Following on from my earlier post, I now have my twelfth and final, personal Desert Island Book. If I am ever pressed to nominate my favourite book of all time, this is my choice. The book is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.
When sensible, sophisticated Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen, she decides her only choice is to descend upon relatives in deepest Sussex.
At the aptly-named Cold Comfort Farm, she meets the doomed Starkadders: cousin Judith, heaving with remorse for unspoken wickedness; Amos, preaching fire and damnation; their sons, lustful Seth and despairing Reuben; child of nature Elfine; and crazed old Aunt Ada Doom, who has kept to her bedroom for the last twenty years.
But Flora loves nothing better than to organise other people. Armed with common sense and a strong will, she resolves to take each of the family in hand. A hilarious and ruthless parody of rural melodramas and purple prose, Cold Comfort Farm is one of the best-loved comic novels of all time.
Why do I love this book so much? Oh, for so many reasons. Firstly, its protagonist is one of my two favourite heroines in English Literature (the other, in case you are wondering, is Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing) and the one to whom I most closely relate. In fact, if those who know me had to pick out a character from literature that I most resemble, it would be Flora Poste. Flora hates messes, as I do, and she loves to organise people, as I do. Bossy, you say? I don’t think so, just sure in her own rightness, and there is nothing wrong with that! Sadly, I don’t think I am as chic, crafty or quick-witted as Flora turns out to be in this book, but one can dream.
Secondly, the cast of characters in this book are perfectly drawn, and every one is delightful, in their own peculiar way. Morose cousin Judith, over-sexed Seth, faux-hippy Elfine, fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Flora’s sensible friend Mrs Smiling who collects brassieres as a hobby, fecund maid Miriam; every one of them is pitch-perfect. Best of all is Aunt Ada Doom, who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a tiny tot, and has used the trauma as an excuse to rule the family with an iron fist ever since. After all, ‘there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm,’ and nothing can ever be allowed to change that, especially not Robert Poste’s child. The standoff between young but wily Flora and stubborn Great Aunt Ada is one of the greatest battle of wills ever written, and it is a joy to read.
The book is just beautifully pitched and executed in every single respect. Apart from the characterisations, the pastiche of romantic but doom-laden writing of other authors of the time is a wicked delight to read – I defy you to read her deliberately purple prose and not giggle – and the way she leaves some of the biggest mysteries of the book unanswered, to be speculated over and debated down the years, is just brilliant. There are a million tiny and subtle comments, asides, observations and conversations to delight over. The part where Flora is explaining the process and merits of the use of birth control to the randy serving girl, who then repeats it to her mother, is a perfect example, and one of my favourites. Over and above all else, this book is hilarious, sharply witty and oh-so-clever. I delight in every reading anew, and this is why it would accompany me to my desert island. It is a book that never fails to cheer my soul.
I am a person who does not often watch TV or movie adaptations of my favourite books, because I have too often been disappointed. I haven’t watched recent adaptations of Little Women or Anne of Green Gables for this reason. This being said, the version of Cold Comfort Farm starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora, Joanna Lumley as Mrs Smiling and Rufus Sewell as Seth is absolutely brilliant. It really portrays the story and the characters exactly as I imagine them, and it maybe the only adaptation of one of my favourite books that I love as much as the novel itself, so if you don’t have time to read it, maybe give it a watch instead. I am sure you will end up loving it as much as I do.
Cold Comfort Farm is available to buy in all formats here.
About the Authors
Stella Gibbons is best known for her comic masterpiece Cold Comfort Farm. A witty parody of the pastoral fiction written by authors such as D H Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb, it won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais in 1933 and established her literary reputation. Gibbons also wrote 22 other novels, including Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1940) and Starlight (1967), as well as three volumes of short stories and four poetry collections. She died in 1989, aged 87.