I LOL’d at Something Nasty in the Woodshed: Gushing Over Cold Comfort Farm

Warning: this post reveals details from the novel Cold Comfort Farm. I really can’t tell if they’re spoilers or not, but I’m thinking not really.

I wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm before watching the movie (and I did, but I’ve seriously been sitting on that post for a month and it was only missing a paragraph). It’s rather a short novel. I had trouble finding it in the US—it is available on Amazon, but it’s one of those editions with deckled edges and I prefer to avoid deckled edges if possible. And, unpopular opinion time: I don’t like Amazon. I am super picky about my book editions  so I buy a lot of used and half the time if I get the one I want in a timely manner it is not in the condition advertised. Anyway, I found a good old non-deckled Penguin Classics Edition on my trip to England. I should have begun to read it then, since we visited some of the novel’s environs (Sussex), which are heartily and hilariously mocked at every turn.

Cold Comfort Farm was written by Stella Gibbons and published in 1932. As we flew through the winding country lanes of Sussex on the Virginia Woolf Tour, I expressed to my professor a worry I might not really get Cold Comfort Farm without reading some of the authors Gibbons pokes fun at, the two most famous being Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I have read Wuthering Heights, of course, but had never heard of Mary E. Mann. My professor assured me that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any Lawrence or Hardy, and anyway Cold Comfort Farm is really poking fun at a couple of Gibbons’ contemporaries, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb, whose work seems even harder to find than Gibbons’. Both these authors as well as Gibbons were very prolific in throughout their lives, but it seems Cold Comfort Farm is the standing popular legacy of all three.

Cold Comfort Farm is the story of an educated young Londoner named Flora Poste, who finds herself orphaned and without much to live on. Flora has ambitions of being a novelist later in life, and to publish the next Persuasion—but not until she’s 53. She wants to spend the intervening years gathering material, and while doing that she wants to tidy up the lives of any country relative that will have her. She chooses to live with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, Howling, Sussex. Something happened between Flora’s father and Judith’s husband—some wrong and she’s owed some kind of rights.

Flora certainly has her work cut out for her when she arrives. The Starkadders and their ilk live in squalor on their failing farm, just accepting the terrible conditions they live in as their fate. The linchpin of the Starkadders is their matriarch, Ada Doom (who married the late Fig Starkadder). As Flora’s pragmatic modernizing begins to take hold of the Starkadders, she finds herself the target of Ada Doom’s fury.

This novel is, in short, hilarious. In fact, it really is a shame it’s hard to find Kaye-Smith and Webb in print (I think they may be available by e-book, but I don’t have an e-reader) because I’m just dying to see how badly Gibbons skewers them. The names are ridiculous (Lemony Snicket owes a great debt to Gibbons). The narration frequently shifts gears into a lofty, brooding register that goes on in great detail about the earth. I lol’d heartily and most of my annotations are “hahaha,” “LOL,” and “Never not funny.” The characters had me in stitches. Here’s just a taste of Seth, the lusty younger Starkadder son:

He laughed insolently, triumphantly. Undoing another button of his shirt he lounged out across the yard to the shed where Big Business, the bull, was imprisoned in darkness.

Laughing softly, Seth struck the door of the shed.

And as though answering the deep call of male to male, the bull uttered a loud, tortured bellow that rose undefeated through the dead sky that brooded above the farm.

Seth undid yet another button, and lounged away. (41)

I made the comment in my post on Wuthering Heights that the characters in Emily Brontë’s novel just seem to soldier on toward their own dooms, and leaving being enough doom for their children to also be doomed to lives of misery. That element is taken to extremes in Cold Comfort Farm (which may take Wuthering Heights as one of the targets of its parody).  Perhaps the most famous is Ada Doom’s repeated line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed”—an event that has traumatized her for seventy years and keeps her bedridden and prone to rather convenient bouts of madness.

Examples abound, but most of them can be summed up by saying that the Starkadders do things as they have always been done and any attempt to get over it is seen as an affront to nature. Meriam, the hired girl, has born four of Seth’s children out of wedlock, and everyone but Flora views it as something that just happens every spring. When Meriam insists birth control is “‘flying in the face of Nature,'” Flora counters that, ‘Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy'” (70).

There are some metafictional asides that fed my inner English Major (yes, there’s a separate, inner one) and reminded me of Northanger Abbey. Gibbons seems to write for English Majors, and Flora may be one of the ONLY examples of a novel heroine who reads a lot of novels and walks away without being addled by all that literature. Take this delightful quotation:

Flora did indeed know. The quotation was from Shelley’s Adonais. One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favourite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown. (104-105)

It’s funny and it’s spot-on, but it’s also a good example of how Gibbons’ narrator frequently acknowledges the preceding tradition of English literature. Austen references abound in this novel (in fact, one of Flora’s biggest changes to Cold Comfort Farm is inspired after she reads a sentence from Mansfield Park).  And, of course, Flora’s aspirations are not just to write a novel as fine as Austen, but she does the sort of social arranging of Emma. And of course, Cold Comfort Farm has a rather unforgiving narrator satirizing country society, though manners are much more scarce than in Austen.

Sometimes this acknowledgment has a rather feminist bent. Perhaps that’s not what Gibbons was aiming for, but authorial intent is dead yadda yadda yadda. I’d really like to develop this line of thinking further, actually, because some of the mentions of the female-penned novels and agricultural novels Flora reads seem to be rather satirical. But there is great reverence for Austen and also the Brontës in a strange way. One of the people Flora meets is a writer named Mr. Mybug (actually Meyerburg, but no one does). Mr. Mybug is in the process of writing a book claiming that, based on the indirect evidence of three letters, that poor, sober Branwell Brontë actually wrote all the novels his sisters took credit for, while the sisters were all drunkards, jealous of his genius. He also doesn’t believe a woman could have possibly written Wuthering Heights and asks Flora if she believes women have souls. So I’m not sure what the relationship is between Gibbons’ ribbing of the agricultural novels Flora reads (after all, she learns well how to handle Cold Comfort from them) and her deep respect for Austen and the Brontës. But there’s definitely something there and I liked that something and would love to revisit it and unpack it.

On a personal note, this novel was a great way for me to tie my year of reading together, even if I’m not done with that year of reading yet. But this year I have so far finished the three Austen novels I hadn’t read (only counting the six complete novels, mind you), and my goal of finishing the complete Brontë novels (with three left). So Gibbons felt like someone in that tradition, even if that seems to be part of her project.

Things I didn’t like were trifles: the plot is a bit rushed at the end, and there is bizarre futurism afoot. By “bizarre futurism” I mean that the Gibbons makes reference to wildly anachronistic technology and wars that never happened (particularly the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946). The rest of the novel seems to be contemporary to 1932, so these references are just jarring. Of course Gibbons didn’t know that a World War would explode within a decade either, but it gives those moments that acknowledge the temporal setting a really weird tone. Also, Mr Mybug/Meyerburg is an unfortunately anti-Semitic caricature, but truthfully I’ve heard more appalling anti-Semitism come from the mouths of people I’ve met, so it didn’t put me off 100%.

And the film adaptation is marvelous, as well. In fact, the screenwriters smooth over some of the novel’s wrinkles beautifully, but maintain very true to the novel. And the novel itself is so much fun to read: I really can’t do it enough justice here. I highly suggest everyone read Cold Comfort Farm and celebrate by watching the movie—and avoiding any woodsheds, lest they see something nasty.

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