Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Don’t go into the woodshed!

😀 😀 😀 😀

Cold Comfort FarmOrphaned at the age of 20, Flora Poste discovers her father was not the rich man the world thought. Once his debts are paid off, Flora only has an income of £100 a year. Her friend suggests she should take some kind of training and get a job, but the idea of this holds no appeal for Flora. So instead she writes to all her relations, most of whom she has never met, asking if she can come and live with them. All respond, and remarkably each of them offers her a home, though none of the homes sound terribly appealing to Flora. But the letter from her cousin Judith Starkadder intrigues her – the address, Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, conjures visions in itself, and Judith’s vague hints of some kind of dark deed having being done to Flora’s father for which the Starkadders owe atonement is too tempting. So off she sets to meet the huge extended family of Starkadders who live on the farm…

At first I feared this was going to be one of those many books that infest English literature where the sophisticated, upper-class, urbanite author mocks the unintelligent, uneducated and uncouth rustic yokels. But it quickly reveals that in fact it’s parodying just that kind of novel, and also the novels then in vogue showing the reverse – the kind of noble savage of the modernists, where those rustics are born with an innate honour and a stolid kind of decency as opposed to the sophisticate’s shallow decadence. Frankly, if I were DH Lawrence, I’d have sued her! (If I hadn’t been dead at the time, obviously.)

Flora is not decadent – she’s far too well brought up for that. She is however supremely self-confident in her ability to sort people’s lives out for them, and the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm offer her plenty of opportunities to indulge her passion for turning messiness into order. There’s brooding Seth, shirt unbuttoned half-way down his chest to reveal bulging muscles and an ultra-masculine lustiness irresistible to all women (except Flora). Reuben, obsessive about improving the farm, but thwarted at every turn by his father and brother. Amos, the father, who is a terrible farmer, devotes his free time to hellfire preaching in the local town. Young Elfine, wild as a woodland sprite, struggling to win the man she loves. Old Mrs Starkadder, living her life in her room, haunted by the memory of when she was two and saw “something narsty in the woodshed”, is a kind of matriarchal tyrant, refusing to allow any of the younger family members to leave the farm and make different lives for themselves. Even the farm animals merit Flora’s reforming zeal, as she is determined that the bull be allowed out of the barn where he seems to spend his entire life.

There is a lot of humour in it with some very funny scenes, and it’s especially fun to try to spot which authors and books Gibbons had in mind. DH Lawrence, I felt, was never far from her thoughts – all that intensely brooding animal sexuality and profound angst. But Thomas Hardy is surely in there too, with his somewhat idealised but simple rural characters. I’m not well read or analytical enough to catch all the references, and there might be a tendency to start creating links that don’t exist – for instance, when Flora meets the hot weather by donning her green linen suit, I couldn’t help wondering if Ted Burgess from The Go-Between might have played his part in influencing Seth’s character. Wikipedia informs me that the main influences are apparently two authors I haven’t read, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb – I’ll take their word for it, although to me it’s so DH Lawrence that I can’t imagine he wasn’t one of her major influences too. Gibbons also occasionally veers outside her own remit of literature to take a pop at her modern world, and these bits are very enjoyable, such as when we meet a Hollywood producer and hear his opinion on the qualities required in a romantic male movie-star.

Stella Gibbons
Stella Gibbons

Despite all the good things it has going for it, it also has some weaknesses that stopped me from whole-heartedly loving it. There are so many characters I was still struggling to remember who was who well into the later stages, except for the three or four main characters. It gets a little repetitive – the joke begins to wear thin after a while and there’s a lot of repetition, for example, of the references to “something narsty in the woodshed”. There are things that I simply didn’t get – possibly my fault, possibly they are referencing some book I haven’t read and would have been hilarious if I had. For instance, the various cows around the farm keep losing legs or horns with no explanation – this baffled rather than amusing me. And, while I kept reminding myself it was humour and not to be taken too seriously, I found Flora’s solutions to various people’s problems probably made her happier than the characters whose lives she was supposedly improving.

Overall, though, the good certainly outweighs the less good parts of it. An enjoyable read for anyone who has dipped their toes into early 20th century English literature, and I’m sure would be even more entertaining for people who are widely read in it.

