Here’s this month’s book club confession: I’m not much of a Bronte fan. Sacrilege, I know. I can say I’ve read Jane Eyre only in a general sense (mostly the beginning and the end, a few times), and I strongly disliked Wuthering Heights when I read it twenty years ago — enough to never wish to revisit it. As for the rest of the Bronte sisters’ oeuvre, I am familiar with it in name only, which is kind of inevitable for anyone who loves 19th century lit (which I do). Now, with all that said, Cold Comfort Farm — which gives more than a passing nod to the Brontes — was and is a delight to read. I’ve always been a fan of writers who keep their tongue firmly in cheek, so that’s probably why I appreciate Stella Gibbons’ classic comic gem.

Now, if you’ve read along this month, you will know that Cold Comfort Farm also owes a huge debt of inspiration to Jane Austen’s Emma … coincidentally, one of my least favourite Austen heroines. (Although I have a soft spot for her incarnation as Cher Horowitz.) Even as a teen, I found Emma’s interfering ways incredibly annoying, and the older I get, the less patience I have for them. God bless Mr. Knightley. Anyway, transposed to the gothic background of Cold Comfort Farm, the antics seem less pesky, mostly because the Starkadders do legitimately need some sorting out. More on that in a moment. There is a variety of romantic sub-plots to the story, but they’re not really the focus and are all rather perfunctory. The genius of the book lies in the descriptions of each of the (secondary) characters and their respective manias — they’re described to great comic effect but without cruelty, in a way that makes you want to root for each of the characters and their individual happiness. Which is why, in the end, Flora Poste is more likeable (to me) than Emma — she manages to steer everyone to their Happily Ever After (not necessarily with a partner, although there is at least one big wedding).

What I loved

The premise and the entire cast of characters is perfect, especially as a gentle parody of a certain kind of literature. (To be clear, I don’t think Gibbons set out to parody the Brontes, Austen, etc., but rather their subsequent copycats). I loved Flora’s rapport with Mrs. Smiling, and her overall level-headedness. I also appreciated the general absence of slut-shaming, which struck me as particularly refreshing for the era in which Gibbons was writing.

The other thing I loved was the fact that the book is the reason why the delightful 1994 movie adaptation exists. I know, that’s a bit of a cheat … but I do love the movie so much. I’m not a Kate Beckinsale fan, but she was very good as Flora, and the other performances are bang on as well. (Well, Jeremy Northam should have played Charles but I can deal.) I mean, Bang. On:

um, hello
um, hello

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, do yourself a favour and rectify the oversight 😉

And of course, my absolute favourite part was the exchange between Aunt Ada and Mr. Neck:

Ada: I saw something nasty in the woodshed!
Mr. Neck: Yeah, baby, but did it see you?

(Note: that version comes from the movie, which I think adds an extra kick to the original dialogue — at least as it appears in my copy of the book. YMMV.)

Book club question 1: who were your favourite characters/plot points?

Book club question 2: the book is set in some unspecified future time. Do you feel that influenced the story in any way? Why do you think Gibbons chose to set it in the future?

What I didn’t like

I have only a few small quibbles. I found the Starkadders’ dialect difficult to follow on paper. (It wasn’t nearly as thick in the movie version.) I’m sure that was a deliberate stylistic choice on Gibbons’ part but it did take me out of the story at times. Also, as much as I liked Flora’s maturity, it did strike me as unrealistic for a young woman of 19 or 20. Moreover, she never made mistakes and her plans never went astray. From a psychological perspective, it made her a less plausible character than Emma, for example. I know this was supposed to be a comic novel (all the characters are stereotypes, really) but I felt like Flora’s implausible perfection veered too far into Mary Sue territory at times … and, yet, at other times, it was just right. I don’t know, I guess I’m conflicted.

Finally, the denouement between Flora and Charles seemed rather rushed and unsatisfying/not true to type (same goes for the movie).

Book club question 3: what did you like least about the book?

Book club question 4: were you disappointed that we never got to find out what nasty thing Ada saw in the shed?

OK, your turn! Please keep in mind that my suggested questions are simply that, so feel free to chat in the comments about anything you would like that’s Cold Comfort Farm-related (especially if it involves the perfection of Rufus Sewell’s cheekbones).

Next month’s book club selection is a new read for me, but I’ve heard a lot of good things about it (and the series that it kicks off), and as a dyed-in-the-wool mystery novel lover (with a weakness for British authors of the same), I’m very excited about … drum roll, please:

The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

Please join me on Friday, April 29, for the book club discussion. In the meantime, happy reading!

3 Comments on BCRL Book Club: Cold Comfort Farm

  1. I read the book so long ago that I can’t really answer the questions, but I understood it to be a take-off on a D. H. Laurence-styled Oh-So-Earthy The Only Real Life Takes Place in the Country sub-genre of literature that was happening in the 1920s and maybe 1930s, so I never mentally compared CCF to Austen or the Brontës. I can’t stand Laurence, so I was definitely Team Gibbons.

    Question one: Favorite character:
    Mrs. Smiling. It cracked me up that she collected bras.

    Question two: the future setting
    I liked it because it could be straightforwardly silly, even though it’s clearly of its time. A single young woman’s first instinct upon being orphaned was to write all her relatives to find a place to live is practically 19th century, whereas the airplanes are futuristic.

    Question three: what I liked least
    The hired hand and his little mop. It got old.

    Question four: unsolved mystery
    Not really.

    My own observation: I liked that Gibbons used typography to indicate her best-written, most poetic passages. I stole the idea from her, and use it on my blog.

    • So … another confession: I had no idea what the little asterisks were for until after I finished the book. I thought it was some sort of mis-print in my super low-budget copy of the book. For reals: the only semi-affordable version I could find on Amazon looks like it was photocopied and put together by a 4th grader. (The cover photo is a blurry reproduction. I am not kidding.) Little did I know that the weird typography was an intentional choice, hah.

      You are correct, I think, re DH Lawrence – especially with the over-sexed males running around the farm. I also hate Lawrence, so I never think about him. But I do love classic English lit, I swear!

  2. I LOOOOVED Cold Comfort Farm! When Urk keeps going on about how he must consult with the water voles I DIE. Not to mention mollocking through the sukebind. It’s hard for me to put my finger exactly on why it tickles me so, but part of it is that all of Flora’s plans DO come together. She’s sort of like a female infallible Jeeves. I have pressed this book on so many people and most of them just don’t get it. I think it just hits your sense of amusement or it doesn’t.