Flora Poste, the heroine of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932), is a bright, flippant, unsentimental, bossy, manipulative, brisk young woman who descends upon a nest of her rustic cousins at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The Starkadders are unkempt, amorous, ebullient, uneducated, temperamental wild, poetical, beautiful, territorial, and brutish. They say things like:
Curses, like rookies, comes home to rest in bosomses and barnses
Every middock you eat is paid for with our sweat
I cannot run here and run there for a capsy wennet
Every year when the sukebind hangs heavy from the passin’ wains
As wild as a marshtigget in May
Flora embarks on a single-minded campaign to tidy up their unruly and deviant lives and bring order, cleanliness and modern codes of behaviour. This no-nonsense gall who normally inhabits a London world of Vogue, aeroplanes, clubs and smart restaurants, is delighted to discover the Starkadders living slow, sordid and hapless lives because she can bring her pragmatic schemes to bear and ruthlessly whip them into shape. While her cousins imagine themselves doomed and brood on past wrongs, bad omens, future showdowns and apocalyptic fears, she rolls up her sleeves and blithely and righteously remakes their speech, dress, manners, diet, hygiene and sexual desires.
But something odd is going on. The further Flora travels from London into deepest Sussex the more the prose describing her journey takes a turn for the cloyingly romantic.
**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of the wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of the sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.
Growing with the viscous light that was invading the sky, there came the solemn, tortured-snake voice of the sea, two miles away, falling in sharp folds upon the mirror-expanses of the beach.
Flora and the Starkadders may be cousins, but they live in entirely different novels. Flora was put on notice that she was in the wrong linguistic world when she received a reply to her polite letter asking whether, after her parents died, she could live with the Starkadders on their farm. Here is the reply:
So you are after your rights at last. Well, I have expected to hear from Robert Poste’s child these last twenty years.
Child, my man once did your father a great wrong. If you will come to us I will do my best to atone., but you must never ask me what for. My lips are sealed.
We are not like other folk, maybe, but there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort, and we will do our best to welcome Robert Poste’s child.
Child, child if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you? Perhaps you may be able to help us when our hour comes.
Yr. affec. Aunt,
When she arrives at the farm Flora finds it is inhabited by Judith, her husband Amos and their adult children Reuben, Seth. It all makes for some baffling dialogue:
Flora: By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed?
Judith: Curtains? Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.
Flora: Hello, I feel sure you must be Reuben. I’m Flora Poste, your cousin, you know. How do you do? I’m so glad to see somebody has come in for some tea. Do sit down. Do you take milk?
Reuben: A woman…Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins like slow yeast…Keep and hold and hold fast the land. The land, the iron furrows of frosted earth under the rain-lust, the fecund spears of rain, the swelling, slow burst of seed-shealths, the slow smell of cows and cry of cows, the trampling bride-pride of the bull in his hour. All his, his…
Flora: Will you have some bread and butter?
Seth: Women are all alike -aye fussin’ over their fal-lals and bedazin’ a man’s eyes, when all they really want is man’s blood and heart out of his body and soul and his pride.
Flora: Would you mind passing me the reel of cotton on the mantelpiece, just by your ear? Thank you so much.
Seth: They eat him, same as a hen-spider eats a cock-spider. That’s what women do – if a man let’s ‘em.
Reuben: I ha’ scranletted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.
Flora: My dear how too sickening for you.
Judith: There is a dark force in him…it beats…like a black gong. I wonder you do not feel it.
Flora: Oh, well, we can’t all strike lucky
Cold Comfort Farm, then, is a clash of linguistic styles. Flora and her cousins speak different languages because they are characters from different styles of novel. Stella Gibbons seems to have dropped her modern bossy-boots heroine into a misery novels about the years of the English agricultural depression. The first quarter of the twentieth century abounded in these tales. Mary E. Mann, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb flourished with novels of portentous clouds, unwanted love children, fatalism, country romanticism, sickly babies, primitive dialogue, overbearing matriarchs, pathetic fallacies and people besieged by their pasts undertaking desperate acts in emotionally sodden landscapes and overwrought prose
In Mary Webb’s bestseller Precious Bane (1924) Prue Sarn, born with a harelip, and her avaricious brother Gideon are sin eaters who take on the sins of their fathers. Her novel Gone to Earth (1916) indulged in eulogising of landscape: “small feckless clouds were hurried across the vast untroubled sky – shepherdless, futile, imponderable – and were torn to fragments on the fangs of the mountains, so ending their ephemeral adventures with nothing of their fugitive existence left but a few tears”. Here is some ripe dialogue from her novel The Golden Arrow (1917): ‘Dirty Beasts!’ said Eli, sweeping them back with his stick. ‘Not but what that black ‘un will bring a good price come Christmas’. ‘Dunno clout ‘em Eli’ came John’s voice from the threshold.’
