Dec 19, 2011

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm is a collection of sixteen short stories originally published in several different magazines and now reprinted together. Contrary to what I expected, only one of the stories is set at Cold Comfort Farm, and only three altogether are set at Christmas. I didn’t mind this very much in itself – they’re still Stella Gibbons short stories, after all – but perhaps adding “and other stories” to the title would have been useful to avoid disappointing readers.

The story that gives the collection its title was everything I expected – we revisit Cold Comfort Farm one Christmas a few years before Flora Poste’s arrival, and find Adam Lambsbreath, Elfine, Seth, Judith and Amos and Aunt Ada Doom at their hilarious best. There’s also “The Little Christmas Tree”, a seasonal story that opens Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and which charmed me from the very first paragraph:
Because she was tired of living in London among clever people, Miss Rhoda Harting, a reserved yet moderately successful novelist in the thirty-third year of her age, retired during one November to a cottage in Buckinghamshire. Nor did she wish to marry.
‘I dislike fuss, noise, worry, and all the other accidents, which, so many friends tell me, attend the married state,’ she said. ‘I like being alone. I like my work. Why should I marry?’
‘You are unnatural, Rhoda,’ protested her friends.
‘Possibly, but at least I am cheerful,’ retorted Miss Harting. ‘Which,’ she added (but this was to herself), ‘is more than can be said of most of you.’
However, in what proved to be a trend in the collection, the story sets out to prove its protagonist wrong (or at least to change her mind). As charming as “The Little Christmas Tree” is, it’s also the kind of story I can’t help but imagine other possibilities for: how would E.M. Delafield have written it, for example? I can’t say enough times that there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with love stories, or that I don’t believe that romance weakens or compromises the integrity of female characters. But because I can’t think of a single story that does feature a thirty-something single woman enjoying Christmas on her own, being contended, and not secretly feeling lonely and empty and dead inside, I can’t help but wish “The Little Christmas Tree” had been that kind of story.

This brings me to why the general tone of Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm surprised me: compared to Stella Gibbons’ novels, these stories are much more conventional, less generous, and leave far less room for subversive readings. Some of them are also quite dark and cynical in tone – Gibbons is less kind to her characters here than I’ve seen her be before. Take “Sisters”, for example, which was probably my favourite story in the collection – it’s a wonderfully written story about an older single woman, Miss Garfield, who goes out of her way to help an unmarried young mother, Ivy Banks, by offering her kindness and compassion and giving her a chance when nobody else in the village where they live will. But the story eventually takes a heartbreaking turn when the social censure Miss Garfield was trying to spare Ivy turns against herself.

Then there are stories like “The Walled Garden”, “The Friend of Man”, “Cake” and “More Than Kind”, which are very socially conservative – they affirm traditional values against what Gibbons clearly considers bohemian folly. “More Than Kind” in particular conjures a very interesting situation: Lillian Wardell is at her wit’s end because Sophie, the first Mrs Wardell, is coming to stay to visit her children. Everyone among the Wardell’s friends considers the couple’s intimacy with Ian Wardell’s first wife the proper, kind, modern and open-minded thing to do; but Lillian can’t stand her and her visits make her extremely uncomfortable. It’s obvious from the beginning that the situation is all wrong – forcing someone to endure something that causes them so much misery for the sake of being modern is every bit as bad as doing so for the sake of being traditional. And yet I can’t help but cringe when I read something like this:
‘Yes, I do hate you,’ said Lillian. ‘But I don’t hate you because I’m jealous of you. I hate you because you used to be Ian’s wife. Even if you were the sort of woman I could like, I should still hate you, and detest you coming to stay here, because you used to be Ian’s wife.’ (…)
‘You and your friends try to pretend everything’s simple and easy on the surface when really they’re all violent and bitter. It isn’t natural for you to be here, that’s why I hate it so.’
I dearly wish “More Than Kind” had gone for some kind of middle ground rather than such a prescriptive solution. There are couples out there who get along perfectly well with ex-partners without anyone suffering discomfort or awkwardness, and this broad brush approach confines them all to the realm of “unnaturalness”.

If I’m focusing so much on the social points these stories make, it’s because making such points is very clearly just what they set out to do. However, I don’t consider this so much a literary flaw as the mark of a different mode of storytelling that has now gone somewhat out of fashion, as Alexander McCall Smith so well says in his introduction. And despite the fact that they come to conclusions or make generalisations I disagree with more
often than not, I found much of interest in these stories: the writing is as wonderful as always, and there’s Stella Gibbons’ customary humour, compassion, and excellent dialogue and characterisation.

In short, these are stories that very often made me want to argue, but there’s something valuable and very stimulating in engaging with a writer whose mind is not a perfect fit with my own. Reading Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm reminded me of reading Dorothy Sayers’ essays: I agree with her passionately except when I disagree with her vehemently. Disagreeing with Stella Gibbons didn’t take away her place among my favourite writers; it was interesting to discover another side to an author I’ve grown to love, and to see that in the first half of the twentieth century, she was contributing to debates that remain current to this day. We may be on opposite sides of them, but I am nevertheless interested in her take.

