Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Who (wrote it)?: Stella Gibbons (1902 – 1989) was an English journalist, poet, and author. She’s written some 20+ books but is best known for Cold Comfort Farm, her first novel. Gibbons had a troubled childhood growing up with a father whom she later described as a “a bad man, but a good doctor.” In her introduction to the book, Lynne Truss notes an incident in which her father used the threat of suicide to manipulate his wife and children, describing it as a turning point for Stella: “Once she realised that misery could be enjoyed, and used as a tool of family oppression, she rejected it.” This seems important.

What (is it)?: In Cold Comfort Farm satirizes the  “loam and lovechild” books popular in the 1920s. What are “loam and lovechild books?” Yeah, I’d never heard the term either. Think miserable people being miserable in a romanticized British countryside. I’ve never even heard of most of the authors mentioned as inspiration for (e.g. Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith), so my main reference point was Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book whose unrelenting misery did not do it for me. Gibbons takes on the genre by introducing her heroine, practical, unromantic, determined-to-be-cheerful Flora Poste, to the gloomy, doomed, determined-to-be-miserable Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. Flora, for whom “…unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life,” promptly sets herself to the daunting task of tidying things up.

When (are we)?: Published in 1932. Setting seems to be more or less contemporary.

Where (are we)?: Cold Comfort Farm (the place and the book) is situated in the fictional town of Howling in Sussex

Why (read it)?: The book first came on my radar after watching the absolutely delightful 1995 film starting Kate Beckinsale. It’s been withering on my TBR for years, and it was the discussion of the book, specifically of Flora Poste as its heroine, in Samantha Ellis’ How to be  a Heroine that motivated me to get around to hearing it. I  LOVE a practical heroine. I also feel like this is one of those semi-classics of early 20th century British Literature that I just couldn’t miss.

How (did I like it)? I expected to adore this book, so it’s a little bit disappointing to report that I found it just ok. I do adore the idea of introducing a practical, cheerful heroine as a take-down of gloomy romanticism. Remember, I’m one of those Wuthering Heights haters, so the idea of introducing a cheerful, practical heroine who just does away with all that gloomy romanticism is seriously appealing. (OMG! Can someone please write Wuthering Heights fan fiction where an outside character comes in and makes them all stop acting like such idiots?? Does this already exist?? *GRABBY HANDS*).

So anyway, I was primed to love this book, and… I enjoyed it well enough. I liked Flora lot; Gibbons can write well; and I laughed more than once. But it all felt just a tiny bit flat. Perhaps if I hadn’t seen and loved the film or if I had read it at another time… I just don’t know. It was certainly worth the read, but I don’t see myself returning to it in the future.

I will end with my favorite quote from the book, entirely sans context: “The porridge gave an ominous, leering heave.”

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