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"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.
- 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 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.
There is a 1995 film directed by John Schlesinger, with a script by Sir Malcolm Bradbury, starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora
Being a parody, Cold Comfort Farm is naturally rich in tropes. They include:
- Blithe Spirit: Flora.
- City Mouse
- Cool Big Sis: Mrs. Smiling to Flora. Sort of. Flora to Elfine.
- Crusty Caretaker
- Cultural Stereotypes. It may be a sophisticated parody of gothic literature, but let's face it, the novel gets most of its lulz from the world's most ancient brand of humour: laughing at farmers.
- Doomy Dooms of Doom
- 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
- Genre Savvy: Flora
- Heartwarming Orphan: averted. 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."
- 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.
- The Ophelia: Elfine, so she thinks.
- Pretty in Mink: Elfine has a short fur cape. Aunt Doom 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, floral descriptions of "golden orbs" and "engorged hills". In the film, Miss Poste is responsible for writing them (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.
- 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 complete fabrication. The quotation was made up by Malcolm Bradbury.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Elfine.
- 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.
- Twenty 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
- Upperclass Twit: Richard Hawk-Monitor. 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.