The farmhouse was a long, low building, two-storied in parts. Other parts of it were three-storied. Edward the Sixth had originally owned it in the form of a shed in which he housed his swineherds, but he had grown tired of it, and had had it rebuilt in Sussex clay. Then he pulled it down. Elizabeth had rebuilt it, with a good many chimneys in one way or another. The Charleses had let it alone; but William and Mary had pulled it down again, and George the first had rebuilt it. George the second, however, burned it down. George the third added another wing. George the fourth pulled it down again. (…) It was known locally as ‘The King’s Whim’.When Flora Poste becomes an orphan, she decides to write to all her remaining relatives asking who will take her in. The most appealing response comes from Cousin Judith in Essex, whose family lives at Cold Comfort Farm—a place complete with cows by the names of Feckless, Graceless, Aimless and Pointless.
From the moment when she hears from cousin Judith, Flora expects to find oversexed young men by the names of Seth and Rueben at the farm, and a Seth and a Rueben she finds—along with reclusive Aunt Ada Doom, who ‘saw something nasty in the woodshed’ as a child and hasn’t been the same ever since. But that’s just one of the many problems that Flora, armed with a book called The High Common Sense, decides to sort out.
Those of you who warned me some time ago that it was a bit odd to compare Cold Comfort Farm to I Capture the Castle were right—the only connection, other than that they are both well-beloved classics, is perhaps that Flora would have a thing or two to say to Cassandra’s family, especially her father. And well, I can maybe think of a third connection, which is the fact that, even if in completely different ways, they are both awesome.
I knew Cold Comfort Farm was funny, but I didn’t really know why. In fact, I didn’t know much about the book at all. It turns out that the reason why it’s so funny is because it parodies dramatic, romanticized novels about English rural life along the lines of Thomas Hardy or Wuthering Heights. And it’s funny even if you like the originals—sort of like The Colour of Magic, which is mostly appreciated by fantasy fans. Cold Comfort Farm is my favourite kind of parody: it’s incisive, but it never really belittles its target.
And like the best parodies, it’s true. More than about dramatic literature, it’s about life. It touches on something I often think about (because believe me, I actually know people like this): The idea that Suffering Is Heroic; that negative emotions are somehow more real and superior to positive ones; that happiness and comfort are frivolous or silly, and only appropriate for people who aren’t all that bright.
I don’t want to sound dismissive or unsympathetic towards people who are unhappy for whatever reason. And trust me, I know that there’s plenty in the world to be unhappy about. But no, you don’t have to be shallow to be happy, and no, it’s not silly to do the best you can with what you’ve got. This puts me in mind of an embarrassing conversation I had with my literature teacher in highschool (in my defence, I was seventeen). I told her I didn’t think intelligent people could ever truly be happy because they were “too aware”. She laughed, not unkindly, and told me that another thing about intelligent people is that they adapt. Sadly, I’ve known people who have remained seventeen forever. But hooray for Flora, who is all about adapting, finding solutions, turning things around, and pointing out to people that really, isn't having a good time so much nicer than wallowing in misery and self-pity?
One last thing: it’s a bit subtle, and it might be possible to miss it altogether if you’re not paying attention, but Cold Comfort Farm is actually set in a futuristic alternate-history kind of world, which means there are little touches and little references here and there that make you stop and go, “wait a minute…” And this, of course, warmed my speculative-fiction loving heart.
If she intended to tidy up life at Cold Comfort Farm, she would find herself opposed at every turn by the influence of Aunt Ada. Flora was sure this would be so. Persons of Aunt Ada’s temperament were not fond of a tidy life. Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, and faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings forever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing. Oh, they did enjoy themselves! They were the sort that went trampling over your stamp collection, or whatever it was, and then spent the rest of their lives atoning for it. But you would rather have had your stamp collection.Other Opinions:
For it is a peculiarity of persons who lead rich emotional lives, and who (as the saying is) live intensely and with a wild poetry, that they read all kinds of meanings into comparatively simple actions, especially the actions of other people, who do not live intensely and with a wild poetry. Thus you may find them weeping passionately on their bed, and be told that you—you alone—are the cause of it because you said that awful thing to them at lunch. Or they wonder why you like going to concerts; there must be more to it than meets the eye.
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