Dec 17, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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.

Memorable bits:
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.

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.
Other Opinions:
What Kate’s Reading
Stuck in a Book
Framed and Booked

(Did I miss yours?)


  1. Well, since you recommended I Capture the Castle and I LOVED it, I may have to read this one too despite the differences!) I'm all for a good parody. Especially a speculative fiction one!!

    Most Awesome review!

  2. Oooh, this sounds deliciously weird! I've always wondered about this book because of the title.

  3. What a wonderful review. It's ages since I've read this but I'm planning to read Nightingale Wood over the holidays.

  4. This was already on my radar, but now needs to be on the wish list! Haven't seen that cover before - it reminds me of some cartoons from the New Yorker.

  5. This is the first review I read about Cold Comfort farm. Isn't it strange? It's a classics,it's on all the lists of "must read before you die"s,but for some reason people in the shop have never looked for it and I have never being curious about it. Until now:)
    I'm with you about the serious/happy debate. The dramatic way of looking at things is usually regarded as the most heroic and most important. Just look at the Oscars, the movies that win are always overly dramatic. Comedies are not heroic enough.
    But, as Woody Allen showed us, there's always a comedy side to the dramatic one. It depends how you look at it.
    That said, I'd love to debate the meaning of "awareness" with you and Terry Pratchett:P (as I've been reading some Eckart Tolle lately lol)

  6. Now you know I have wanted to read this since you mentioned it back in the summer. I still can't wait to read it,especially as it has a subtle futuristic aspect to it.

  7. I've wanted to read this for so long! I'm so glad you liked it. Now I want it even more!

  8. This book is on my list. Your post makes me want to read it sooner rather than later.

  9. I didn't realize that this was a parody book. Something about the title was offputting and I'm not sure I've read a review of it before.

  10. I really want to read this! I read it once before, about two minutes after I'd seen the movie, and found I couldn't be bothered with it. Because the movie (with Kate Beckinsale) follows it so closely, it was like having the movie all over again but more slowly. Now that I have some distance, I want to read it again, so of course it's checked out of the library. Bother.

    I do recommend the film, if you haven't seen it! Stephen Fry plays Mr. Mybug and totally owns it, and Ian McKellan is Cousin Amos and oh he preaches to the church and it is one of the funniest films I've ever seen in my life.

  11. I thought this was a graphic novel based on the cover, but obviously it's not. This really sounds like a book my mother would love.

  12. You've captured this novel so perfectly--especially the part about being dramatic and 17! There's also a very funny movie. It can't convey everything in the novel, of course, but it's a good movie in its own way.

  13. I'm interested to know why you thought CCF might be like ICTC! Having read the two, I agree they're nothing alike, so I really want to know what made you think initially that there might be parallels between the two.

    When I first read this book, I knew it was supposed to be funny, but I initially found it hard to get into the right groove with it, perhaps because I wasn't as aware of the fiction it was skewering. I think this is one of those books that is best appreciated when you DO love the books it satirizes!

    That said, I was able to come round in the end, and while I never wound up finding it the paragon of humor, I was able to put aside my biases and enjoy it for the novel that it was (rather than the one I wanted it to be). The Kate Beckinsale film version of it is actually pretty decent, and I found that it added to my enjoyment of the film quite a bit, so you might consider checking it out!

  14. There is plenty in the world to be unhappy to work to be happy in defiance of it all only works to counteract all that unhappiness and makes the world better. You are so right on this and I appreciate your thoughts. I will be putting CCF on one of my challenge lists to ensure that I read it in 2010. Thanks!

  15. You made me really want to read this again, but alas I do not have it to hand so I may have to hunt it out at the library after Christmas. I think the tone of this and 'I Capture the Castle' can be quite similar in places, Cassandra is also very bright, quite bubbly in an odd kind of way (bubbly is not the word I want really, but oh well men and make do) and appalled by other people's severe lack of common sense/ability to be normal.

  16. I love this book, it's so very wonderful.

    Glad you enjoyed it too :)

  17. Insightful review of an -at times- under-appreciated or misunderstood classic. I certainly appreciate it more with time and understand the satire more and more. I always wonder though ... exactly what did Aunt Ada Doom see in the woodshed?! I asked the same question on Twitter a few days ago but nobody responded. Ah well, it will remain one of those longstanding literary mysteries.

  18. I haven't read this one, but I really enjoyed the movie! So sweet. seems like the book touches on deeper aspects, though, so maybe I should check it out.

    Also love I Capture the Castle!

  19. I read this about a year ago and was absolutely cackling. I don't know why I waited so long; probably because I had seen the movie and don't usually like to go into a book knowing the sequence of events.

    What really surprised me was how biting her wit was and how bluntly racy, considering when the book was written. I'm not sure I would agree with you that it never belittles its target. I think maybe Gibbons is just so "good* at what she's doing, a reader is willing to accept her most shocking send-ups because they are presented in such cold perfection. And even when she isn't being naughty she says great things. Like the part about Victorian novels being the only kind to read while you eat apples!

    I was less surprised that the book should feel like a historical oddity after I read about Stella Gibbon's life. It sounds really dreadful, with that particular family-and-relationship misery that you wouldn't wish on anyone, even if it galvanizes them into writing a book that gives pleasure for generations.

    I totally missed the alternate history part. Where? I must have been laughing too hard and reading too fast.

    I like what you said about Flora Post and Mortmain. Hear, hear!

