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Literature / Cold Comfort Farm

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"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 Brontë sisters. 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.

They include:

  • 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 Ada 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.

A film adaptation was released in 1995, directed by John Schlesinger, with a script by Sir Malcolm Bradbury, and starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, with Joanna Lumley, Eileen Atkins, Rufus Sewell, and Ian McKellen also heading the cast.

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!"
  • Adaptational Personality Change:
    • Flora, a bit. In the novel she can come off as a snobbish, shallow girl out to mooch off her relatives rather than support herself, and she seems to regard the Starkadders as if they were a science experiment. In the film she starts out a bit like this, but by the end she's genuinely invested in the Starkadders' happiness as people, not as a project.
    • The cousins get a touch of this too, particularly Seth, who is even more of a misogynist womanizer in the book,note  and who comes around much faster in the film.
  • 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.
  • Blood Magic: Invoked by Urk. He claims he put a cross of water-vole's blood in her bottle the night she was born to make her his, but Elfine is very much not interested. He also gets over his disappointment pretty quickly after she gets engaged to someone else, and settles pretty happily on Mariam the hired girl, who is just as into him as he is into her.
  • Blunt "Yes":
    Judith: Cur. Coward! Liar! Libertine! Who were you with last night? Moll at the mill or Violet at the vicarage? Or Ivy, perhaps, at the ironmongery? Seth—my son... do you want to break my heart?
    Seth: Yes.
  • 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. And Flora to Elfine.
  • Cool Old Lady: Flora admires Mrs. Beetle (Mariam the hired girl's mother) as the sole source of class, education, and organization in the entire farm.
  • Crusty Caretaker: Adam, a relative of the Starkadders who works as their hired man and who is prone to muttering vague warnings and upholding obscure traditions.
  • Cultural Stereotypes. It may be a sophisticated parody of rural tradition novels 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.
  • Dirty Old Man: Urk is this in both senses of the word "dirty."
  • 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.”
  • Everyone Has Standards: Flora is a rather snobby busybody who plans to "tidy up" their lives more as a project for herself than for their happiness, but even she is appalled when she learns Mrs. Beetle (Mariam the hired girl's mother) is taking in Mariam's unwanted love children to make a jazz band to make money off of. Flora has to admit that while the plan is callous, at least it's organized.
  • 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.
  • Freud Was Right: Mr. Mybug in the book is an "intellectual" to whom everything reminds him of sex. This irritates Flora, since he insists on accompanying her on walks and has to point out how every phallic and cavernous object he sees reminds him of sexual organs.
  • 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."
  • Hidden Depths: Urk The Pigpen turns out to be a good stepfather to Mariam's hitherto unwanted love children.
  • Hunk: Seth. The local girls notice it, and so, eventually, do Hollywood audiences.
  • Insistent Appellation: Everyone at Cold Comfort refers to Flora as "Robert Poste's child." Eventually she's forced to call herself that, as Aunt Ada doesn't know her by any other name.
  • The Jailbait Wait:
    • Urk in the book doesn't even try to hide how eager he is for Elfine to come to age so he can ravish her, since he's been fixated on making her his bride since the night she was born. Thankfully, Flora steps in and arranges Elfine to be married to a boy closer to her age, and Urk (after some brief wailing) settles on Mariam the hired girl, who is just as eager to have him as he is to have her.
    • Reuben in the book decides to wait a few years for the fifteen-year-old daughter of one of his hired hands to come of age so he can marry her. Downplayed as they're not in regular contact and she doesn't live on the property, and it's more out of practicality since he figures she'll make a better farmer's wife than Flora. Averted in the film, where he marries Rennet instead.
  • 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 but 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.
    • Seth initially makes a move toward Flora, although the implication seems to be that Seth will pursue any woman, cousin or not.
  • Love at First Sight: Lampooned in the book, where Flora reflects that "intellectual" types like Mr. Mybug seem to think that love has to occur the instant one lays eyes on someone else, so people in his social circle tend to divorce or change partners every several months once they get bored or disillusioned by their current partner and "fall in love" with the next one, who inevitably turns out to be exactly like their current partner. When he falls for Rennet the Old Maid, Flora lets it slide since she figures Rennet couldn't do worse.
  • 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.
  • Old Maid: Rennet in the book is mocked by all the other Starkadder wives as this.
  • The Ophelia: Elfine, so she thinks.
  • Overly-Long Gag: Aunt Ada's copy of the "Milk Producers' Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers' Guide", which she uses to pommel every person she's irritated by during the Counting.
  • Pair the Spares: Every Cold Comfort Farm resident who isn't already married or has left the farm by Elfine's engagement ends up paired with each other. Urk settles for Mariam the hired girl, Flora's Abhorrent Admirer Mr. Mybug falls for Rennet the Old Maid, and in the book Reuban decides to wait a few years for his hired hand's teenage daughter Nancy to be old enough to marry. (In the film, Reuban gets together with Rennet, as Mr. Mybug is Adapted Out.)
  • The Pigpen:
    • Rennet, the "one who looks like she jumped in a well." Often because she has.
    • Urk is noticeably encrusted.
      Mrs. Beetle: Now, now, dearie, don't you marry him unless you feels like it!
      Meriam: I can always make him wash a bit...if I feels like it.
  • Pretty in Mink: Elfine has a short fur cape. Aunt Ada 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 as a hobby (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.
  • Remember the New Guy?: In the book, Rennet is a main Starkadder family member and direct relation of Aunt Ada and Judith, yet is not mentioned to the reader until the Counting. Flora is not even surprised to learn of her existence the way she was to learn of the Starkadder hired hands' wives; Rennet is treated as having been around all along yet was never mentioned before this point... just in time for Mr. Mybug to fall out of love with Flora and fall for her instead.
  • Room Full of Crazy: Judith has two hundred photographs of her son Seth, and after he leaves for Hollywood she puts black curtains on every single one.
  • 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.
  • Screaming Birth: Subverted. Meriam fakes a protracted and noisy labor, since she doesn't think the actual birth the day before got enough attention.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely:
    • Elfine, as Flora expects.
    • 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.
    • Aunt Ada Doom surprises everyone by finally stepping out of the house dressed to the nines and with her hair smartly styled, having been inspired by Flora slipping her fashion magazines under the door.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: A rare victory for the snobs.
  • 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 really all that 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.
  • Technobabble: A rare non-SF version. Reuben suspects Flora of wanting to take over the farm, so his surly conversational opener with her is an attempt to intimidate her with his knowledge of farming: "I ha' scranleted four hundred furrows this morning down i' the bute." Flora has no idea what he’s talking about and can’t decide whether she should reply "Oh, you poor dear!" or "Come, that’s capital." Eventually she decides on a non-committal "Have you?"
  • 20 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.