As you can see from the cover of this book, someone at the Sunday Times at some point over the last 80 years thought Cold Comfort Farm was “probably the funniest book ever written”. Every time that quote caught my eye, I wondered whether I could be reading the same book or whether I was going through some sort of serious sense of humour failure because I had this definite feeling that it very probably wasn’t.
Flora Poste, an independent young woman, recently orphaned, heads to the Sussex countryside to lodge with her cousins and extended family at the farm of the title. She likes order and tidiness, so takes it upon herself to put the place and its wild and strange inhabitants to rights.
I realised half-way through that I had only once raised a small smirk…at the names given to the cows (‘Feckless’, ‘Graceless’, ‘Aimless’ and ‘Pointless’), no other guffaws or chortles and certainly no giggles or belly laughs which you might come to expect reading “probably the funniest book ever written.” So I did a bit of research and came to find Cold Comfort Farm has a protective following. Plenty of people found it funny; I began to worry for myself. More importantly, I learned the history of why the book was written.
Stella Gibbons meant the book to be a parody of the “rural novel” as demonstrated by the likes of Mary Webb and Thomas Hardy. Having found this out, I began to think about the Hardy novels I’ve read (admittedly amounting to *whispers* one and a half), to try to see the funny side. Now, to me, a parody should exaggerate style to comic effect, but I still couldn’t see it. Yes, there is the multitude of rural types, all with country-bumpkin names, talking in their own yokel language to each other, which seems possibly an embellishment of the farm labourers in Far from the Madding Crowd. There were the long flouncy paragraphs describing the landscape all heralded with an asterisk so the reader was aware it was coming, but this isn’t funny in itself. There was the mad Aunt Ada Doom, with her iron grip over the family constantly babbling about “something nasty in the woodshed” (which to be honest every time I read it all I thought of was Divine Comedy’s song Something for the Weekend) but she wasn’t so grotesque as to make me laugh.
It wasn’t until I read a very timely post by Simon at Stuck in a Book (who really likes Cold Comfort Farm) about an attempt he made at reading Mary Webb’s Gone to Earth. Read his post here. Having read some of the extracts he posted I felt I could understand some of Stella Gibbons’ flowery descriptions and how they could be a dig at Mary Webb’s writing. But I’m afraid I still can’t see the funny side, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t raise a titter. I think the parody is lost on me, probably because I haven’t waded through any of the rural novels Cold Comfort Farm sends up. The parody aside, however, I still didn’t really enjoy reading it and was glad it was so short. There is one thing I think it has going for it. I could imagine it, with a quality screenplay, as a good comedy film or series, as it has great elements for slapstick, just didn’t do it for me on the page.
Anyway, must be off. I’ve got plates to cletter and chicken feathers to count.