Stella Gibbons was a prolific writer who started out as a journalist after attending the University of London. For ten years she worked as a drama and literature critic, special reporter, and fashion writer. Later, she produced more than thirty novels and collections of poetry and short stories. In quality, none of them rivaled Cold Comfort Farm, her first published novel, which won the prestigious Femina Vie Heureuse prize in 1933 and became a popular classic of English literature. A member of the Royal Society of Literature, Gibbons was elected a fellow in 1950. She hated publicity and politics and spent the last thirty years of her life as a recluse.
Cold Comfort Farm is generally considered to be a parody of the type of novel that British authors such as Thomas Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, and Mary Webb wrote in the early twentieth century. Their novels are usually characterized by crude, uneducated characters; brooding landscapes; dark mysticism that includes a fatalistic view of life; and a pervasive atmosphere of violence, which occasionally erupts. Mary Webb’s novel Precious Bane (1924) includes a semiliterate, harelipped heroine; a brother who murders his own mother; and a village of savage, superstitious people. Many of the characters of Precious Bane could have appeared in the pages of Cold Comfort Farm, yet while Webb’s novel is tragic, Gibbons used her material to comic effect.
Gibbons sets the tone of Cold Comfort Farm in an opening letter to one Anthony Pookworthy, a fictional novelist. She tells him he has given her joy with his books, which are “records of intense spiritual struggles, staged in the wild setting of mere, berg, or fen. Your characters are ageless and elemental things, tossed like straws on the seas of passion.” Yet Gibbons intends to write a book that is funny, for which she begs Pookworthy’s forgiveness. The letter explains Gibbons’s guidebook method of using asterisks to mark certain of the...
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