Two months into Flora Poste’s stay at Cold Comfort Farm, things are looking much brighter for several members of the Starkadder clan, although Flora’s work is far from complete. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t made it to the end of Chapter 16, do not read any further if you wish it to be a surprise. For those who have caught up, it has been a very satisfying turn of events: Elfine has found not only true love but a marriage proposal; Amos has decided to follow his star and tour the countryside preaching to the unconverted (and Reuben has thus been freed to manage the farm as he wishes, without his father’s interference); and Urk (a very strong contender for Best Character Name) has also proposed marriage, in elegant Starkadder fashion, to the housemaid Meriam.
Before Flora can engineer all these successful outcomes, however, she has to contend with a very trying new companion: the writer Mr. Mybug, a stand-in for D. H. Lawrence, who cannot look upon budding trees or rolling hills without immediately thinking of female anatomy. Flora is duly warned by his first words to her: “Hullo, Flora Poste. Do you believe that women have souls?” This, of course, marks him as a modern intellectual, as Flora calmly notes, since they all seem to talk that way. She doesn’t rise to the bait of the “souls” question, which then gives Mybug the opening he’s been hoping for: introducing the premise of his groundbreaking new book, which will expose Branwell Bronte—brother of the Bronte sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—as the true author of his sisters’ novels Wuthering Heights, Villette, and Shirley. Mybug’s demented logic is truly hilarious, starting from his assumption that “no woman could have written” such brilliant works and taking this idea to absurd extremes. Mybug had some real-life company, by the way: As Lynne Truss notes in the book’s introduction, when Cold Comfort Farm made its debut in 1932, one critic wrote that “it couldn’t possibly have been written by a woman, and must have been the pseudonymous work of Evelyn Waugh.”
It is during one fine spring morning that Flora, grateful to have eluded Mr. Mybug for the day, happens upon her cousin Elfine in the woods and seizes her chance to “tidy up” the teenager’s future. Elfine, who has been nursing a secret crush on a local squire, Richard Hawk-Monitor, is badly in need of a makeover, and Flora quickly takes her in hand. With her unkempt hair and unfortunate clothes—not to mention her devotion to writing poetry—Elfine seems hopelessly unsuitable for Richard, a member of the “hunting gentry” (and definitely not the artistic type). If she is ever to realize her dream of marrying him, Elfine will need Flora’s help, and fast. Armed with the latest issue of Vogue, a lingerie catalog, and Jane Austen’s Persuasion (Jane Austen again!), Flora tutors Elfine, who is very grateful for her advice. All Flora’s hopes are riding on Richard’s upcoming 21st birthday party, a fancy-dress ball where Elfine must dazzle him with her beauty and make him realize he has loved her all along. Of course, it all comes true in the end. And Flora, who is sometimes overly bossy in her dealings with the Starkadder family, is at her most endearing here, selfless and kind.
The annual “counting party” back at the farm that awaits Flora, Elfine, and Seth after their triumphant evening at Richard’s birthday ball might be my favorite scene so far. Aunt Ada Doom has emerged from her self-imposed exile in her bedroom to conduct her annual head count of the Starkadders (since, as Seth explains, their grandmother needs some way to keep track of how many family members are still present, with all the dangers that could have befallen them during the past year—being pushed down a well, say, or dying of drink or going mad). Aunt Ada is shocked enough to learn that Elfine has become engaged to Richard, but there’s more: Amos announces his intention to set off on a preaching tour that very night. She does what she’s always done to control her family: feigns a fit of madness, and repeats her twin mantras: “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm!” and “I saw something nasty in the woodshed” (no one knows what, but somehow that’s all she needs to say).
Urk, for his part, has always believed that Elfine would be his wife someday (after all, he’d prearranged their marriage by marking her baby bottle with water-vole’s blood), and he reacts to the news of her engagement with helpless fury. Resigned to his failure, he turns to Meriam instead, with the following flattering proposal:
He turned upon Meriam, who shrank back in terror.
“Come here—you. I’ll take you instead. Ay, dirt as you are, I’ll take you and we’ll sink into the mud together.”
Meriam, who is not known for her high standards, accepts his offer amiably, and he carries her off into the night.
Aunt Ada Doom has always held sway over her family, but things are changing fast. Do you have any sympathy for her? She’s always gotten her way, but being shut up in her bedroom is not most people’s idea of triumph. She does enjoy the room service—five meals per day, every day.
Next week (March 23) I will be covering the final section of Cold Comfort Farm, Chapters 17 to 23. Something tells me there will be a happy ending.