This 1932 novel often appears on ‘funniest book’ lists. When I read it back in 2010, I didn’t find it that funny. In fact, I was left cold and without comfort. Since then, I’ve read several of Stella Gibbons‘ novels which have recently come back into print. I really liked them. It only seemed right to revisit her most famous book. So what did I make of it this time?
The story follows 19-year-old Flora Poste, a sensible modern Londoner who, having lost her parents and not wanting to get a proper job, goes to live with her country cousins, the Starkadders, who dwell in misery on Cold Comfort Farm. They’re very different from her, being rough, emotional and set in their ways. She sets about fixing their problems and confidently steering them into better life choices. It’s not intended to be realistic. It’s a fairytale where everyone has a happy ending. The characters are larger than life and although I didn’t take to them at first, I grew fond of them as the story progressed. In addition to the entertaining plot and wonderful characters, there’s some sparkling dialogue and the whole book feels fresh somehow.
One of the things I didn’t like about the book was the author’s fictionalised ego. In her cringing foreword, dedicated to a fictional mentor, she says that she has drawn attention to the paragraphs she considers the best bits. This is done by asterisks which mark the purplest of prose, which makes the text annoying to read. I know the book itself is considered a parody of the rural romance novels which were popular in the 1930s, but sometimes I think this aspect was overdone. I found the descriptions of the landscape tiresome to read so I tended to skim over these paragraphs. If you want to linger on the wordiness, it’s quite funny. However, it wasn’t contributing to the story (which is intentional) and even for parody’s sake I thought there was too much of it.
Flora is my least favourite character in the story. She’s confident she knows what’s best for everyone and is strangely experienced despite being a teenager still. I think she’s intended to be a symbol of modernity triumphing over the old traditions. The first time I read the book, I thought she was very unpleasant in the way she criticises her relatives and the rural way of life. It linked to the comedy tradition of stereotyping rural people as slow, lazy, dirty and lustful. I still can’t shake that feeling, but I was more willing to overlook it this time.
In summary, I enjoyed this book, yet there were no laughs from me. I won’t be in a hurry to re-read it.
This was the 2006 Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by Lynne Truss. I think this wins the award for ugliest Penguin Classics cover, don’t you?