joke in the first two chapters, set firmly inside that bubble, is that Flora is going to write to all her living relatives in order to avoid having to seek work. She can’t possibly live on the hundred pounds a year she’s ended up with—hovering well below even a working person’s minimum wage, I would think—and she can’t possibly impose on friends in the way you can with relatives. All the replies are comically awful, but something about Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex attracts her. As her well-off friend Mrs Smiling says, at least it sounds ‘interesting and appalling, whereas all the others just sound appalling.’
There’s also some romantic interest in London, a certain Charles who intends, he says, to be a ‘parson.’ Trust Gibbons to find the most comical word she can for his clerical ambitions. Is he serious? Unlikely, in a novel in which nothing is serious…. Mrs Smiling herself is beset by suitors, all of whom she keeps well beyond arm’s length, as though sex is a kind of party game you might simply not feel like playing just now, thank you. It’s an attitude Flora takes with her to Sussex, and the two men who have shown an interest in her both strike her, in their different ways, as perfectly absurd. Men don’t come out looking at all good in this novel—although, this novel being a deliberate pastiche of easy literary tropes, I’m expecting the not-too-appalling Charles to turn out all right in the end.
It’s mainly a pastiche of romantic novels by second-rate women authors, but I don’t think it matters either that I haven’t read any of them or that they have entirely faded from the public’s consciousness. There’s plenty else going on—including the fact that Flora seems perfectly aware that she’s in a novel cobbled together by somebody who won’t be winning literary prizes any time soon. As she meets new people, she categorises them by literary type just as a reader would do. Old Adam is the faithful, mindless man of the soil—in his case, very mindless, as shown when he makes a kind of pet of the washing-up mop she buys him—while Seth, the favourite grandson, is the smouldering romantic lead, like Heathcliff without his better qualities. He’s the one who talks about the hen-spider eating the cock, and he gets the hapless maid-servant pregnant every summer. He thinks Flora will be easy meat, but she isn’t interested, obviously—and as for Mybug, a man spending time in the local village while he writes his book about how Branwell Bronte was the one who wrote all the Brontes’ novels… when he tells Flora he’s ‘susceptible’ when out walking with young ladies like her, she tells him he’d better not go out walking with her then, he won’t want to catch cold.
It’s all like this, which I don’t mean as a criticism. It’s an easy read, I’ve found myself laughing out loud at times—I wasn’t expecting that—and I’m quite looking forward to finding out whether Flora really can tidy the place up. She has her work cut out, but she’s already suggested to the foolish hired girl how she might prepare herself better the next time Seth comes for her—it’s spring already, she’s just given birth to her fourth, and the ‘sukebind’ will be in blossom soon—and she’s working on other fronts as well. Amos, Mrs Blackadder’s son-in-law and the nominal head of the house, is a bible-thumping preacher—definitely another nod to Wuthering Heights—and Flora has sown a seed in his head. Why doesn’t he spread the word more widely, become a travelling preacher and reach hundreds, even thousands? He knows it’s the sin of pride that attracts him to the idea, and says so—but she has her answer. Isn’t this one sin on his part worth it for all the souls he’ll save?
There are others, like Reuben the son who doggedly ploughs in all weathers even if nobody else is doing much, and Elfine, the daughter who wanders the countryside communing with nature and writing poetry, but seems to do little else. Flora’s radar is good, and she’s picked up that a rich young heir lives in the big house with the ridiculous name—everywhere has a ridiculous name—and that, with a bit of work, Elfine could be knocked into shape as a viable marriage prize for him…. And I’ve just remembered a plan that’s been hinted at for Seth. She’s been keeping up a lot of correspondence, including to a Hollywood producer she happened to meet once and spend a few innocent hours with in London. He’s in England again, and she knows just the man for him. Seth, we know, is besotted by the movies, and he has the right kind of smouldering sexuality for the silver screen.
There’s another thing. Right from her first receipt of the letter, Flora has known that the family somehow owe her something. The letter, written by Amos’s terminally miserable wife Judith, opens with ‘Dear niece, So you are after your rights at last. Well, I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these last twenty years.’ What rights, wonders Flora—not that she’s interested. But, after she’s read the letter aloud to Mrs Smiling, she explains that old Mrs Starkadder, Ada Doom as was, is Flora’s mother’s sister, and she had married the Starkadders. What ‘rights’ does she have? Surely the farm belongs to Amos, Judith’s husband? Whatever, whenever they speak to Flora, Adam and some of the others always call her ‘Robert Poste’s child,’ sometimes mentioning those rights of hers in the same breath.
And then, finally, come the last pages of Chapter Ten, set in the bedroom of the old woman. This is comic madness at close quarters, as she muses to herself about how she keeps the family exactly where she wants them—‘You held them like that . . . in the hollow of your hand, as the Lord held Israel’—and she holds out her closed fist, as though demonstrating it to herself. But she is very lenient on herself—her behaviour is only to be expected. ‘When you were very small—so small that the lightest puff of breeze blew your little crinoline skirt over your head—you had seen something nasty in the woodshed.’ All this section is written in the same second-person voice, and it’s all as obsessive and vindictive as you would expect from a woman who locked herself away when her daughter married twenty years before.
Other sheds are available, as we find out. She had ‘run away from the huge, terrifying world,’ and as far as she is concerned—so long, that is, as she gets her five good meals a day, far better than anything the rest of the family gets—the farm can rot. ‘Well, let it rot . . . You couldn’t have a farm without sheds (cow, wood, tool, bicycle and potting)’—and at least three of these have been mentioned specifically as where nasty things happen. Flora has her work cut out with this one.