  20. Whoa...I was so totally off base as to what this book was about it's not even funny! I obviously had it mistaken with something else. Oops. Gotta admit that I like the sounds of the "real" one much more than the "imaginary" one I had pictured in my head. :)

  21. There is no way that I would ever think my suffering was heroic. do you think the story matches the cover at all??

  22. This book sounds wonderful! I'm am very excited over the fact that it's funny, when done well, funny is so good in books like this! I have had it on my tbr list for several months. I think it will hevt to be a prt of my next book spree, it sounds too good to continue waiting. I loved I Capture the Castle, too!
    You review is very good, Nymeth, thank you!
    ~ Amy

  23. This sounds amazing and hilarious. Even though it is not all that like I Capture the Castle, which I loved, any vaguely similar book warrants a read. I love the cows' names!

  24. OK I was so confused by the very beginning of this post because for some reason when I saw the title of this post, I thought it was a book I read about a boy living in a rural southern state. Took me forever to figure out where I went wrong. That on is COLD SASSIE TREE. Ok, I'm not going crazy.

    This is interesting sounding too, now that I realize it's not the book I had original expected to read about...

  25. I've never thought of comparing CCF with I Capture the Castle. They're both wonderful, but totally different. I love them both. Cold Comfort Farm cracked me up -- in my edition, the introduction explains that the author has marked the "finer passages" with one, two and three stars," like Baedeker's travel guides. "It ought to help the reviewers, too." Hilarious!

  26. I completely forgot that I wanted to read this book! I put it on my wishlist a long time ago and I don't even remember who put it there. And I had no idea that it was set in future alternate reality!! How cool!! Can't wait to read it now :)

  27. Oh Nymeth, I am so glad you loved this book! I read it a few years ago and thought it was just wonderful. I still remember the cows and the woodshed and all the other great bits of comedy inside it. I think I am due for a reread of this book. Awesome review!

  28. Stepanie: The speculative elements are really very subtle. But yes, I think you'll enjoy it :)

    Marieke: It's probably not as weird as it sounds, but you're spot on about the deliciousness :D

    Verity: Now I need to get my hands on that!

    JoAnn: I couldn't resist this cover :D And I see your point about the cartoons.

    Valentina: "Aware" is not a concept I stand by much any more, but I'd still love to have that talk, especially if Sir Terry was involved :D

    Vivienne: I think you'll enjoy it a lot!

    Chris and Charley, enjoy! :D

    Amanda: I knew it was funny, but not that it was a parody either, I don't think.

    Jenny: I'll definitely look for the movie! It sounds fabulous.

    Kathy: lol, I can see why the cover would make you think that!

    Jeanne: Like I was telling Jenny, I'll definitely have to get my hands on that movie.

    Steph: It was because not one but to friends asked me, when I mentioned I loved Castle, "And have you read Cold Comfort Farm?" I'm not sure what the connection was for them - maybe something as simply as "somewhat neglected classics by women", but that enough to associate them in my head :P Until, that is, I mentioned the connection here a few months ago and you all put straight, lol.

    Book Psmith: I completely agree :) And I hope you enjoy CCF as much as I did!

    Jodie: Hmm, I think I see your point about the tone, actually. But Cassandra is more of a dreamer, while Flora is very no-nonsense. I love them both though!

    Bella: It's wonderful indeed :D

    Claire: lol, I wonder too. What crossed my mind was perhaps some sort of...unusual sexual enconter, but who knows. I guess the point is to leave us curious :P

    Aarti: I think this is right up your alley!

    Trapunto: I was very surprised that it was so honest and open as well - especially the contraception stuff. And you might have a point that she's just so good we don't actually take offense. Though to be honest, part of what I love about overdramatic novels of the kind she mocks is the unintentional comedy value :P I know nothing about her life, actually - that's so sad that it was dreadful. And the alternate history thing: at one point she mentions a "Anglo-Nicaraguan War" that took place in the 40's. And then there are all the technological aspects like the mail being delivered by plane and all that. I'll tell you why I picked up on it: I was specifically on the lookout, because a while ago Neil Gaiman said he was amused that nobody ever noticed that CCF was sci-fi :P

    Debi: lol, I totally make up books in my head as well :P

    Staci: It actually does! They are little cartoons of the characters, and there are even captions and everything.

    Amy: I love me some humours literature, and this is among the best :D

    She: lol, the cows were a wonderful touch.

    Rebecca: lol, nope, you're not going crazy :P

    Karen: So that's what the stars were all about! :D

    Chris: I think you'll really enjoy it!

    Zibilee, I know I'll be re-reading it too :D

  29. I think it may be time for me to reread this one, maybe even bring it as my next book club choice. (re-watch the movie, too.)

    There's a wonderful paragraph in it that spoofs D.H. Lawerence. I remember it's a passionate scene in a kitchen that ends with the pot in the fireplace boiling over. Funny, funny stuff. I'd read, in the introduction to my copy I think, that the series of books CCF is a parody of has since been forgotten. CCF is the rare parody that has survived its source material.

  30. I never read the book but I loved the movie -- I've been meaning to turn to the book and you've convinced me that I should, even though I already know the basic story.

  31. This sounds really interesting - I'll have to pick it up!

  32. I've seen the movie and have been wanting to read the book for a while. It really is a lovely parody, even in movie form.

  33. Hi Nymeth! I just wanted you to know that this entered my tbr pile upon your recommendation, and I came back to look at the review after finishing reading it and discovered that I had marked the exact same passage you noted here. Lol.

  34. well i know it's way past time for commenting on this, 5 years on, but i specifically searched for CCF and ICC together because i see parallels. Even just on a really simple level, the sexy young men who become film stars. But the eccentricity, the overly dramatic nature of Topaz which fits with the CCF's innate dramatization of life, the lack of knowledge of men and modern manners shown by Rose showing up in the crazy carnival mirror of CCF in the young girl whose name slips my tongue, who ends up marrying into landed gentry, which Rose does also. I'm sure I could find other parallels if I put my mind to it. But I'm a lazy bugger. Hence my curiosity to see if someone else had put their mind to it!


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