Saturday, May 9, 2009

Cold Comfort Farm

In my recent post in which I raved about my new Wellies, I alluded to the fact that they had a connection to the book I was reading at the time. Now that I've finished it, I can finally reveal that that book was Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. In the novel, Flora Poste, an orphaned young socialite, moves from London to the English countryside to live with her relatives the Starkadders on the dreary Cold Comfort Farm, armed with a determination to bring order and civility into their lives. Shortly after her arrival, she requests that some "gumboots"- a.k.a. Wellies, be sent to her for mucking about the farmlands. Hence the connection to my boots!

The back of my copy of the book had some high praise in the vein of "funniest novel ever". Cold Comfort Farm lived up to the hype. The entire book is hilarious, though not necessarily in the laugh-out-loud madcap way of, say, a Wodehouse novel. Rather, Gibbons' every sentence is so clever, and her use of language to paint a satirical scene is so witty that the novel is just a pleasure to read.

The names alone make this book worth reading, from butlers named Sneller and Hoots to the farm's cows Graceless, Pointless, Aimless, Feckless, and Fury. Beyond that, many of my favorite passages are those that juxtapose Flora with her backwards, backwoods relations. This one occurs when Flora first meets her cousin Rueben, and is trying to extract some conversation from him:

"After a silence which lasted seven minutes by a covert glance at Flora's watch, a series of visible tremors which passed across the expanse of Reuben's face, and a series of low, preparatory noises which proceeded from his throat, persuaded her that he was about to speak to her. Cautious as a camera-man engaged in shooting a family of fourteen lions, Flora made no sign.

Her control was rewarded. After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence:

'I ha' scranleted two hundred furrows come five o'clock down i' the bute.'

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint? If so, one might say, 'My dear, how too sickening for you!' But then, it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be, 'Attaboy!' or more simply, 'Come, that's capital.' Weakly, she fell back on the comparatively safe remark: 'Did you?' in a bright, interested voice.

She saw at once that she had said the wrong thing..."

The humor is not the only admirable quality of the book. Gibbons clearly has an astute perspective on modern literature and intellectualism. Another of my favorite passages: "One of the disadvantages of an 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."

Gibbons slyly riffs beloved English writers like Austen and the Brontes. Despite the satirical nature of her writing, she still manages to make us like and root for her heroine. She even creates a certain kind of suspense that pervades the novel amidst the funnier scenes. We're left tensely wondering, what was it that Aunt Ada Doom saw in that woodshed? Alas, like Flora herself, we'll never know...

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