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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 Brontës. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Overly Long Gag: Aunt Ada's copy of the "Milk Producers' Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers' Guide."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.