If You Love British Comedy, Try 'Cold Comfort Farm'

Seth (Rufus Sewell), Big Business, and Flora (Kate Beckinsale). Allstar/Cinetex/BBC
Seth (Rufus Sewell), Big Business, and Flora (Kate Beckinsale). Allstar/Cinetex/BBC

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

That’s the opening of Cold Comfort Farm, a classic British novel published in 1932 and still going strong.

It may sound like the beginning of a nineteenth century novel about a plucky orphan finding her way in the world, although “expensive, athletic and prolonged” is something of a giveaway. It’s one of the funniest books ever written and has never been out of print, entertaining one generation after another. It’s the sort of book that you loan to friends and never see again (it’s happened to me twice). Although the author Stella Gibbons continued as a journalist, poet and writer for many more decades, it’s still her greatest—and only—mainstream hit.

Part of Gibbons’s appeal to 1930s readers was her parody of contemporary literature, both lowbrow and highbrow. She ruthlessly skewers authors like Mary Webb, whose melodramatic tales of country life featured “ripe prose, daft dialogue and fondness for rutting”—a style also attributed to D. H. Lawrence, at the other end of the literary spectrum. This article allows you to compare and contrast Webb, Lawrence, and Gibbons at her gleeful best. And, as she explains in her introduction to the novel, she employs a system of asterisks to alert the reader to her “best” passages.

Webb isn’t read much these days, but the hilarious awfulness of Gibbons’s purple prose and her absurd characters are still funny.

Another strike against the book might be that it is set in an England of the future—Gibbons’s future, that is. Gibbons mentions that there has been an Anglo-Nicaraguan war which, it’s suggested, has been devastating for Flora’s generation, just as World War I (and the subsequent influenza epidemic) must have been for her readers. The preferred method of transport for the affluent is by private plane, air travel having supplanted cars. On reading the book now these details, particularly the air travel, present more of a curiosity than anything else.

But Gibbons’s gift for comedy, her ability to turn on a dime from slapstick (occasionally) to affection, and her wry, authorial voice make this book shine. Much of the humor is of the fish out of water type, our fish being the urbane, rational heroine, Flora Poste, an extraordinary busybody who likes to set people straight. Her plans for her future are quite clear: to collect material for a future novel while living off relatives.

She chooses her distant relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex, as the most interesting prospects for her future life, as well as a vague promise of a legacy which never pans out, although apparently it had something to do with a goat. But there are certainly a lot of problems for Flora to sink her teeth into.

The Starkadders are a supremely messy family. First, there is a curse on the farm, yet as they regularly intone, “There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm,” and leaving it is subsequently out of the question. Stock characters from Mary Webb et al are introduced: mad Aunt Ada Doom who long ago “saw something funny in the woodshed,” and holds the family captive; Elphine, the unworldly and beautiful cousin who wafts around the countryside dancing and reciting poetry; Adam, the aged yokel whose instincts are at one with the farm animals and the soil; and Amos, who preaches hellfire to the Quivering Brethren (view a clip of his sermon here). For the most part, the Starkadders grimly pursue passions and feuds, throw each other down wells, and go crazy with lust when the sukebind blooms (and even when it doesn’t). Yet Flora suspects that all the Starkadders need is just some gentle persuasion to find happiness in more conventional ways, and it’s clear to her almost from the beginning that there’s only one member of the family who is qualified to make a success of the farm, once the troublemakers are distracted.

Here’s the cool sophisticated Flora rebuffing the advances of her cousin Seth. She is somewhat distressed on her arrival at the farm to discover that she has cousins named Seth and Reuben, because, to put it discreetly, men with those names in this sort of literature do not need sukebind for inspiration.

“Aye ... woman’s nonsense,” said Seth, softly. (Flora wondered why he had seen fit to drop his voice by half an octave.) “Women are all alike — ay fussin’ over their fal-lals and bedazin’ a man’s eyes, when all they really want is man’s blood and his heart out of his body and his soul and his pride . . .”    

“Really?” said Flora, looking in her work-box for her scissors.   

“Aye.” His deep voice had jarring notes which were curiously blended into an animal harmony like the natural cries of stoat or weasel. “That’s all women want—a man’s life. Then when they’ve got him bound up in their fal-lals and bedazin’ ways and their softness, and he can’t move because of the longin’ for them as cries in his man’s blood — do you know what they do then?”   

“I’m afraid not,” said Flora. “Would you mind passing me that reel of cotton on the mantelpiece, just by your ear? Thank you so much.” Seth passed it mechanically, and continued.  

 “They eat him, same as a hen-spider eats a cock-spider. That’s what women do—if a man lets ’em. “  

 “Indeed,” commented Flora.   

“Aye—but I said ‘if’ a man lets ’em. Now I—I don’t let no women eat me. I eats them instead.”

This is a splendid example of Gibbons’s comic voice. You have the culture clash of the baroque excesses of Cold Comfort Farm with the self-possession of the modern urban woman. Seth’s dialogue features the invented vocabulary of the genre—fal-las, bedazing, for instance (incidentally, there is no such plant as a sukebind). The comic timing is brilliant, with Flora’s requests for sewing equipment breaking the rhythm of Seth’s monologue, and inadvertently involving him in a feminine pursuit. And stoats and weasels? They make clicking and squeaking sounds!

Flora is equally adept at swatting off another would-be seducer, the Bloomsbury intellectual Mr. Mybug, a sort Gibbons must certainly have encountered in her sophisticated London literary circle. Mr. Mybug is engaged on writing a book proving the true authorship of the Bronte novels.

“...The landlord was proud to have young Mr. Bronte in his tavern; it attracted custom to the place, and Branwell could get gin for Anne on tick—as much as Anne wanted. Secretly, he worked twelve hours a day writing ‘Shirley’ and ‘Villette,’ and of course, ‘Wuthering Heights.’ I’ve proved all this by evidence from the three letters to old Mrs. Prunty.”

“But do the letters,” inquired Flora, who was fascinated by this recital, “actually say that he is writing ‘Wuthering Heights?’”

“Of course not,” retorted Mr. Mybug.

The BBC made a three-part series based on the book in 1968 and while most of the cast is long gone, Seth was acted by veteran TV actor Peter Egan, recently seen as Martin Hughes (DCI Cassie Stewart’s dad) in Unforgotten.

In 1995, John Schlesinger directed a brilliant feature film version of the book starring Kate Beckinsale (The Widow, Love & Friendship) as Flora, Joanna Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous) as her friend Mary, Rufus Sewell (Victoria) as Seth, Stephen Fry as Mr. Mybug, and Ian McKellen (Vicious) as Amos. These all-star actors throw themselves into the delightful silliness of the plot with tremendous gusto.

 

Schlesinger also brings his own parody of over-the-top entertainment in a scene where Seth, whose true passion is the movies, is recruited by a Hollywood producer, complete with dramatic camera angles and the soundtrack to Gone With The Wind.

Have you seen this movie or read the book? I recommend them both.