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Friday, December 12, 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons

Kate Beckinsale played Flora Poste in the successful film version of Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibson

      Book Review
Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
by Stella Gibbons

   In an era of literature saturated with satire, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody.  Gibbons was a professional journalist tasked with summarizing prior episodes from a Mary Webb serial in the periodical that was serializing Webbs work.  Webb was like the last representative of the gloomy Victorian romance typified by Thomas Hardy.  By Webb's time, the formula of the sad rural romance was popular enough to support both Webb and a parody- Cold Comfort Farm was an immediate popular success and its commercial popularity essentially ruined Gibbons later attempts to establish herself as a "serious" novelist.

  Although Mary Webb may have been the immediate target of Gibbons parody, any contemporary reader will be more reminded of Thomas Hardy- since no one reads Mary Webb today.  D.H. Lawrence, or rather his fans, are also a target but he is restricted to influencing one of the characters. Flora Poste herself and the basic structure of the plot reference the popular romantic rural genre of the time, but probably will remind the modern reader of Emma by Jane Austen, with Poste in the same vein of the self satisfied officious meddler in human affairs.

  Probably the most famous line in the entire book is Aunt Ada Dooms famous line, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."  That phrase has entered English as a generic idiom for a hideous secret memory, though for the record the reader never learns what Aunt Doom actually saw in the woodshed, nor what terrible famous secret makes Flora's Aunt Judith feel compelled to host her after the untimely death of Poste's parents at the beginning of the novel.

  Unlike much of the satire from the early part of the 20th century, Cold Comfort Farm is genuinely funny, whether or not you have familiarity with the works being parodied.  The fact that it has survived even as the underlying books have faded from memory is the strongest argument in favor of Cold Comfort Farm  belonging in the 1001 Books Project/literary canon.

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