I’ve wanted to read this novel since seeing the movie version back in the late 90’s (starring Kate Beckinsale, Eileen Atkins and Ian McKellen), but it’s taken me til now to actually get around to it.
Stella Gibbons was working at the Evening Standard in 1928 when the paper decided to serialise Mary Webb’s ‘The Golden Arrow’. Gibbons took on the task of summarising the novel and as a consequence, her low opinion of Webb’s writing prompted the creation of a rather more satirical version of the day-to-day drudgery and despair inherent in rural life.
It’s an odd book. Set at some future time when air-postmen and video telephones are not uncommon, the story concerns Flora Poste, who goes to live with her relatives the Starkadders following the death of her parents. Encountering a shambolic and haphazard existence at the farm, she sets about educating family members and workers alike, in the hope of enabling them into adopting a more modern way of life.
One of the things I love about Cold Comfort Farm is the language – the text is peppered with wonderfully bizarre character names such as Harkaway, Caraway, Urk, Mrs Beetle and (best of all) the mysterious Aunt Ada Doom, whose obsession with having ‘seen somethin’ narsty’ in the woodshed when she was young, and her refusal to countenance change in any form, hangs over the farm like a giant magnet, keeping its inhabitants from doing anything that might in any way enhance their dreary lives. The dialogue too, is littered with strange, but authentic-sounding rural terms like sukebind, mollocking and clettering, as well as unusual farm animals including Graceless, a cow with a wooden leg.
At times the writing might have benefited from a little considerate editing, but on the whole this is a highly enjoyable read, particularly the ending, where the description of the farm and its surroundings is quite lovely.