People's Choice LogoBook 4 of 12

This was a People’s Choice winner, and hurrah, you picked a good one! You’re definitely getting better at this, People! 😀

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54 thoughts on “Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

  1. It’s been decades since I read this and I did enjoy it. Your review has me thinking I’d get very different things from it now – I’d probably catch more of the allusions. I’m definitely veering towards comic novels at the moment so it’s the perfect time for a re-read!

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    • I think it’s perfect light entertainment if you’re in the mood for that! I was kinda sorry I hadn’t read the books that were apparently her main influence, but I still had a lot of fun trying to spot all the references to books and authors I do know!

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    • Haha, I kinda knew that since it was your recommendation that put it onto my TBR all those years ago – I can’t remember now how it came up though! So since you studied it, do you know what the point was of the legs falling off the cows??

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  2. I really like it when an author succeeds at parody, FictionFan. It isn’t at all easy to do, and when it backfires, it really backfires. Perhaps it’s me, but Flora reminds me just a bit of Jane Austen’s Emma – sure that she can fix everyone. I don’t know if you got that impression, but that’s what I thought. At any rate, I get your point about the number of characters. I’ve struggled with that in some books, too. It’s hard to know how many is ‘enough.’ Still, glad you found a lot more to like than not to like here.

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    • Parody is so hard, and it’s not a thing I often enjoy so she must have done it well to keep me onside! Ha, I hadn’t thought of the similarity to Emma, but you’re right – they are very similar. I’m quite sure in real life I’d have found both of them intensely annoying people to know, but they both make for good characters! And I’m sure Colin Firth would have made an excellent Seth… 😉

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    • I’m not all that keen on parody either so she must have done it well to keep me onside! I’d read enough of that era to get what she was doing but I did feel that people who’d read more of the books she was parodying would probably have enjoyed it more – maybe they’d have understood the cows with the missing legs, for instance… 🤔

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  3. I haven’t read this for such a long time. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land brought it to mind a few years back. I’d been thinking there was something of the Gibbons about it then Craig tipped Cold Comfort Farm a pleasing nod.

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    • I haven’t come across The Lie of the Land but looking at the blurb it does look interesting and yes, I can see how there would be a comparison there. I was kinda glad I hadn’t read this when I was young since I don’t think I’d have caught the styles she was parodying back then, and that definitely added to the fun.

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    • It would be a perfect summer read, and is delightfully light for those times when a heavyweight book just feels like too much. If you get to it, I hope you enjoy it – I think you will! 😀

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    • Ha, it’s only because of my recent immersion in the classics that I got any of the references too! But you’re right – I don’t think that’s essential. It’s got plenty of fun scenes in its own right! 😀

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  4. I’ve read this book twice and still don’t find it very funny – and I like to think I do have a sense of humour! I think it just too over the top, especially when the author points out her own purple prose :/ The book is considered a parody of rural romance novels of the time – Mary Webb is mentioned but I’ve not read her books so can’t comment on that. I do like Gibbons’ other novels, which are not in the same style.

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    • I always think humour is so subjective – must be the hardest thing to write! I admit the purple prose thing wasn’t my favourite part either. That’s partly what I meant about the repetitiveness – it was funny the first time but not so much after several times. But I did enjoy things like the movie producer scene, and Flora’s advice to Elfine on making herself suitable to catch her man. I haven’t read anything else by Gibbons – must try to fit some in…

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      • You’re right, humour is difficult and doesn’t necessarily translate well into other cultures and time periods. I guess that’s why this one is considered a classic, as readers still find it funny! If you want to read more of Gibbons’ books you could try The Bachelor, maybe.

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        • Thanks for that recommendation – I shall check it out! Yes, humorous books that rely too much on current references date so quickly, but with this being about books that have become classics, it still works. I do think authors must be very brave to attempt parody though – it can be a disaster if it goes wrong!

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  5. I guess the thing about parody is that it is such a fine line between being properly amusing and coming across as over the top. We also probably need to understand the references on some level, and as I have never heard of Mary Webb and the like, I probably wouldn’t get the specifics, but I can see the over all style she is mocking. I think I may have chosen this for you, as I thought you might have needed a bit of light relief at the time, so I’m glad it was a successful read for you on the whole.

