Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820
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 finer passages in the novel so that readers will be sure they are literature and not “flapdoodle.” These marked passages are masterpieces of overwrought writing, full of long sentences teeming with lush adjectives and numerous clauses.
The vocabulary of Cold Comfort Farm adds to the novel’s atmosphere, from the names of the characters, animals, and vegetation to the idiomatic country terms. Fourteen men live at the farm: Amos and his two sons, five distant cousins, two of Amos’s half brothers, and four farmhands. The names include Urk, Ezra, Micah, Caraway, Harkaway, Luke, and Mark Dolour. Adam Lambsbreath is an ancient farmhand who enjoys a mystical connection to the beasts for which he cares: Graceless, Pointless, Feckless, and Aimless, the cows; Big Business, the bull; and Viper, the vicious carriage horse. One of Adam’s tasks is to “cletter the dishes,” and Reuben brags that he has “scranleted two hundred furrows.” “Mommet” seems to be a word of endearment or disparagement (sometimes both at once). This vocabulary is typical of pastoral novels of the period, but here it is overdone and often incomprehensible to Flora Poste, the city cousin. Yet she finds her own speech lapsing into the same country idiom before she escapes from Cold Comfort Farm.
Part of the humor is Flora’s ironic attitude toward the rough country ways of her cousins. She realizes that people of their temperament revel in misunderstandings, brooding, rows at mealtime, spying, skulking, and constant emotional turmoil. “Oh, they did enjoy themselves!” Flora concludes. By the end of the book she sees the family quietly enjoying a traditional wedding in an ordinary manner without violence, gloom, pride, or lechery, all due to her own good offices. Flora is, of course, herself a parody, with her reliance on her self-help books, The Higher Common Sense and Pensees, to which she frequently turns.
Geniuses and intellectuals—as exemplified by Mr. Mybug, a writer who stays in Howling while working on a revisionist biography of the Brontës—fare badly in this novel. Mybug’s book is intended to prove that it was Branwell Brontë who wrote Wuthering Heights (1847) instead of Emily Brontë. Gibbons has much fun with this character, who is obsessed with sex and is later spied, drunk and dirty, trying to gate-crash Richard Hawk-Monitor’s birthday ball.
Gibbons manages her large cast of characters well, integrating them into the many subplots involved in Flora’s “tidying” of the Starkadders. The author tidies up her plot at the end with a literary device of deus ex machina, which in classic Greek drama ends a story by mechanically lowering a god onstage to resolve the plot (the term has come to mean any improbable device by which an author resolves the plot). In Cold Comfort Farm the deus ex machina is three airplanes that arrive to whisk off Aunt Ada Doom, the newly married Hawk-Monitors, and Flora. Here, Gibbons parodies the end of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
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