Classic Book Review: Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons
The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living…
…Flora inherited, however, from her father a strong will and from her mother a slender ankle. The one had not been impaired by always having her own way nor the other by the violent athletic sports in which she had been compelled to take part, but she realized that neither was adequate as an equipment for earning her keep.
She decided, therefore, to stay with a friend, a Mrs. Smiling, at her house in Lambeth until she could decide where to bestow herself and her hundred pounds a year.
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Thus, begins Cold Comfort Farm, setting the tone for this tale of one young busybody, Miss Flora Poste. Cold Comfort Farm is a comedic novel, a gentle parody of romantic pastoral novels, of societal mores and the like.
It is also a futuristic novel, set in the near future (from 1932), after the fictional Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946, in which there are TV phones, and people jet around in private planes, flying themselves here and there.
And despite all these technologies, people are still using horses and trains and writing letters and on it goes. But all this is simply emphasizing the themes of modernity versus tradition, of urban versus rural.
Emma Woodhouse Meets Mary Poppins in Flora Poste
“She detested rows and scenes, but enjoyed quietly pitting her cool will against opposition. It amused her; and when she was defeated, she withdrew in good order and lost interest in the campaign.”
Flora Poste is a well-educated, London society girl, who is very witty, very flippant, very facetious. She’s also well put together, well spoken, beautiful.
But upon her parents’ deaths, she decides to take her 100 pounds a year and situate herself with some long-lost family. She chooses her family at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex based on a grimy, enigmatic letter in response to her query.
So, Miss Flora Poste departs London to live in a ramshackle and rundown farm in the remote Sussex countryside with a raggle-taggle list of Starkadder cousins and one domineering, yet unseen aunt, Ada Doom. Flora has plans to whip these backwater relatives into shape. This, she sets about doing with determination and aplomb.
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Flora has the meddling, do-gooder intentions of Emma Woodhouse with the no-nonsense pragmatism of Mary Poppins. The Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm does indeed need some help.
Cold Comfort Farm Book Characters
Judith is chronically depressed and cryptic. Her husband, Amos, is a wannabe hell-and-brimstone preacher. Their youngest son, Seth, is an oversexed beauty of man, who has many an illegitimate child with neighboring women. Many with the hapless help, Miriam Beetle.
The eldest son, Reuben, is bitter and gruff, hindered in doing more with the farm than his father and grandmother will allow. Amos and Judith’s daughter, Elfine, is a gorgeous young woman, running wild and writing bad poetry and pining after a man above her class.
There are so many Starkadders and farmhands at Cold Comfort Farm, that you never do seem to figure them all out.
Ruling over this collective with an iron fist is Ada Doom, whose convenient bouts of madness ensure that no one does anything on the farm without her say so. Although, she herself never deigns to leave her room.
She holds the purse strings and insists again and again that there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, which means that she will never allow any of them to leave. She also consistently refers to a nasty incident in a woodshed when she was a lass, an incident that changed her life.
Yeah, it’s a crazy, strange brood Flora finds herself in. And she digs in, meddling in all their affairs, making matches, putting ideas in heads, stirring up this and that. I can’t even begin to sum it all up.
A Read That Grows on You
Cold Comfort Farm, as a parody, is naturally referential to other, more serious pastoral novels of its day. Not familiar, as I am, with the 1930s, pastoral, British literature, many references have been lost on me. So, I know, I have missed some of the humor. Not that I didn’t find myself smiling and laughing. Cold Comfort Farm is a comic read.
Flora Poste is initially a rather irritating character. She’s something of an Emma Woodhouse, but without the character growth arc or the mishaps. But I found her growing on me.
She’s keenly observant and knows how to handle people. She’s aptly described as a mosquito at one point. And somehow, you find yourself charmed by her as well. And maybe all this outward busybodying is masking an uneasiness in her own mind about her own future and who she’d like to be sharing it with.
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Yes, by the end, this reader was smiling and sighing with a good dose of romance. And with that ending, I can forgive pretty much all else (-:
It’s been done (and done well) in 1995 with Kate Beckinsale as Flora. You can rent or buy on iTunes and Vudu. You can also buy the movie on DVD.
Content Note: Nothing to come after. Some mild sexual innuendos and maybe a word or two, which are considered unacceptable nowadays.
Have you read the Cold Comfort Farm book? What are your thoughts on this classic comedic novel?