Flora Poste has had an excellent education courtesy of her travel addicted parents leaving her in boarding schools pretty much every day of her life. When they both die of Spanish flu she finds she has “every art and grace save that of earning her own living.” She can’t abide the idea of working for a living so she decides to take advantage of the fact that “no limits are set, either by society or one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose on one’s relatives”.
She goes to stay with distant relatives at the isolated Cold Comfort Farm. Her relatives there — Aunt Ada Doom, the Starkadders, and their extended family and workers — feel obliged to take her in to atone for an unspecified wrong once done to her father.
But all is not what you might expect at Cold Comfort Farm; Aunt Ada Doom seems to be mad, daughter Judith is fixated on her youngest son (Seth, a smouldering heap of mocking sexuality) her husband Amos is a zealot and there are countless other long-festering emotional problems amongst the rest of the inhabitants.
As Flora is a level-headed, urban woman, she sets herself the task of resolving all this turmoil with modern common sense, regardless of whether they want her help.
But all is not what you might expect with this book either, it may sound like a comedy of manners in the style of Jane Austen mixed with the Bronte’s, but it is in fact, a very clever parody.
Stella Gibbons work, first published in 1932, mercilessly pokes fun at both great works of literature and the modern manners of the day. This Mickey-taking is quite skilfully done; so much so that if it wasn’t for the foreword in the form of a letter, I would probably have thought it was serious attempt at a novel in this vein.
Reading this 84 years after it was written does present a couple of problems however. The first is that as she is parodying a variety of works of great literature, the style of the novel seems quite clumsily stitched together in places; it swings from a light Austen-like voice to brooding Hardy-esque passages.
The second problem with it is that although it was written in 1931 it was set at an indeterminate point in the future, roughly twenty years ahead. This isn’t mentioned either in the foreword or in the blurb on the back. This had the unfortunate effect of catapulting me out of the narrative several times wondering what on earth was going on. At one point I was so confused I wondered if it had actually been written much later; if it was indeed a parody of a parody.
That notwithstanding I enjoyed this book, it was a fairly quick and easy read yet still made me think about the morality of ‘sticking your oar in’. Ms Gibbons also had a real talent for dialogue which helped create a fascinating world.