When I began reading Cold Comfort Farm one morning during my commute to work, I made the mistake of sitting in the “quiet car” of the train, where cell phones and loud conversations are forbidden. I soon started laughing out loud on nearly every page, and I realized that quiet reading wasn’t possible. I switched to the business section of the New York Times—much safer, I thought.
Once I was sitting comfortably at home, free from worry of disturbing my fellow commuters, I flew through the first eight chapters of this wonderful novel. I am very fond of Flora Poste and her hapless relatives, who I know will soon be bent to Flora’s will. Since she has their best interests at heart, I am cheering her on. As Lynne Truss writes in her introduction to my edition of Cold Comfort Farm, “the huge delight of Stella Gibbons’s novel is the way Flora approaches an eternal and universal difference of temperament: as a brisk, cheerful person, she discovers a whole farmful of people wallowing, self-thwarted, in chronic misery and simply makes them stop it.”
Flora, despite her confident demeanor, is not without self-doubt, but what I admire about her is that she refuses to let it diminish her. When she is still in her comfortable surroundings in London, for example, she confesses to her friend Mary Smiling that she was hopeless at sports in school, was told repeatedly by her classmates that she was “no good,” but she soldiered on anyway, secure in the knowledge that her talents lay elsewhere. The opening paragraph of the novel sets up a scenario that would surely devastate a less sturdy character, but for Flora it’s simply an obstacle to be overcome: She has been suddenly orphaned at 19, with no visible means of support and a completely insufficient yearly income from her parents’ estate. Flora wastes no time feeling sorry for herself and immediately sets about finding a new home with one of her many relatives. As she explains to Mary, she has a simple plan: “When I have found a relative who is willing to have me, I shall take him or her in hand, and alter his or her character and mode of living to suit my own taste. Then, when it pleases me, I shall marry.”
If Flora sounds like a heroine out of a Jane Austen novel, it’s no coincidence. As Flora tells Mary before setting out to live with her distant relations, the Starkadders, in Sussex, she feels a kinship with Austen, who “liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable about her,” and furthermore, she “cannot endure messes.” Cold Comfort Farm, of course, is messy indeed, and it’s not just because most of its inhabitants bathe with alarming infrequency. It’s a muddy, gloomy, broken-down mess of a place, where crops don’t seem to grow and even the cows are confused. (If you were named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, or Aimless, you might be, too.)
Flora slowly comes to meet all the Starkadders and their employees—all but her Aunt Ada Doom, that is. Ada, the matriarch of the family, has not left her bedroom for 20 years but still dominates the lives of all who surround her, who live in terror of her wrath. She has forbidden anyone to move away and leave her and, remarkably, they haven’t. Her daughter Judith and son-in-law Amos; her grandchildren Reuben, Seth, and Elfine; Amos’s half-brothers and half-cousins; the ancient hired man Adam and the housemaid Meriam; and various farmhands are all bound together in mutual misery, but not for long if Flora Poste has her way. And, naturally, she will.
I will leave you with one of my favorite scenes, when the man-about-town Seth Starkadder has come to breakfast in the farmhouse kitchen and confronts his mother, Judith:
“Cur,” said Judith, levelly, at last. “Coward! Liar! Libertine! Who were you with last night? Moll at the mill or Violet at the vicarage? Or Ivy, perhaps, at the ironmongery? Seth—my son…” Her deep, dry voice quivered, but she whipped it back, and her next words flew out at him like a lash.
“Do you want to break my heart?”
“Yes,” said Seth, with an elemental simplicity.
The porridge boiled over.
I hope you are enjoying this novel as much as I am. If you have a favorite scene or favorite Starkadder, please post a comment to let me know. Next week (March 16), I’ll cover Chapters 9 through 16.