The world of literature boasts a vast and varied landscape. The compulsive reader may wander through dense forests of almost impenetrable prose translated from the original Russian, concerning an hour in the life of a bus conductor and lasting for six volumes. But eventually, the traveller’s heart cries out for a book which will be a genuine pleasure to read. In such time of need, the weary reader would be wise to head for Cold Comfort Farm.
The heroine, Flora Poste, is an educated, civilised girl of the city. Orphaned at 19, she accepts an offer to live with her cousins, a farming family deep in rural England. The Starkadders are a living encyclopaedia of rural stereotype, a collection of hardships and repressed passions. Cold Comfortis primarily a satire on the over-written, stereotyped romantic fiction of the Nineteenth Century, but manages to transcend the genre it imitates to emerge as a fully-rounded work in its own right. The satire never becomes mechanical or repetitive, and never tires; the targets are too varied, and the characters too entertaining in themselves.
While the genre of pastoral melodrama may have long since faded away, the targets of the satire remain fresh, and often disturbingly prescient. Amos, the religious fanatic, preacher to the Quivering Brethren, is as relevant today as ever. In the vacant, upper-class Richard Hawk-Monitor, the tediously modern Mr Mybug and the naïve Elfine, who writes bad poetry and quotes it at length, the reader might be forgiven for recognising her own tutorial partners. Mockery of bad writing, needless to say, is timeless.
The Farm is not perfect. First published in 1932, it contains a few strangely anachronistic details such as videophones and private aircraft which sit oddly with its otherwise archaic world. Critics often claim, furthermore, that the characters are more like types than real, multidimensional people. To a more sensitive reader, however, this is an integral part of the charm of the book. Gibbons parades the stereotypes of romantic literature, but then introduces unexpected and interesting traits into each character to draw out the empathy of the reader. The result is a warm, witty and illuminating analysis of the nature of people, as accurate today as sixty years ago – a priceless antidote to an overdose of Dostoevsky.ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004