In which we find Extreme Makeover: Post-War Britain Edition.
Whether it’s the title of Cold Comfort Farm that lingers on the edges of our consciousness or a clever ploy by author Stella Gibbons, the term cold comfort seems (like “cellar door”) to evoke a sense of both its literal meaning and something far more intangible.
Cold Comfort Farm is both a pastiche of the ‘nature’ novels of the early 20th century and a successful tale of town and country in its own right. To succeed as a satire, the two must be true. It’s no use to poke fun at a genre or medium without understanding it and those who can’t create a true rendition always fail when it comes to lampooning others.
It brings to mind films like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End from director Edgar Wright. Each is a comedy that has its fun with the horror, action and sci-fi genres but also works in a self-contained fashion if it was the first of those films the viewer experienced.
Published in 1932, Cold Comfort Farm was Gibbon’s response to the popular trope (at the time) of romanticising rough-hewn characters living in the countryside. Most are forgotten now, but DH Lawrence’sLady Chatterley’s Lover has stood the test of time.
Perhaps the most influential of all such novels is Wuthering Heights, which Gibbons specifically excludes from her barbs in a passage where an ineffectual and rather annoying man suggests all the Bronte books were written by Branwell.
Set in an unspecified future sometime after 1946, the novel follows five months in the life of Flora Poste, a presumptuous 19-year-old. Following the death of her parents, she finds herself with a small allowance and a large amount of time on her hands. Determined to impose upon some distant relation, she ends up moving to Sussex to the dilapidated titular farm.
Repulsed by the uncivilised nature of her surroundings, Flora begins meddling in the lives of the many inhabitants of the farm. From the stoutly religious Amos, the brutish but handsome Seth, his obsessive mother Judith and the revered but rarely seen matriarch Aunt Ada Doom, no-one is spared.
If it all sounds rather comic and familiar, that’s the intention. Each character is exaggerated enough to fulfil a trope, without ever seeming cartoonish. Flora sets about challenging and nudging each of them to fulfil some hitherto-hidden desire, whether travel, preaching, marriage and even movie stardom. It’s just outrageous enough to be believed.
Perhaps Cold Comfort Farm’s reputation has faded a little over time, like the worn-out sukebinds adorning the Starkadder family home, but only slightly. True, the novels it satirises are no longer in fashion and we only tend to think of the greats of the genre today. Despite that, as Lesley Pearce writes in the Independent, Cold Comfort Farm “has a timeless quality that can’t fail to amuse you”.
We’re so familiar with the tropes and conceits of the genre that the jokes still land, the characters remain purposely ridiculous but most importantly the novel still entertains.