Literature: Cold Comfort Farm
"There'll be no butter in hell!""We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort..."
A comic novel by Stella Gibbons, first published in 1932, which parodies the doom-laden rural novels of the time. The immediate inspiration for, and targets of, Gibbons's satire were the novels of Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith (which deserve it... try one), but she also pokes fun at more redoubtable figures such as D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and the Brontės. At the same time she has a good laugh at Vogue-reading London socialites, while mocking the genre in which a young orphan girl brings joy and happiness to the lives of all around her. Jane Austen is the novel's presiding spirit, and Mansfield Park
provides the epigraph: 'Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.'
The plot is simple: Orphaned at 19, Flora Poste decides to go and live with her relatives and improve their lives rather than find a job. She settles on the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, since, according to the novels of rural life she has read, their lives will certainly need tidying up. Arriving at the farm she finds it even more chaotic than she had feared, and the inhabitants more uncouth than she could have imagined.
- The ancient hired man Adam Lambsbreath and his four cows: Aimless, Feckless, Graceless and Pointless, who are continually losing horns, hooves and even legs.
- Amos who runs the farm: a fire-and-brimstone preacher at the local chapel.
- Judith, his wife, who has a sexual fixation on her son ....
- ... Seth, the smouldering bad boy, who spends his nights 'mollocking' with the village girls but would rather be at the cinema.
- Elfine, the free spirit who spends her days wandering around in the hills and fields.
- Reuben, whose only passion is the farm itself.
- The furtive Urk, who wants Elfine for himself.
- And presiding over the lot, the matriarch Aunt Doom, who never leaves her bedroom, who threatens to go mad if any of her family should leave the farm, and who once 'saw something nasty in the woodshed.'
Needless to say, Flora rolls up her sleeves and gets to work, finding each of the main characters a more suitable outlet for their energies and obsessions, while fending off the libidinous Hampstead intellectual Mybug (quite possibly modelled on DH Lawrence) who has designs upon her virtue.
There is a 1995 film directed by John Schlesinger, with a script by Sir Malcolm Bradbury, starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora
Being a parody, Cold Comfort Farm is naturally rich in tropes. They include:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Mr. Mybug to Flora. She is not taken with his opinions on sexuality or attempts to "prove" that the Brontes' novels were written by their brother.
- Urk to Elfine: "My little water-vole! My little water-vole!"
- All Psychology Is Freudian: The Austrian doctor who Flora calls in to take Judith as a patient. Justified, given the time period.
- Blithe Spirit: Flora is a sort of inversion. She comes to the wild countryside to impose order and modern ideals, and do away with 'mess,' but she's still a fish out of water who solves everyone's problems.
- Bread, Eggs, Milk, Squick: Amos barks out a list of chores that need doing around the farm, ending by telling Seth to drain the well because there's a neighbor missing.
- City Mouse: Flora, whose constant cleanliness and neat dress is particularly evident in the movie.
- Cool Big Sis: Mrs. Smiling to Flora. Sort of. Flora to Elfine.
- Crusty Caretaker
- Cultural Stereotypes. It may be a sophisticated parody of gothic literature, but let's face it, the novel gets most of its lulz from one of the world's most ancient brands of humour: laughing at farmers.
- Doomy Dooms of Doom: This is actually Aunt Ada's name.
- The Eeyore: Judith.
'Curtains?' she asked, vacantly lifting her magnificent head. 'Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.'
- Fire and Brimstone Hell: What Amos likes to terrify his audience with.
- Freudian Excuse: Aunt Ada milks this one for all it's worth, and then some.
- Genre Savvy: Flora.
- Heartwarming Orphan: Averted. Recently-orphaned Flora may bring happiness into the lives of the Starkadders, but not through any sweetness of temper. "On the whole I dislike my fellow-beings,' she says. "I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me."
- Hunk: Seth.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Reuben, who's extremely suspicious of and hostile towards Flora until he's persuaded that she's not interested in taking over the running of the farm - whereupon he becomes friendly and helpful. He even proposes marriage to her and is fine with her turning him down, since he's not really in love with her, just fond of her.
- Kissing Cousins: Flora and Charles Fairford.
- Averted, thanks to Flora: Urk and Elfine.
- Names to Run Away From Really Fast: Flora counts "Seth" and "Reuben" among these. You'll never guess what her cousins are called.
- Noodle Incident: The "something nasty in the woodshed", and the mysterious wrong done to Flora's father (the most we learn is that a goat was involved somehow), and what her "rights" are.
- Flora accuses Aunt Ada of more or less making up the woodshed story as leverage over her family.
- The Ophelia: Elfine, so she thinks.
- The Pigpen: Rennet, the "one who looks like she jumped in a well." Often because she has.
- Pretty in Mink: Elfine has a short fur cape. Aunt Doom wears a fur trimmed coat, in the style of Queen Mary, when she goes on a trip.
- Purple Prose: Parodied. Occasionally, the novel features absurdly verbose, turgid descriptions of "golden orbs" and "engorged hills", which are lampshaded by having star-ratings in the margins according to how purple the prose gets. In the film, Miss Poste is responsible for writing them (using pastoral novels as a guide).
- Red Herring: Several mysteries are presented which never go anywhere in the end. We never learn what Ada saw in the woodshed, nor what wrong was done to Flora's father, even though the Starkadders seem to talk of nothing else.
- Rule of Cool: The film contains an inspiring maxim from Jane Austen, "What a pleasant life might be had in this world by a handsome, sensible old lady of good fortune, blessed with a sound constitution and a firm will," which in fact is a quote from the novel, entertainingly misattributed by Malcolm Bradbury.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Elfine.
- In the film, Rennet is washed in a cattle-trough as part of the spring-cleaning, and subsequently catches the lovelorn eye of the farm's new master.
- Slobs Versus Snobs: A rare victory for the snobs.
- Spirited Young Lady: Flora is a fine example.
- Status Quo Is God: Complete with mantra: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort farm."
- Flora kicks this to the curb however, persuading pretty much all but one of the Starkadders to pursue more fulfilling lives elsewhere.
- Tall, Dark and Handsome: Parodied with Seth, who knows he's this but who isn't interested in having the local girls swoon over him. It's because he's a secret movie buff whose dream is to be a Hollywood film star. Flora makes it happen.
- Twenty Minutes into the Future: Yes, oddly, the novel is actually set in a projected future with videophones and references to the "Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46". This aspect has little impact on the plot and is easy to forget - but it's probably why Flora's love interest has his own plane.
- The Un-Reveal: The wrong that was done to her father. Flora asks Aunt Ada directly near the end, but she's interrupted—and doesn't seem bothered about it after all.
- Upper-Class Twit: Richard Hawk-Monitor, but he's a benign version: Flora dismisses Adam's fears that he intends to seduce and abandon Elfine with the consideration that "Like most other ideas, the idea would simply not have entered his head."
- World of Ham: Played for laughs, mostly, though there's a few more sombre indications of what their "rich inner lives" are costing the Starkadders.