I had a peripatetic childhood, and by the time I finished high school I’d attended well over a dozen schools on three different continents, with time off for good behavior during a glorious year (in about third grade) where there wasn’t a school anywhere in sight. My mother, who was largely disinterested in her parenting responsibilities for most of her life, wasn’t really into the idea of homeschooling, and so I spent most of that year loafing with what few little English friends I had, and playing with the children of the Nigerian house staff. The following year I resumed school, in a different country, in the appropriate grade, with apparently no ill effects at all.
At some point though, when I was bored or lonely, I learned to find refuge in books.
I remember reading only one really childish picture book, although surely there were more. That book was Little Chick Chick, a tiny paperback about a small chick who disobeyed his mother, got himself lost, and ended up spending the night all alone in the pouring rain, hiding underneath an empty tomato can by the side of the road. Fortunately for my mother’s sanity, his mother hen retrieved him the next day, slapped him upside the head with her wing, and all ended well. But before this happy outcome, and at each sight of poor Little Chick Chick shivering and desolate next to the tomato can, the two-year old me would cry floods and floods of inconsolable tears.
Eventually, my mother became so rattled by my outbursts that she took to hiding the book. She would hide the book. I would find the book. She (and subsequently I) would read the book. And off I would go, into uncontrollable sobs, again.
And then, she consigned Little Chick Chick to the flames and that was the end of that. (About fifteen years ago, I found a copy on eBay, and so we’ve been reunited. And yes, I, a fifty year-old woman at the time, cried like the child I once was, the first time I read it then, too). Poor Little Chick Chick.
But most of the books I read were not full of sentimental twaddle. And I very swiftly graduated from the tales of Beatrix Potter to those of C.S. Lewis, Arthur Ransome, Kenneth Grahame and Rosemary Sutcliff. (I never was much for A.A. Milne–see “sentimental twaddle,” above–whose work was roundly and memorably dismissed in Dorothy Parker’s “Constant Reader” review with the words “Tonstant Weader frowwed up.”)
Somewhere along the way, I discovered Gerald Durrell. His stories of his childhood in Corfu and of his animal-collecting expeditions in South America and Africa sustained me for years. Finally! Someone whose family was even more eccentric than mine, and who, like the members of my own family, thought nothing of getting up in the morning and embarking on trips half-way round the world several times a year. I still love his books, and later, those of James Herriot, whose books are very different from Durrell’s except in the way that they capture perfectly for me a time, a place, and a people that have entirely disappeared from my life.
I kept up my interest in novels, though, moving from Lewis and Ransome to Tolkien, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Dickens among others. My appetite was voracious, but my tastes were really not. I liked mysteries, adventures, comedies of manners, history, and the occasional tasteful bodice-ripper (Georgette Heyer, yes; Barbara Cartland, most certainly not), and I demanded, at the very least, an author who wrote as if English were his native tongue, even if that were not actually the case (for example, I’m quite fond of Joseph Conrad. And Mark Twain, LOL). And, I always hope for some character development to occur at some point in my journey from beginning to end.
When I was about a sophomore in high school, I discovered the novel that, for me, has stood as the exemplar of the genre ever since. That novel is Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons (spoilers ahead).
First, though, let me say that I loathe the novels of D.H. Lawrence. Not because I don’t think he could have written a ripping yarn if he wanted to, but exactly because he could have, and didn’t. Tortured, overblown, self-conscious, emotionally overwrought prose. Emotionally crippled characters. Mystifying and needlessly complex carrying-on about perfectly natural human behavior. Take Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Please. It’s a book that seems to have been written for no other purpose than to get itself banned in several countries, so that young people (boys mostly, and those men who never get past that stage), and probably some college professors, could sneak around reading it and feeling smugly and self-righteously dirty for doing so. Ugh, just ugh.
So when I opened Cold Comfort Farm for the first time and started reading, I was enchanted, all the way from the introductory “letter” to Anthony Pookworthy, Esq, A.B.S., L.L.R. (in which Gibbons outlines the difficulties she had in changing from a journalistic to a novelistic form, and in trying to write a novel that was, essentially, one sentence long, in the florid and popular style of the day), to the first passage marked with asterisks (which she used, from time to time, to point out particularly egregiously overwritten passages for “the reader’s delectation and mirth”). So:
** “Leave her in peace . . . animals like Meriam are best alone at such times . . . ’Tes not the first time.”
“Too bad,” said Flora, sympathetically.
