Cold Comfort Farm is not on any map: true places never are. It lies somewhere on the high, hard ground of the Sussex hills in southern England, where the fields are “fanged with flints” and the hedgerows entwined with “sukebind”. “Mud and rancid straw” carpet its yard. In the cowshed stands its herd: Feckless, Graceless, Pointless and Aimless, all milked by the local yokel, Adam Lambsbreath, who mutters gnomic fatalisms as he yanks teats and shudders udders (“Dog’s-fennel or beard’s-crow, by their fruits they shall be betrayed...”). Confined alone to a byre is Big Business, the bulging-balled bull.
The farmhouse is a ramshackle labyrinth of creaking corridors, cheerless rooms and rickety metaphors. Dispersed within are the Starkadders: over-sexed Seth, whose voice has “jarring notes which were curiously blended into an animal harmony like the natural cries of stoat or teazel”, resentful Reuben, malevolent Urk, wearing a vole-skin cap, and Amos the hellfire lay-preacher, who smites sin wherever he sees it. Up in the master bedroom lies Ada Doom, the Dominant Matriarch, who encountered “something nasty in the woodshed” decades ago, and retired in shock to her four-poster, to act as her family’s supine puppet-master.
“Cold Comfort Farm” (1932) is constructed entirely of cliché. Into it Stella Gibbons poured every saw, truism and chestnut of rustic writing, gathered from Mary Webb, D.H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. It is a glorious feat of flapdoodle, to borrow Gibbons’s word – a parody so sharp that it has outlived many of the texts it skewered and, for many readers, the funniest novel they know. Nature-love, noble savagery, environmental determinism, animism, urban intellectuals: all are put to Gibbons’s ploughshare.
Into the mired world of the Starkadders she sends Flora Poste, a 23-year-old orphaned townie, sharp of tongue, quick of wit and short of cash. Flora lands among these horny-handed sons of toil carrying “nightgown” and “toilet articles”, and sets about “tidying up life at Cold Comfort”. She washes curtains, fixes feuds, recommends contraceptives, and administers the shock of the new.
The Sussex Downs are magnificently over-evoked. Super-silly similes abound. The sun cannot simply rise; dawn must creep “over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns.” In spring, “daisies opened in sly lust to the sun-rays and rain-spears, and eft-flies, locked in a blind embrace, spun radiantly through the glutinous light to their ordained death.”
On Cold Comfort Farm, milk cannot go into tea unmelodramatically: “The opaque curve purred softly down into the teak depths of the cup.” The wandering poet, Mr Mybug, believes himself a disciple of nature, but can only decode the landscape for its sexual content: tree trunks make him think of “phallic symbols”, birch buds of “nipples and virgins”. “Yet there were”, Flora generously concedes, “occasions when he was not reminded of a pair of large breasts by the distant hills.”
For 15 years now, I’ve been writing books about landscape and place. It was clear early on that of the many risks in taking on nature, the greatest was over-writing. So, when in doubt, I subject my prose to the Cold Comfort Test. Would Gibbons have mocked this paragraph? Am I inadvertently channelling Mr Mybug? Does this sentence bear any relation to Gibbons’s finest one-liner: “The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be.”
I feel both drastically indicted by Stella Gibbons, and vastly indebted to her, for making me laugh and for keeping me – mostly – honest.