They read it too: Cardigan Girl Verity, Desperate Reader, 20th Century Vox, I Prefer Reading


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  1. I have had a copy of 'Cold Comfort Farm' sitting snugly behind me for a good while - your post is giving me a prod in its general direction ;)

  2. If you'd read this book before any of her others, do you think she would gone on to become one of your favorite authors? Just curious. Because that's something I think about often--how much I let first impressions affect me. Despite trying hard not to, especially if that first impression isn't wonderful.

  3. Tony: Cold Comfort Farm is a wonderful book. I hope you enjoy it!

    Debi: Probably not, but it would have intrigued me enough to make me want to read more of her work (and then Nightingale Wood would have converted me). I do think first impressions matter - sometimes my reading of a book is influenced by the goodwill towards the author I accumulated in the past, or by knowledge that provides a different context for what I'm reading. It's certainly an interesting process!

  4. Like Tony I've never read Stella Gibbons so far but also have a copy of Cold Comfort Farm sitting here.
    It's interesting what you write that although we may disagree with some authors they make us think a lot, to a certaian extent even more than when we agree.
    I guess that it needs a good writer though to make dsagreeing with them fruitful.

  5. I didn't know there was more CCF! I like your answer to Debi's question by the way, because I was wondering myself. Sometimes context makes it hard to get on with a writers work, but sometimes we can overcome it. Interesting how the mind works in these kinds of situations.

  6. I think I've just found my Christmas book! Great review today!

  7. I wonder why they gave the book that title - it sounds like it will set many readers up for disappointment.

  8. Caroline: Yes, it certainly does. Or a writer you have come to trust, like I have in this case.

    Jodie: There's also a proper sequel called Conference at Cold Comfort Farm :D Got to love these Vintage reissues. And yes, it's interesting how the mind works in these cases. I think Stella Gibbons belongs to a category of writer I tend to be really forgiving of - early to mid twentieth-century women writers who were feminist and progressive in some ways, but also invested in ideologies I don't at all identify with. I'm always too interested in how the different aspects of their worldview coexist, and too excited about what they anticipated, to ever grow annoyed or frustrated like I do with some other writers.

    Zibilee: I'm not completely sure if I'd recommend it as a Christmas read, but it IS an interesting book.

    Kathy: I think so too. And it's a shame, because there IS plenty to appreciate about the other stories. But anyone who approaches them expecting seasonal cheer is likely to be disappointed.

  9. "I agree with her passionately except when I disagree with her vehemently."

    I love the way you've described your ambivalence about these writers and their works: it adds a shine to both extremes of your emotional responses!

  10. Did I read somewhere that Cold Comfort Farm has a lot of humor in it? WHAT an unfortunate title - what with its page count, I still might never ever pick it up... But knowing you love it does slightly sway me to reconsider.

  11. Maybe you should write that story, Ana!

  12. Buried in Print: Aw, thank you!

    Care: Yes it does - it's a hilarious book. And the story included here is very funny too. I do hope you'll pick it up someday.

    Heidenkind: I would if not for the fact that I have negative writing talent - the best I could hope for would be to write something so bad it's good :P

  13. Now my expectations are tempered.

  14. Have you read 'Conference at Cold Comfort Farm'? Not as good as the original, but still very funny.

    And Care, Cold Comfort Farm is/was a comedic take on the sort of back-to-the-earth novel popularised by Mary Webb - but in fact, if you read DH Lawrence's 'The Rainbow', it's got many 'Cold Comfort Farm' moments.

  15. Jeanne: I'd actually really love to hear your thoughts on these stories!

    Katherine Langrish: Not yet, but it's certainly on the list!

  16. This has got to me one of my favourite book covers! I love the winter but old-fashioned feel. I saw it in a shop recently and nearly bought it based on the cover alone but then decided I should probably read Cold Comfort Farm first but it now appears that that's not necessarily the case.

    Next year I will read this!

    Lovely review, Ana.

  17. Too bad these weren't what you were expecting, but glad to see they were still an enjoyable read at least. Definitely should have added 'And Other Stories' it seems like!

  18. I'm so glad I read your review before getting hold of this book, because I would have sorely been disappointed to find out it wasn't all about Cold Comfort Farm!! I'm not so keen on the short story concept, I read them now and again, so perhaps won't be rushing to read this.

  19. Was a bit shocked about your first paragraph - I know I'd be disappointed! (thanks for the warning). I'm still curious, especially now that I've read your opinion about Gibbson's "different sides". Merry Christmas!

  20. Boof: The Vintage reissues all have such lovely covers! And no, definitely no need to read Cold Comfort Farm before this. You might get more out of the title story if you do, simply because the characters will already be familiar, but the humour is enjoyable whatever the case and it makes no different for the rest of the collection.

    Amy: It seems so strange that they didn't!

    Jessica: I'm glad to have let you know :) I do enjoy short stories a lot but I understand they're not for everyone.

    Alex: I'm happy I was able to spare you the disappointment! There's a "real" sequel too, though, called Conference at Cold Comfort Farm. I hope you had a great Christmas, and best wishes for 2012 :)


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