Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

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.

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11 thoughts on “Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons”

  1. Belatedly seen this – what a shame you didn’t like it! I, as you mentioned, love it – and that was before I read anything it was parodying. But it’s always impossible to explain properly why one finds something funny… maybe the (to my mind) exactly judged level of hyperbole? The dramatic instincts in the characters that Flora so firmly quashes? I don’t know.

  2. I found it far too self-conscious. And yes, it’s a parody, which by its very nature has a knowing smirk attached to it, but this I found just too much. There is, possibly, an impediment caused by the time that it was written (1932), and a clash with modern-day ideas of what is and isn’t funny. That being said, however, Nancy Mitford’s writing has held up and is still amusing today, so there’s no real reason why Stella Gibbons’ work shouldn’t have done the same.

    I haven’t watched it, but it was made into a film (originally serialised on the BBC, if you’re interested in trying it in a different format.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree – Nancy Mitford is much more amusing. I don’t know if it is an issue of when it was written or just the expectation built up by the comment on the cover!
      Someone else told me about the TV adaptation. As I said in the post I think it could work well on the screen.

  3. Yup I totally agree. It’s a hard accolade to live up to but I was certainly expecting more from the book. I havent read any Mary Webb either but it should be funny in its own right even if it’s a parody, and I really didn’t get the humour.

    1. I’m relieved it’s not just me then – someone else commented on twitter that they are a 3rd of the way through and although not LOL she was raising a wry smile at it. Just about sums it up!

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