Cold Comfort Farm is apparently one of those pieces of popular culture that is common knowledge… if you’re from the U.K. Personally, I hadn’t heard of it until this year. I’m glad that I did, though, because it’s possibly the funniest book that I’ve read in my life.
The cover of the edition I have seems like a mysterious contradiction to a person not already aware of the contents of the book. It has the standard staid cover design of the Penguin Classics series, but the image chosen to represent the personality of the novel is a goofy-looking cow with its nose pressed into the camera. Even though there are great works of comedy in the canon, the expectation remains for “classic” literature to be serious literature. Cold Comfort Farm is delightfully un-serious.
Here’s the premise: Flora Poste, a bright, sensible young woman, moves out to the country to live with a pack of gloomy relatives who think they’re cursed, then solves their problems for them with practical common sense (with the help of her personal guidebook, The Higher Common Sense.)
It’s a parody of British rural melodrama, a genre that I have never read, but as I sank into the book, I found that many of the archetypes involved are more familiar than I expected. There’s Flora Poste, the plucky heroine, Seth, the town player and family favorite, Reuben, the disparaged heir, Amos, the old religious crank, Judith, the gloomy aunt wracked with guilt, and so on. The core of it all is, of course, the crazy old head of the family, Aunt Ada Doom, never the same after the traumatic events of her childhood. What happened to her? She saw something nasty in the woodshed. What did she see? No one knows, but it sure was nasty. Unspeakable, one might say.
While I may not be directly familiar with the works parodied in the novel, I found plenty of literary background to contextualize it for me. There are numerous references to the Brontë sisters, and certain elements of the plot and characters have a hint of Austen in them as well. Amos, for example, calls to mind the servant Joseph in Wuthering Heights with his talk of hellfire and damnation, and Mrs. Beetle somewhat resembles Nelly. Furthermore, the wild child Elfine has parallels to Cathy Linton with her tendency to roam in the fields and her forbidden love. Aunt Ada Doom recalls Jane Eyre with her role of mad recluse. And, of course, the odious Mr. Mybug, who is a Brontë conspiracy theorist, could easily pass for a rejected suitor from an Austen novel.
Although the book is derivative in nature and full of humorous references, it stands on its own even without that context. Stella Gibbons is just plain funny. She fills her pages with intentionally purple prose, marking her personal favorite passages with asterisks. In another life, she would be a shoo-in for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.
As the plot progresses, Flora strips away the veneers of gloom and doom from each of the characters, revealing them to be regular people in most cases, or at the very least a manageable sort of odd. The catch is that Flora herself is not an entirely normal person. She’s more like some kind of deranged Mary Poppins, a fact that brings the farce to a whole other level.
The whole book seems written for the screen, and there is apparently a much-loved film adaptation that I intend to watch as soon as possible.
Cold Comfort Farm is designed to make you laugh, and it undoubtedly achieves that aim. The entire time that I was reading it, I kept pausing to read funny lines out loud to my friend. I’m in the habit of being a bit obnoxious that way, but my friend laughed, too, so you can rest assured that the book really is that quotable.
I don’t have any complaints about this book. If there’s anything, it’s simply that beyond the humor, there is little else to it. I think that what separates a good comedy from a great one is the ability to treat a serious subject. By joking about the serious things, we can relieve some of the pressure and come at them from new angles. In Cold Comfort Farm, there is no real substance. At the same time, this book wasn’t meant to be substantial, so all is well.
Cold Comfort Farm is a light-hearted read with universal appeal. I especially recommend it to both fans and haters of Wuthering Heights, the Brontë sisters, and Austen.
Rating: 4/5 stars.
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