Number four on my Go-To Author list: Stella Gibbons.
Even though only one of her books remains readily available in print, such is the charm of her writing that I sometimes forget that not everyone is a fan of witty parody. After all, the bestseller lists are crammed with works of dark and vicious crime stories, thrillers crafted to make you turn pages at breakneck speed, and twisted fantasies aimed to keep you from ever having another sweet dream.
But for those of us who read to escape the grim violence and numbing predictability of heartbreak inevitable in this fragile human sphere, there still are some writers who attempt to lighten the weight of it all with humor. Some people might consider this frivolous in view of the brevity of life and the gravity of the current world situation – some might say we were teetering on the brink of extinction, etc. However, be that as it may, we can all use a laugh from time to time. And when that time comes for me, I like to curl up with an author who shares my view that the world, while not perfect, still contains some amusing bits.
Stella Gibbons wrote “Cold Comfort Farm” in 1932, a time when the world was recovering from one World War and heading toward another, when the Great Depression cloaked American optimism in a cloud of Dust Bowl fallout, a time before modern technology had stripped the gears of civility and before capitalism had completed its slash and burn takeover of the world economy. It was, in other words, a more innocent time, in some ways.
“Cold Comfort Farm” is a delicious send-up of all the sappy literary conventions of that brief time, when the world still seemed on the verge of becoming a brave new one. The plot revolves around an orphaned young woman who goes to live with her rustic distant relatives in rural England and gradually solves all their problems in spite of their initial resistance.
This description, of course, falls far short of the brilliant triumph of style and characterization which give the novel its timeless charm. But to appreciate it, you must read it. Or, if you have lost the will to deal with printed pages, you could rent the 1995 film which offers a remarkably faithful version of the story. I must confess that I saw the film before I knew the book existed, and I adored the film so much that when I discovered the book I was almost afraid it wouldn’t live up to the screen version, in which Kate Beckinsale delights as the fearless heroine Flora Poste and Rufus Sewell is delicious as the barnyard Lothario Seth Starkadder.
I need not have worried. The book is all that the movie is and more. It entertains with style and wit, without sinking into vulgarity or cheap shots at easy targets.
You could probably get it out of the library if you live near a good library. But if you want to own a treasure, seek out the 2006 paperback version published by Penguin Classics which features an introduction by Lynne Truss, author of the bestselling “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” Truss puts the “Cold Comfort” phenomenon in perspective, and her insights on the book and Gibbons are a pleasure to read.
So. There you have it. Another Book Which Is Not For Everyone. But, for those of you who like this sort of thing, and I trust you know who you are, I strongly recommend spending some time on “Cold Comfort Farm.” It’s more fun than it sounds.