Cold Comfort Farm was in part a parody of the genre. Mary Webb was not alive to reply, but Sheila Kaye-Smith published a criticism in 1938 about Gibbons’s lack of realism:
That silly child! Did she really think she could write a novel? Well, of course, modern novels might encourage her to think so. There was nothing written nowadays worth reading. The book on her knee was called Cold Comfort Farm and had been written by a young woman who was said to be very clever and had won an important literary prize. But she couldn’t get on with it at all. It was about life on a farm, but the girl obviously knew nothing about country life. To anyone who, like herself, had always lived in the country, the whole thing was too ridiculous and impossible for words.
Parody is a form that feasts on other forms. Like impersonation and caricature the exaggeration of stylistic traits pushes parody into the realm of the comic. Parody is an interplay between two styles where opposites work upon each other – elements of the original are both maintained and altered. Appropriating, then enjoying, then inhabiting what is mocked the parody folds itself into the genre mimicked but emphases ironic distance. This ironic imitation of its source makes parody double voiced. Oscillating between similarity and difference parody is a form in dialogue with other forms. It ruthlessly mocks the original while simultaneously carrying an admiration for the something-worth-ridiculing. Motivated by admiration and malice parody evaluates with this attraction and repulsion, self-critically camouflaging and emphasising the artificiality of its mannerisms. At its best parody ridicules overused conventions, clichés, tired styles, prevailing norms, outdated modes and obsolescent ideas. It is a form of literary criticism – of imitation by deformation that takes pleasure in the virtuosity of the parodist. The style of both the original and the parody is exposed as artificial – both rendered no longer unique. Gibbons both mocks and honours the English regional novel.
His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured throne, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.
Parody has a long history, it was identified as a literary form by Aristotle. Aristophanes’s The Frogs parodies Euripides and Lucian’s True History parodies Homer’s Odyssey. In 1598 Ben Jonson said of it ‘a parodie, a parodie with a kind of miraculous gift to make it absurder than it is’. Don Quixote parodies chivalric romance and Austen’s Northanger Abbey parodies gothic fiction. Parody can beget endlessly: the Muppets’ version of the song Mack the Knife parodied Kurt Weil’s Threpenny Opera which parodied Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera which parodied Handel’s operas. There is a sense that all new artistic works are toiling with or against the grain of past works (Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus is a novel about the parody involved in artistic creation). The novel is a form in search of novelty within a tradition.
Tis the voice of the JubJub is a reference by Lewis Carrol in Hunting of the Snark to his own ’Tis the voice of the Lobster in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which itself is a parody of Issac Watt’s moralistic ’Tis the voice of the sluggard which is a reference to the Song of Solomon’s The voice of the Solomon. Carroll’s verse often parodies moralistic originals. His How doth the little crocodile/ Improve his shining tail parodies Isaac Watt’s How doth the little busy bee/ Improve each shining hour. And Carroll’s nonsense:
‘You are Old, Father William’, the young man said
‘And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head
Do you think, at your age, it is right?
Robert Southey’s pious:
You are Old, Father William, the young man cried,
The few locks which are left you are grey;
You are hale, Father William, a hearty old man,
Now tell me the reason, I pray
It is sometimes said that parody only works if readers are familiar with the original. But Don Quixote has long outlived the knight errant tales it parodies. Lewis Carroll’s verse is much better known than Southey’s and Watts’s. The same is true of Cold Comfort Farm which has never been out of print, is regarded as one of the funniest books ever written and has maintained a faint life for Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith only so far as they explain Gibbons’s purple passages.
Parody is a mode of subversion that scorns the reverential, evaporates the immortal and disestablishes the canonical. It is a topsy turvy form where the high is brought low and the low raised high with an inversion and trivialisation that flips good and bad. Nothing is safe from the mockery of the parodic.
Parody then is a form of literary criticism and in this one a number of literary critics are lurking. Mr. Mybug, whom Flora meets in the pub The Condemn’d Man in Howling, has come to Sussex to write a psychological study of Branwell Brontë called Scapegoat that contains his thesis that Charlotte, Emily and Anne were the drunkards who passed off their brother Bronwell’s brilliant novels as their own. “No woman could have written Wuthering Heights,” he tells Flora. ‘There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the ‘Heights’. (One of the first reviewers of Cold Comfort Farm claimed Evelyn Waugh must have written under a pseudonym this witty treat.)
Cold Comfort Farm has a foreword addressed to Anthony Pookworthy, Esq ABS, LLR, an overrated, smug, self-congratulatory literary establishment figure invented by Gibbons. The letters after his name stand for Associate Back Scratcher and Licensed Log Roller. Gibbons says of Pookworthy’s books that ‘they have been springs of refreshment, loafing of the soul, eyes in the dark’. Her concocted foreword to Pookworthy suggests the distinction between literary and non-literary writing are spurious and explains why she will helpfully be adding asterisks (adopting ‘the method perfected by the late Herr Baedeker’) to the steamiest purple passages to come.
The livid silver tongues of the early stars leaped between the shapes of the chimney-pots, backwards and forwards, like idiot children dancing to a forgotten tune.
