Stella Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932) – It seems like parody should not be able to outlive its reference point in memory, but clearly that’s not the case. Think of all the stuff Looney Tunes lampooned, stuff kids wouldn’t know about. It’s not just that Looney Tunes was funny even if you didn’t know the reference points (though it was)- it’s that you can tell they’re lampooning something, something from the adult world, maybe something you’ve had some intimation exists, like opera or classic movie stars, or maybe not; either way, that sense makes it funnier.
Stella Gibbons wrote a bunch of books in her time but only one that anyone remembers (this irked her throughout her life, apparently): “Cold Comfort Farm,” a parody of a form that on the surface, doesn’t seem to be a thing anymore. These were the “loam and lovechild” novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where sad salt of the earth types suffer in the English countryside. When people cite examples of this subgenre, some big names like Tom Hardy and D.H. Lawrence come up, but they always had other stuff going on in their books- mostly, Gibbons seemed to be aiming at writers, many of them women, who were highly popular at the time but utterly obscure now.
“Cold Comfort Farm” probably has something to do with that obscurity, because it was a huge hit and still a cult favorite, well after the “loam and lovechild” genre has vanished (I assume it has? Let me know if it hasn’t!). The narrator, Flora Poste, is an interesting, and I thought quite contemporary, in a prophetic way, type: the young woman who is over it all but still in the thick of it, too smart for just about anything, including being too smart for stuff. Her parents die — she’s not too bummed, this takes place in some sort of parody future of late imperial Britain, all her parents and lovers are off managing the empire — and she has to go live with relatives. The most palatable of bad options is Cold Comfort Farm, off in Sussex.
It’s grim! Run down, full of almost Dunwich/Innsmouth-style subhumans, a clan of them kept in place by Great Aunt Ada Doom (who saw something nasty in the woodshed as a child). There’s intimations of deep trauma and doom, boundedness to the lousy East Anglian soil, purple speeches (in the style of the novels Gibbons is lampooning) set off by asterisks, a lot of dialect, etc. As a project, Flora decides to straighten things out around there.
Gibbons makes the book funny despite my not knowing the source material. What she doesn’t manage — what I think she couldn’t even try within the bounds of her project — is to make a compelling plot. Flora just does things. She faces little opposition to her polite optimistic pushiness beyond some caviling. She dresses up the wild girl wandering the moors in the latest London fashion and sets her up with the squire’s son, who just needs a little encouragement to do right by her. She gets rid of evangelical Uncle Amos by telling him about the soul-saving potential of taking his hellfire preaching show on the road in a Ford van, thereby letting cousin Rueben take over the farm, the one thing he wants. She foists vain fuckboy Seth on Hollywood, thereby bringing some money to the farm and keeping him from impregnating all the help. Ada Doom wants to stop everyone from leaving but she can’t. The end.
It has to be this way, because the whole thesis of the novel is that the problems of the “loam and lovechild” tragic novels aren’t real problems. They say you have to love a genre to do a good parody of it. I think that’s an American thing. Brits are meaner. Gibbons, I think, didn’t love these books, and she was out for blood, and she got it. If the local yokels could offer opposition — if their problems were even difficult to manage — that would, backhandedly, pay homage to the subgenre Gibbons was determined to skewer. So! It’s a fun novel. The writing is good. It’s funny. It’s a little boring once you get what’s going on. I bet it would have made a good cartoon! ****