“’Tes the fourth time,” whispered Judith, thickly.
“Every year, in the fulness o’ summer, when the sukebind hangs heavy from the wains . . . ’tes the same. And when the spring comes her hour is upon her again. ’Tes the hand of Nature, and we women cannot escape it.”
(“Oh, can’t we ?” thought Flora, with spirit, but aloud she only made such noises of tut-tutting regret as she felt were appropriate to the occasion.)
“Well, she’s out of the question, anyway,” she said, briskly.
“What question ?” asked Judith, after a pause.
She had fallen into a trance-like muse. Her face was grey.
“I mean the curtains. She can’t wash them if she’s just had a baby, can she ?”
“She will be about again to-morrow. Such wenches are like the beasts of the field,” said Judith, indifferently.
She seemed bowed under the gnawing weight of a sorrow that had left her too exhausted for anger; but, as she spoke, an asp-like gleam of contempt darted into her overlidded eyes. She looked quickly across at a photograph of Seth which stood on the table. It showed him in the centre of the Beershorn Wanderers Football Club. His young man’s limbs, sleek in their dark male pride, seemed to disdain the covering offered them by the brief shorts and striped jersey. His body might have been naked, like his full, muscled throat, which rose, round and proud as the male organ of a flower, from the neck of his sweater.
“He is a thought too fat, but really very handsome,” mused Flora, following Judith’s glance. “I don’t suppose he plays football any more — probably mollocks,* instead.”
*”Mollocking” is a word that Stella Gibbons invented (there are many such in the book). It means . . . well, exactly what you might expect it to mean given the context. One mollocks in the “sukebind,” another invented word for a twining and overly fertile bindweed-like plant that proliferates everywhere in the Summer.
This passage demonstrates both the overblown naturalism of Cold Comfort Farm and its inhabitants, the Starkadders and their hirelings, and the incisiveness, rationality, practicality, and good sense demonstrated by the book’s central character, Flora Poste. Parallels to the former may be found throughout the novels of D.H. Lawrence and many others of the time, who wrote the sorts of novels that Punch once described as “the kind of stor[ies] in which peasants have babies in cowsheds and push each other down wells.” Parallels to the latter exist in far fewer places in the writings of the time.
The book opens as Flora, a modern young woman who, lacking the means to earn a living, has been left almost penniless by the sudden death of both her parents. After much consultation with her friend Mary Smiling–an equally modern but rather different young woman who can only really converse intelligently on one subject, that of her world-class bra collection–Flora decides to write to her many close relatives, to find some of them to stay with, and then to spend some time sorting them out and putting their lives in order. She sends off a variety of letters, and receives only one positive response, from Judith Starkadder of Cold Comfort Farm, in Howling, Sussex, as follows:
So you are after your rights at last. Well, I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these last twenty years.
Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone, but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed.
We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort, and we will do our best to welcome Robert Poste’s child.
Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.
Yr. affec. Aunt,
Much of the book follows the pattern laid out in the quoted sections above: helpless and chaotic submission to natural forces, and especially, carnal lusts, by most of the Starkadders and their farm animals (not much to choose between them, really), contrasted with sane and rational action on Flora’s part to help them control their urges and mitigate the most disastrous of their dealings.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Flora’s management of the family matriarch, Aunt Ada Doom, who’s been confined to her bedroom for decades, muttering about having once seen “something nasty in the woodshed.” We never find out what this nasty thing was, but we are rewarded, at the end of the book, by Aunt Ada’s redemption and resumption of normal dealings with the human race.
Of course, it is Flora who sorts them out, organizing their relationships, cleaning up their pigsty of a house, teaching them how to cook, have some manners, and control themselves, all the while finding true love for herself along the way (no, not with one of the Starkadders. That would be selling out). Thus, in the best of all traditions, and unexpectedly, the characters save each other, and everyone lives happily ever after.
The book is a gem, from beginning to end. In my opinion, Cold Comfort Farm is perhaps the funniest, and the most on-point satirical, and parodic, comic novel ever written. But I know there are others, perhaps even some I’ve not run across yet.
Do you have a favorite?