First published in 1932, Stella Gibbons’s “Cold Comfort Farm” is rife with humor that withstands the test of time. In this witty romp, Gibbons follows her overprivileged, well-educated, under-experienced heroine as she descends upon her unwitting family, whose lives she will permanently alter.
Flora Poste, newly orphaned in her young twenties, with a head full of ideas and very little practical sense, appears on her long-lost family’s rural farm, where she is constantly struck, to hilarious effect, with how much real life differs from life in novels. In one classic example, Flora notes that:
“In novels, persons who turned to religion to obtain the color and excitement which everyday life did not give them were all grey and thwarted Probably the Brethren would be all grey and thwarted … though it was too true that life as she is lived had a way of being curiously different from life as described by novelists.”
As Flora seeks to “better” the lives of each of her kin, one at a time, she is struck not just by the incongruities between the life of books and the life she sees all around her, but also by her paradoxical feelings that while she believes in the value of education, she often begrudges it in others. When one such character, for whom Flora holds no respect, quotes cherished works at her, she realizes that “[o]ne of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favorite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing gown.” We treasure our favorite authors and wish them widespread success, as long as those who proclaim them agree with us.
Gibbons’ work is filled with clever lines and barbed witticisms. Even her own trade isn’t spared, as she mocks simile mercilessly:
“The farm-house itself no longer looked like a beast about to spring. (Not that it ever had, to her, for she was not in the habit of thinking that things looked exactly like other things which were as different from them in appearance as it was possible to be.)”
But most of her barbs are reserved for gender roles and sexism, which are dealt with more often by oblique reference and hyperbole than straight forward criticism. Flora is told by a scholarly acquaintance that Wuthering Heights, and all the other works of the Bronte sisters, was actually written by their brother Branwell, because “[n]o woman could have written that. It’s male stuff.” And of Flora herself, the reader is told that “like all really strong-minded women, on whom everybody flops, she adored being bossed about.” One can only smile knowingly at such tongue-in-cheek wit.
“Cold Comfort Farm” is a timeless classic with wit that feels anachronistic were its setting and writing not contemporaneous.