Thursday, December 18, 2008

Stella Gibbons – ‘Cold Comfort Farm’

What with writing about other things, I almost forgot to write about this book. Which would be rather a shame, as it’s been sitting in my to-read pile ever since shortly after this, when the recently almost departed but thankfully not after all Patroclus recommended it over at Cultural Snow (leading to this post). So, a good 18 months ago. It turns out that Cold Comfort Farm is funny in much the same way that Patroclus’ blog is funny: asterisks all over the place, a self-aware mania for tidiness and good manners coming into frequent and fraught contact with disarray and tastelessness. In the book, asterisks are used to indicate ‘the finer passages’ (p. 9). The following merits two asterisks:

**Dawn crept over the downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm. (p. 32)

These sections will leave the reader mildly nonplussed, but are as nothing to the three asterisk passages:

***The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like a beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman... Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins, like slow yeast. She-woman. Young, soft-coloured, insolent. His gaze was suddenly edged by a fleshy taint. Break her. Break. Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-sheaths, the slow smell of cows and the cry of cows, the trampling bride-path of the bull in his hour. All his, his...

‘Will you have some bread and butter?’ asked Flora, handing him a cup of tea. ‘Oh, never mind your boots, Adam can sweep the mud up afterwards. Do come in.’ (p. 77)

Flora, a young woman recently bereaved of both parents, has decided against working for a living and, writing to all the relatives she can think of, ends up living with the Starkadders in Sussex (‘Sussex...” mused Mrs Smiling. “I don’t much like the sound of that. Do they live on a decaying farm?”’ (p. 16)). They take her in without accepting the money she offers, explaining that a great wrong was done to her father years ago, for which they must atone. The Starkadders are all rather in awe of this great wrong, though they refuse to say what it was, and persist in calling Flora ‘Robert Poste’s child’, which quickly becomes ridiculous. There is very little in the first three quarters of Cold Comfort Farm which isn’t ridiculous: octogenarian farm hand Adam with his cattle Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless; the bull, Big Business; child-of-the-earth Elfine (‘A pair of large blue eyes looked at her steadily above the green hand-woven hood. Flora pensively noted that they were fine eyes, and that the hood was the wrong green.’ (p. 61)); Seth with his simmering sexuality and his simmering porridge; Mr Mybug (or Meyerburg) with his book about how Branwell wrote all the Brontë novels, and only pretended to be an alcoholic so he could procure gin for his sisters; Aunt Ada Doom, who stays squirrelled away in an upstairs room, running the farm and using emotional blackmail to ensure that no-one ever leaves.

It is marvellous stuff. The earlier chapters almost hurt I was laughing so much. By the end I was enjoying it slightly less – the novel does what a novel has to do, it has characters develop and relationships form, which was mildly disappointing after the wild disconnect earlier on.


patroclus said...

It turns out that Cold Comfort Farm is funny in much the same way that Patroclus’ blog is funny

Goodness, that's the greatest compliment I've ever been paid. I'm glad you enjoyed CCF, it's one of my favourite novels of all time.

Chris said...

It seems to be the month for complimenting people! Belated thanks for the recommendation - and, indeed, for not giving up on the blog.

Blog Archive