Plucky Flora Poste, the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm, is quite the modern socialite. She makes her own petticoats, entertains a number of suitors, talks fashion with her closest friend and relies on her bible, The Higher Common Sense, to find solutions to a multiplicity. While knowing exactly how to dress and behave in every situation, she has little talent for earning an income but harbors familiar ambitions:
“I think it’s degrading of you, Flora,’ cried Mrs Smiling at breakfast. ‘Do you truly mean that you don’t ever want to work at anything?’
Her friend replied after some thought: ‘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. Besides, I shall be.’
Mrs Smiling drank some coffee in silent disapproval.
‘If you ask me,’ continued Flora, ‘I think I have much in common with Miss Austen. She liked everything to be tidy and pleasant and comfortable around her, and so do I. You see Mary,’ – and here Flora began to grow earnest and to wave one finger about – ‘unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes.”
Published in 1932, Stella Gibbons’ novel Cold Comfort Farm is set “in the near future.” It’s a delight of a book: a comic parody of the English rural novels of the 19th Century combined with a modern epic storyline of a family, The Starkadders, led by a tyrannical zealot, a Gertrudian mother so in love with her son that she fails to notice the state of affairs and general decline of the world around her, and an iron-fisted granny who despises everyone because she once “saw something nasty in the woodshed.”
“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.”
Thus, when Flora Poste must go to stay with her most interesting relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, in Sussex. When she and her little book arrive to spread joy, enlightenment and contraception, the Starkadders soon find themselves mostly maneuvered out of their self-imposed, willful misery. Except for the cows Graceless, Aimless, Feckless and Pointless, of course.
“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.’
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
‘Curtains?’ she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. ‘Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude’.”
Cold Comfort Farm was my book club’s choice for one cold, January night and it remains one of the group’s favorite books. I read it about once every couple of years, always catching some new amusement. The BBC mini-series production with Kate Beckinsale, Ian MacKellen, Eileen Atkins and Rufus Sewell is spot-on and a hoot if you can scare it up.
The Starkadders chow on porridge, home-made bread and bacon, occasionally ‘spiced-up’ by ‘treats’ such as beef, beer, pickled onions and home-made lemonade. For Elfine’s wedding, the fare was ‘spiced-up’ to ‘cold home-cured ham, cider, home-made bread and salads made from local fruit.’
Even at Cold Comfort, though, Aunt Ada Doom and higher-ranking guests like Flora eat a bit better. Omelettes, kippers, cold veal, salad, blancmanges, junkets and jam. A similar kind of food is also available in pubs and cafés. For example, at the pub in Howling, Flora eats a steak with vegetables and apple tart, and in the café where she first meets Mr. Mybug, she has some plain biscuits, ‘a sugared orange’ and coffee.
At the upper end of the social scale, there is much more exotic and varied food and drink on offer. For example, Mrs. Smiling is able to supply cocktails and cinnamon wafers, and the ‘posh-nosh‘ offered to the guests at Elfine’s wedding includes syllabubs, ice-puddings, caviare sandwiches, crab patties, trifle and champagne.
The soundtrack from the BBC mini-series production of 1995 includes:
I’m More Than Satisfied, Fats Waller
Then I’ll Be Tired of You, Harburg & Schwarzt
Sidewalks of Cuba, Rumba from the Cotton Club
Red Sails in the Sunset, Kennedy & Williams
Buttercup Joe, Richardson
Tara’s Theme, from Gone with the Wind, Steiner
I might include, for irony, some English Pastoral music from the early 20th Century. Examples include the Australian Percy Grainger‘s Molly on the Shore (1907), Frederick Delius‘ Brigg Fair (1908), and Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ English Folk Song Suite (1923) for brass band.
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