A year of reading women

365 days of women's lit

Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

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A bull much like the one Flora lets out on Cold Comfort Farm

The foreword looms large in Stella Gibbons’ classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Addressed to the forbidding imaginary figure of Mr Anthony Pookworthy esq ABS, LLR, it sets the tone for the hatchet job that Gibbons is about to do on the pastoral literary tradition. From the off, it’s clear that the over-egging of the rural pudding, found in the works of minor writers such as Mary Webb but also giants such as DH Lawrence and – sorry Tom – Thomas Hardy, is not going to get away lightly.

‘As you know, I have spent some ten years of my creative life in the meaningless and vulgar bustle of newspaper offices,’ she tells My Pookworthy. ‘The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.’

She then goes on to apologise for presenting him with a book that is ‘meant to be… funny’ and to explain that she has nevertheless tried to write some literary passages on Nature (with a capital ‘nuh’). To mark these out, she has created a star system for the sake of ‘all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle’.

As a jobbing journalist-cum-would-be-novelist, I found this an absolute joy to read. Not least because it gave me that slap round the face that the best books manage from time to time when they remind you that people decades and decades ago had the same wit, insight and concerns as we do, and that we are by no means as original, sophisticated or radical as we might like to think.

It also surprised me. Having no prior knowledge of Cold Comfort Farm beyond a BBC adaptation I saw as a child and the enthusiasm of a former flatmate who once claimed that Flora Poste was the literary character he was most like on a job application form, I was not expecting a lot (no offence to the former flatmate, who is in fact wildly successful at everything he does).

The book would be a sort of cosy, Sunday-night-television experience, I thought. The Lovejoy of the literary world – a bit of a breather after the rigours of Murdoch and the intricacies of Mantel. I wasn’t expecting feistiness, sharp perceptions and shooting from the hip.

But the genius of the novel (and that’s not a word I throw about lightly) is that, for all its sending up of bad writing and satirical attacks on the literati, it maintains a sunniness and downright funniness that makes it a pleasure to read. The story of Flora Poste gradually turning around the fortunes and outlook of her curmudgeonly cousins and discovering her own path in the process is so delightful and so engaging that you can’t help getting swept up in it.

But perhaps the supreme triumph of the work, the only one of Gibbons’ 24 novels still in print, is that it creates its own language and system for representing the natural world. While most satires do marvellously well at ripping down the things they attack without proposing an alternative, Gibbons’ text lovingly establishes its own pastoral aesthetic in place of the hackneyed exposition it replaces. The scene at the end where Charles comes at last to sweep Flora away from the farm she has transformed is spine-tinglingly lovely. It left me stunned, enchanted, jealous, and sure that I’ll be reading the book many times again.

Picture by Oli R

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  1. Oh, Cold Comfort Farm is an utter joy! I read Gibbons’ ‘Nightingale Wood’ last year (a recent reissue by Virago) and while it was sharp and clever and very enjoyable, it’s not as good as Cold Comfort Farm – though I’d recommend it to you. I do love the way Gibbons subverts all the stereotypes, but makes her characters quite sympathetic. I also like her digs at contemporary culture too – such as Mr Mybug’s Bronte theory and the terrible theatrical experience which leads to her acquaintance with Mr Neck.

    Ela

    July 8, 2011 at 10:50 am


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