Chapters 11-23—to the end
No she doesn’t, not really. Flora. Have her work cut out. By the time that every single detail of the first of her plans has worked like a dream, that’s what I thought: dream. I don’t mean as in ‘but then I woke up and it was all a,’ I mean it’s like those lucid dreams some people describe. The dreamer controls where the dream goes, magically bringing all the best outcomes into being. Flora, you’ll remember, needs to get Elfine into good enough shape for the hapless local upper-class kid to propose to her and, luckily, this isn’t Emma…
…In fact, it isn’t even Cinderella. There are explicit references—Flora as fairy godmother, the ball ending at midnight—so, with 100 pages of the novel left to run, I was sure there would have to be some jeopardy somewhere. But no. Elfine does not have to leave before the business is completed. She has it all—and, reader, it’s suddenly clear that there isn’t the tiniest danger of her losing any of it. Gibbons, the ultra-indulgent author—which has become part of the joke by now—has made success inevitable. We hadn’t known it was inevitable at first, because success depends not only on about a dozen different parts of the plan needing to run like clockwork, but that there are no unexpected hitches either. With hindsight, it’s obvious that there won’t be. The fact that it only takes Flora about three weeks to entirely re-educate Elfine into a conventional London mindset is a clue, as is the ravishing figure she becomes after the London makeover of any conventional young woman’s dreams. And as for the odious-seeming Urk, firmly believing that Elfine is his, and has been since she was one hour old… with Gibbons holding all the cards, or busily dealing Flora four aces and a king, he has no chance. The threat from him simply evaporates, like anything else that could possibly go wrong.
Earlier, I’d been thinking of this novel as a metafiction, with Flora seeing every character, setting and situation as fictional tropes. She’s never wrong about these and, once she’s recognised the raw material she’s been presented with, it’s as though she takes over the author’s role. She isn’t exactly writing it all into existence but, once she’s decided how she’s going to sort out everybody’s lives, Stella Gibbons isn’t going to stop her. Those 100 pages, the ones I naively thought would be needed to fix the inevitable hitch in Flora’s marriage-plans for Elfine, are spent sorting out everybody else instead. Amos is off and away, thinking about the Ford that Flora had suggested, and is then on his way to America before Elfine’s wedding day. Seth’s off to America too, in a plane with the Hollywood producer, exactly as planned about ten chapters before.
As for the plot, that’s how it all goes. The Starkadder family, and everybody who works for them, all have their lives sorted out one by one. Urk goes off with the hired girl, no longer nearly as foolish as she was, and becomes an excellent father to her four kids. Despite their names, her parents Mr and Mrs Agony Beetle, are rock solid. In fact, Mrs Beetle has been an ally for Flora since before half-way through the novel—Gibbons having realised, no doubt, that plans are all well and good but somebody needs to be in charge of actually getting the dinner on. Reuben, the dour eldest son, blossoms into a model farmer once Amos has gone away—and has always been so, having been investing quietly while presenting the controlling Mrs Starkadder with falsely understated annual accounts. From now on, money seems to flow so freely it feels magical.
Elfine’s wedding, and the reception at a transformed Cold Comfort Farm, are great successes—and Flora saves her pièce de resistance for last. She knew as soon as he met her that the mad old woman was no more batty than Flora herself, so her transformation of her into a fun-seeking traveller is a piece of cake. Sure, it had taken from lunchtime to bedtime, some days earlier, in order for her to achieve it but, just before the happy couple fly off for their honeymoon, Ada Doom herself has flown off to Paris. So nothing remains but for Flora to get in touch with Charles, the eligible-seeming chap in London, and for him to whisk her away in his own plane. You couldn’t make it up.
All too easy? Of course—but that’s the joke, and that’s what makes it clever. We might recognise tropes from Austen, various Bronte sisters, Hardy, D H Lawrence—to say nothing of those romances by women writers Flora sometimes thinks about—but Gibbons turns them all on their head. Whatever we might expect, that there have to be slip-ups, there has to be sorrow—dammit, there has to be rain at least occasionally—Gibbons doesn’t give it to us. Into some lives, no rain at all has to fall, so there. And I suppose if I’d really been paying attention I would have realised that we were never going to find out either what was so nasty in the woodshed or what ‘rights’ Flora was supposedly entitled to. Darling, I can imagine Flora saying to Charles—perhaps she does, I forget—who cares?
But I ought to say that by ‘all too easy’ I don’t mean that Gibbons is a lazy writer. Sure, she never for a moment leaves her London-centred, upper middle-class mindset in which the ills of the world can be solved with a bit of (cue capitals) Higher Common Sense, as Flora’s book is called. Her arrival at the farm is like the upper middle-class British arriving anywhere else in the Empire—naturally, with the practical organisational sense she was born with, how could she fail? But this novel is as clever and witty as it is silly—so that the silliness of the goings-on, like so much else, becomes part of the joke. The real world isn’t like this, and it feels as if there isn’t single paragraph in the novel where Gibbons isn’t reminding us that the real world isn’t like any other novel either. That’s what is at the heart of the satire.
And, among other things, she’s as good a pastoral writer as you’d want. She makes this into a joke too, in the foreword which takes the form of a letter to her publisher: ‘I have adopted the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker, and firmly marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars. In such a manner did the good man deal with cathedrals, hotels and paintings by men of genius. There seems no reason why it should not be applied to passages in novels.’ That’s half the joke—the other half being that the ‘finer passages’ are really well done, pastiche that is so well handled it’s as good as anything you might find. Except, of course, when she decides to go too far—and, quite rightly, awards no stars. ‘The livid silver tongues of the early stars leaped between the shapes of the chimney-pots, backwards and forwards, like idiot children dancing to a forgotten tune.’
I might leave it there. Idiot children dancing? What better entertainment could anyone hope for in the middle of a lockdown?