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    • Yes, I think parody is really tricky and it’s not a thing I’m terribly fond of, so she must have done it well to keep me onside! Catching some of the references definitely added to the fun and I was kinda sorry I hadn’t read her main influences – maybe then I’d have understood why the cows’ legs were falling off – very strange! I read a short story by Mary Webb in an anthology not so long ago – very rural, lots of simmering sexuality and strongly feminist, so I could see how she might have been Gibbons’ inspiration.

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  6. This one had me laughing out loud the first time I read it, it’s one of the few books that I’ve re-read. I’ve only just finished reading her book Yellow Houses which was published posthumously. It’s very different but still entertaining – if a bit strange in parts.

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    • I suspect you’ve probably read far more of the type of book she was parodying than I have so I can see why you’d have found it fun! I wished I’d read more, but even with my limited knowledge of that period I still enjoyed seeing what I could spot. I haven’t read anything else by her – must try to make room for some on the TBR… 😀

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      • No I haven’t read anything by Mary Webb and I’ve just recently read a book by Sheila Kaye-Smith, but that was non-fiction – about the books she had enjoyed reading in her lifetime and that was fine. I think I would have to take those idealised country living books – if that is what they are with tongue firmly in cheek. I suspect they might have been the Aga sagas of their day – and I’ve never read one of those either!

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        • Ha, I think I read a couple of Aga sagas many years ago – I think Joanna Trollope was kinda the best known and I went through a phase of her books. It wore off though! I might try Mary Webb sometime – I read a short story by her in an anthology quite recently and enjoyed her writing.

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  7. I’m really glad you enjoyed this book. It was an unexpected pleasure when I read it. Humour often doesn’t work for me, but Cold Comfort Farm made me smile lots, even though I wasn’t much focused on the literary allusions.

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    • I’m always a bot wary of humour too – when it doesn’t work it can be a painful experience trying to get through a book! I think I became very aware of the allusions because I’d recently re-read Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, so his style was fresh in my mind. Otherwise I might have missed it completely!

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  8. Cold Comfort Farm made me laugh out loud when I read it a few years ago, but I didn’t spot a single parody. I haven’t read D.H. Lawrence or any of the other authors you referenced, although now that I’ve read The Go-Between I’ll recognise the green suit! I just enjoyed the story and the comedy.

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  9. I love this and, even though there is SO MUCH Mary Webb in it, still manage to enjoy Webb and Hardy, too! The sequels aren’t great though, esp Conference at CCF which I probably reviewed at some stage and … no.

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    • I really must try Mary Webb – I’ve only read one short story of hers, in an anthology, but I enjoyed it very much. Haha, yes, it won’t put me off Hardy or Lawrence, either, but it was entertaining watching her make fun of them! Warning about the sequels noted – thank you!

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  10. I saw the film first and when I came to read the book, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it I think I might prefer the film. Rufus Sewell as Seth looked as if he was really enjoying himself!!

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  11. I’m not certain I’m convinced about reading this one. So much—intertextuality—as they say in grad school programs, that I’d find all of the allusions a distraction from the story. Or maybe that’s the point.

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    • Funnily enough, several commenters have said they read and enjoyed it without really noticing the allusions. I think it’s probably because I’ve been so steeped in the classics for the last couple of years that they stood out to me – if I hadn’t re-read Lawrence recently I mightn’t have been so aware when she was parodying his style…

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  12. I think it’s all well and good for authors to include references to other books/stories from their time, but it’s pointless to make it necessary to know these references to understand their books. Maybe back when this book was published, there was much less to choose from, but now? The chances of everyone having read one book is so slim!

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    • Yes, I think you have to pick really well known books and be good at guessing which ones will stand the test of time. Maybe at the moment everyone would get references to Harry Potter, and maybe the likes of Gone Girl? Or Wolf Hall? But it’s tricky – and the two authors Gibbons is supposed to have been mostly referencing don’t seem to be very well known at all now. It’s still entertaining though!

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