Originally published in July 2004, in 2 parts.
Book 26 in my first 52 books challenge.
Author: Stella Gibbons
Year published: 1932
Where got: Public library
This is a book I have wanted to read for a long time, but it always seemed to be checked out of the library even though the database system said it was available. I was beginning to think it had been stolen from the library and I would have to buy a copy when I finally found it where someone, probably a browsing library patron, had put it on the wrong shelf.
When Flora Poste is orphaned at age 19 and left with only 100 pounds per annum to support herself and objecting to have to work for a living, she decides to go and live with family and sponge off them. Arriving at miserable and gloomy Cold Comfort Farm, the abode of her relatives, the Starkadders, she sees that much needs to be done. The family are living under the autocratic rule of Aunt Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed and has never been the same since. The family are so afraid of upsetting her that they do whatever she tells them. There is Reuben who wants to take over the farm from his father Amos, who preaches Hell and damnation once a week to a small congregation, the oversexed younger brother, Seth, who loves movies, their sister Elfine, who swans around the moors all day like a lost character from Wuthering Heights, Judith, whose life revolves around Seth, and a bunch of cousins and farm workers, all of them more or less damaged and gloomy personalities. With ingenuity and kindness, Flora soon alters their lives for the better, and finally there is only one challenge left: Aunt Ada Doom.
Technique and plot:
This is a brilliant parody of the rural or rustic novels so popular in the first decades of the 20th century. Those novels tended to show cities as evil places and the countryside as some kind of idyllic paradise, and city people as immoral while the rustics were shown as moral and good (and often lusty and passionate). These novels often tended toward overwrought, purple prose. I haven’t read many of these kinds of novels in English, but I am quite familiar with the genre, which retained its popularity in Iceland much longer than it did in Britain. In sending up the genre, Gibbons makes city-dweller Flora the good, moral person, and shows her rustic cousins as the ones in need of her help, rather than the other way around. She writes brilliant prose, and even takes care to mark the purple passages with stars, ranging from * to ***, depending on how purple. This is of course deliberate. Gibbons wants to be sure to extract the maximum amount of humour out of these passages, and by marking them is able to draw attention to how ridiculous the passages are in all their purple glory. The characters are mostly three-dimensional and well rounded, and each is controlled by some specific passion, be it holy fervour, obsession or something else. The biggest butt of the humour is Flora herself. She is ridiculously perfect, but still so determined and matter-of-fact about everything that you can’t help liking her.
A brilliant send-up of the rural novel, which can easily stand on its own as a genuinely funny story. 5 stars.
Note: I went out and bought myself a copy the first chance I got and have re-read it a couple of times since.