Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

Cold Comfort Farm (1933) by Stella Gibbons

Cold Comfort Farm by British author Stella Gibbons (1902– 1989) is a comic novel that satirized the over-romanticized rural novel of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It was said to be a send-up of what was called the “loam and lovechild” genre, poking fun at purple prose by deliberately including passages even more purple. The book was an immediate critical and popular success.

In 1933, the novel won the prestigious French literary prize, the Prix Femina, which angered fellow British author Virginia Woolf, who felt that her friend, Elizabeth Bowen, was more deserving of that year’s prize.

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940), a collection of short stories, was actually more of a prequel. Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949) was a proper sequel; it received reviews that were more mixed than the original novel.

Gibbons considered herself more of a serious poet than a comic writer, but it’s Cold Comfort Farm that took a foremost place in her legacy.

In 1995, a BBC-produced feature film of Cold Comfort Farm starring Kate Beckinsale in the lead as Flora Post was released. Many viewers and critics have lauded this adaptation for capturing the spirit of the book. Before that, there was a 1968 three-part serial made for television and in 1981, a four-part radio adaptation.

In 2019, Cold Comfort Farm was included in the BBC’s list of 100 Most Inspiring Novels.


A brief summary of Cold Comfort Farm

From the publisher of the 2012 edition (BN):

“In Gibbons’s classic tale, a resourceful young heroine finds herself in the gloomy, overwrought world of a Hardy or Brontë novel and proceeds to organize everyone out of their romantic tragedies into the pleasures of normal life.

Flora Poste, orphaned at 19, chooses to live with relatives at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, where cows are named Feckless, Aimless, Pointless, and Graceless, and the proprietors, the dour Starkadder family, are tyrannized by Flora’s mysterious aunt, who controls the household from a locked room.

Once there she discovers they exist in a state of chaos and feels it is up to her to bring order. Flora’s confident and clever management of an alarming cast of eccentrics is only half the pleasure of this novel.

The other half is Gibbons’s wicked sendup of romantic cliches, from the mad woman in the attic to the druidical peasants with their West Country accents and mystical herbs.”

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Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

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An original 1933 review of Cold Comfort Farm

From the original review in the Montclair Times, Montclair, NJ, June 2, 1933: Stella Gibbons gives us her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, or a Good Woman’s Influence.

This is the sort of book you want to tell somebody about, but only a very certain somebody whose taste in humor runs in a parallel vein with your own.

To recommend it publicly in a newspaper column seems almost unkind to the book, for many people certainly will find nothing funny about it. But we shall just disregard such persons, which all they deserve, and go on and recommend the book anyway.

The passionate novel of the soil, whose characters are always very one-purposed and usually perverted in some way or other, has been with us just long enough to be parodied, and just the right person has arisen from nowhere (or perhaps the lady would rather have it said that she from a newspaper once in London) to parody it. The result is all that might be asked for. And then some more.

The ridiculous touches which Miss Gibbons administers with a light and knowing hand are scattered extravagantly throughout the book.

She has a habit of marking with two and sometimes three asterisks (as in Baedecker) the passages which she herself considers especially fine. She says in the preface that she’s always a little in doubt as to whether a sentence is literature or just sheer flapdoodle, so she evolved this plan to aid her readers.

The Starkadders, reigned over by a mad grandmother Who never leaves her room, live in a triangular house on an octagonal farm on a stark, bare cliff.

There is Judith, the mother, who spends a great deal of time “telling her cards.” Seth, her son; the male; the father, who preaches the horrors of hell-fire to the villagers, and Reuben, Seth’s brother, who waits impatiently for Amos to die so that he may run the farm, which is his only passion.

Other examples of type characters too numerous to enumerate include Meriam, the servant girl, who is frequently having babies in the cowshed; Mark and Urk and Caraway, who persist in pushing each other down wells, and Adam. love is for the four cows, Aimless, Graceless, Pointless, and Feckless.

Into this charming family circle comes Flora Poste, the cousin from London, whose knowledge of life comes from current literature. She has a great yearning for tidiness in all things and sets to work toted up the lives at Cold Comfort Farm.

So she leaves her friend Mrs. Smiling, whose chief interest in life is her unequaled collection of brassiere, which she seeks frantically and collects assiduously, and goes to Sussex to stay on the decaying farm. We leave it to the reader to find out what she, and the rest of the cast of characters, does from there.

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Cold Comfort Farm (1995 film)

The 1995 film adaptation
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Quotes from Cold Comfort Farm

“The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”

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“Flora inherited, however, from her father a strong will and from her mother a slender ankle.”

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“She liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while eating an apple.”

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“On the whole, I dislike my fellow beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.”

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“Like all really strong-minded women, on whom everybody flops, she adored being bossed about. It was so restful.”

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“One 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.”

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“Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, ‘Collecting material’. No one can object to that.”

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“There are some things (like first love and one’s first reviews) at which a woman in her middle years does not care to look too closely.”

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“Curious how Love destroys every vestige of that politeness which the human race, in its years of evolution, has so painfully acquired.”

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