I was inspired to re-read this novel for our book club after listening to Radio 4´s A Good Read‘s excellent review. This novel, for me, is primarily famous for coining the phrase “There is something nasty in the woodshed”.
I found the first half of this novel extremely funny. It tells the story of Flora Poste, a young woman who is left orphaned and decides to go and live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm in Howling in Sussex (the clues are in the names). There she discovers a host of frankly, bonkers characters with names such as Seth and Reuben (“highly sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben”), and cows whose legs mysteriously fall off, and she sets about trying to transform the lives of the inhabitants and the farm in a Jane Austen Emma style way.
One of the funniest episodes involves Flora mending a petticoat when she meets the sex-obsessed Seth;
“”What’s that you’re making?” he asked. Flora knew that he hoped it was a pair of knickers She composedly shook out the folds of the petticoat and replied that it was an afternoon tea cloth.”
This novel is a pastiche of gloomy rural books such as Mary Webb´s The House in Dormer Forest (which actually, I love). According to wikipedia, the speech of the Sussex characters is a parody of rural dialects and is sprinkled with fake but authentic-sounding local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth’s favourite activity), and clettering (a method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig). The key characters are over the top, passionate and brooding. Gibbons deliberately uses elaborate language and even humourously uses asterisks to draw attention to particularly good descriptions
The novel written in 1932 is bizarrely set sometime in the future, I am not sure why, and there are some references to this which I have to admit I didn’t pick up on despite reading the note at the start. There are the Anglo-Nicaraguan Wars of 1946 and telephones with screens.
My main problem with the book is that Flora is slightly annoying. She gets away with all her meddling and the farm is left transformed. The second half of the novel also seems to lose its comic value once she begins trying to set up Elfine with Dick Hawk-Monitor (great name).
Here is the review of the book on Radio 4’s ‘A Good Read’, the reviewers are a bit split on whether they like it, just like our book club.
Overall, though well worth reading.