Cold Comfort Farm

by Stella Gibbons

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Cold Comfort Farm

Cold Comfort Farm. Starkadder family farm to which Flora Poste moves. Taking its name from a line in William Shakespeare’s play King John (1596-1597), the farm is located outside the village of Howling, near Beershorn in southern England’s Sussex region. One of the characters believes the farm is cursed, as seeds do not grow and the cows do not reproduce. However, this opinion is negated by the fecundity of the maid and the hearty growth of the sensual sukebind (a fictional plant), just as the austerity of the farm’s name is undercut by the primal passions seething beneath the characters’ forbidding personalities.

The farm is described in long, adjective-filled phrases reminiscent of the lush description in regional novels of the period. These descriptions include anthropomorphized animals, plants, and buildings that serve as symbols of the human passions. The farm is symbolic of a sentimentality toward the rural and old-fashioned, a place where a dishwashing “mop” is considered innovative and even a newspaper is disconcerting. The heavy regional style is made comic, for example, by Gibbons’s use of modern and fanciful names for the farm animals, such as bull named “Big Business,” the misconceived metaphors and similes (the sun “throbbed like a sallow lemon”), and the casual approach to calamity (the hired hand fails to notice when a cow loses a leg). The farm is populated by stereotypical rural types, from the domineering matriarch to the hell-fire-and-brimstone preacher to the loyal family retainer.

Dark and dirty, the farmhouse is a maze with nooks, crannies, hidden doors, and inaccessible attics. It is not necessary to know that Gibbons is directly parodying the farmhouse in Mary Webb’s The House in Dormer Forest (1920) for readers to realize that the house embodies the darkness and complexity of the human relationships in the novel.


Howling. Town one mile away from Cold Comfort Farm. It has no train station and only one pub, the Condemn’d Man. Even to reach Beershorn, the closest train station (which is seven miles from the farm), takes four and a half hours by train from London, even though the Sussex region is only about fifty miles from London. The cheerless names and the slow transportation emphasize the isolation of the Starkadders and their farm.


Woodshed. Place where the family matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom Starkadder, saw “something nasty” when she was a little girl. Ada uses this ugly memory as an excuse to impose her will on the family; if any one crosses her, she threatens to have an “attack.” The woodshed symbolizes all evil for Ada, evil from which she must protect herself and her family. The nasty incident is never explained, and the reader never gets a description of the actual woodshed (it is not on Cold Comfort Farm, since Ada came from elsewhere when she married into the Starkadder family), but its presence haunts the novel.


*London. Great Britain’s capital city is mentioned but never lavishly described; London provides a contrast to Cold Comfort Farm. To Flora, the great city represents normalcy in dress, action, speech, and attitude. Therefore, it is to London that she takes Elfine to transform her into a woman fit for Richard Hawk-Monitor and where she takes Judith for psychiatric help.

The Downs

The Downs. Grassy, treeless upland expanse between Cold Comfort Farm and Hautcouture Hall (pronounced “Howchicker Hall” by the locals), the family estate of her higher-class boyfriend, Richard Hawk-Monitor. Elfine spends a lot of time outdoors, both in the Downs and elsewhere; Flora indicates that Elfine’s poetry celebrates nature in an honest, unself-conscious way, unlike both the...

(This entire section contains 684 words.)

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Freudian descriptions of Mr. Mybug and the sentimentalized descriptions in rural novels of the period.


*Hollywood. California motion picture industry center to which Flora dispatches Seth, who loves the “talkies.” While Hollywood does represent modernity, it is not depicted as a center of normalcy. Instead, it offers a lifestyle at the opposite extreme from that of Cold Comfort Farm. The narrator calls it the “Kingdom of Cockaigne,” which is an imaginary land of delight and luxury.


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Dangerfield, George. “Brilliant Satire: Cold Comfort Farm.” Saturday Review of Literature 9 (April 1, 1933): 513. This is a rave review of the novel. Dangerfield appreciates the broad satire, which he finds necessary, and calls Cold Comfort Farm a “masterpiece.”

Moorman, Charles. “Five Views of a Dragon.” The Southern Quarterly 16 (1978): 139-150. Moorman compares and contrasts five authors, including Stella Gibbons, who write about Wales. Gibbons, the only one of the five who is not Welsh, sees the humor in Welsh extravagances.

Paterson, Isabel. “Cold Comfort Farm.” Books (March 12, 1933): 9. Paterson finds the novel a joy and recognizes that Gibbons is a novelist to watch in the future.

Vickers, Jackie. “Cold Comfort for Ethan Frome.” Notes and Queries 40, no. 4 (December, 1993). A careful and balanced comparison of Cold Comfort Farm and Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (1911). Traces some of the influences Ethan Frome may have had on Gibbons’ work. Vickers also discusses the animal imagery in Cold Comfort Farm.


Critical Essays