Flora is both a reader and a character. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was a parody of gothic in which the heroine was dispatched to a house in the country to contend with the deranged inhabitants. Flora is a budding Austenian novelist who, she claims, aspires to write by the time she is fifty three “a novel as good as Persuasion but with a modern setting”. Flora praises Austen’s delicacy of style and opens a copy of Mansfield Park at random to refresh and sustain her. But the character the matchmaking and interfering Flora most resembles is Emma – Flora rewrites the plots of the Starkadders’ lives, introduces them to people, endorses marriage and re-arranges their destiny. Flora writes letters in different literary styles and tells others that she is collecting material for her novel. She is the heroine with a taste for tidiness and comfort who aspires to update Austen. On her arrival at the farm, Flora enters into an alien fictional world and sets about re-writing reality by restoring the pastoral simplicity and harmony she does not find. Flora is a reader within the text, a character within the narrative and a novelist within the novel.
She has another key text to assist her with her tasks, a copy of the (fictional) philosophe Abbé Fausse-Maigre’s Pensées. Part German, part Latin, with a combination of prudence, daring and suave urbanity it contains nuggets of wisdom, such as:
Never confront an enemy at the end of a journey, unless it happens to be his journey
Condole with the Ugly Duckling’s mother. She has fathomed the pit of amazement.
Can we be sure that an elephant’s real name is elephant? Only mankind presumes to name God’s creatures; God Himself is silent on the matter.
Lost is the man who sees a beautiful woman descending a noble staircase.
Flora regards this nonsense as the wisest book ever compiled for the guidance of the truly civilised person. Armed with Austenian fantasies and the Enlightenment code of the baffling aphorisms of the Abbé Flora sends rationality into battle against unreason. There is an imperialist undertow to Flora’s philanthropy and derision. When she first meets Judith: ‘So, Flora mused, must Columbus have felt when the poor Indian fixed his solemn, unwavering gaze upon the great sailor’s face. For the first time a Starkader looked upon a civilised being.’ Later when Reuben offers Flora a handshake she says she felt like a stout Cortez. She is compared more than one to Florence Nightingale. The Starkadders speak a baffling argot (scranlet, snood, mirksy, wennet) as if it were a foreign tongue and deploy strange rituals. She is two hours by train from London and thirty years from civilisation, Flora is on a journey into the heart of darkness.
And when April like an over-lustful lover leaped upon the lush flanks of the Downs there would be yet another child in the wretched hut down at Nettle Flitch Field, where Meriam housed the fruits of her shame.
Flora’s mission ends on her own terms triumphant. She is no anthropologist, nor a tourist with her Baedekker, but a patronising coloniser recasting peculiar customs. All the characters are sent from the farm one by one. Judith, who has un unhealthy sexual fixation with her son Seth, is delivered into the ams of the psychologist Doctor Müdel to redirect her lust. The religious fanatic father, Amos, is persuaded to become a travelling preacher in a Ford van and take his vengeful God onto the road, leaving Reuben to run the farm. Seth, easy on the eye and slow on the uptake, travels to Hollywood to become a matinee idol. Meriam, whom Seth impregnates without fail every Spring, is instructed in the joys of birth control. Rescued from the sultry, rabbit-festooned Urk liddel Elfin is married instead to the local rich chinless bore after a hair cut and a ban on writing poetry. Adam Lambsbreath is given a mop to replace the thorn twig he’d used to cletter the dishes these last fifty years. And Great Aunt Ada Doom, the overbearing matriarch with an iron grip of exploitative sorrow, after brooding in her loft tower for twenty years reading the Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers Guide, is tamed and prances off in a flying kit of black leather to the Hôtel Miramar in Paris.
Is it a coincidence that Mary Poppins was published two years later?
Convinced that the agricultural classes will improve their lives if spoken to slowly and loudly in an authoritative voice Flora completes her sanitising mission of good intentions. Flora may not be interested either in her inherited ‘rights’ to the farm or for those that flow from the wrong done to her father, nevertheless she disciplines then dispatches her cousins from their home. We are a long way from her stated claim to merely be collecting material for her novel. Her campaign, executed with deplorable pertness and firmness of purpose, with a lightness of heart and heaviness of touch, triumphs both in tidying up her cousins’ affairs and achieving the required comic happy ending of Austenian conjugal bliss. Prim, chaste and progressive Flora robs the Starkadders of their artistic, unkempt, erotic, fecund, regressive energy and agency and remakes, in her own ghastly hygienic style, their dress, diet, manners, desires and language. Flora’s excesses of humanity are inhumane. The ending is Emma without any comeuppance.
The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.
What happened to the water voles? Did McKnag’s old trouble return? What became of Graceless the three legged Jersey cow and Viper the vicious gelding? Did the marsh-tigget eggs work? Did the mollocking ever happen? Were the swedes harvested in February with the reaping-hook to the pruning-snook? Did the goat die? We are simply given no answers. We never even find out what was the something nasty Ada saw as a girl in the woodshed, or what wrong was done to Robert Poste’s child’s father when he was done out of his rights, or even if Ticklepenny’s Corner was scranletted after all.
Frond leapt on root and hare on hare. Beetle and finch-fly were not spared. The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be.