I read this around the same time I read Neuromancer, because Gibson and Gibbons are right next to each other on the library shelves. I’d wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm, someday, ever since the movie version came out in 1995, and had never gotten around to it. I tried to take out a copy that didn’t have an introduction, which was by Lynn Truss (author of the grammar peeving book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves), but was unsuccessful. All the copies the library had were Penguin editions with the Truss introduction included. The one I got out also had illustrations on the cover by Sage Stossel, the New Yorker cartoonist. My daughter really liked these (she was five at the time).
I was happy, in the end, that I’d read the introduction first, because it included several facts, of varying degrees of importance.
First—a fact, the importance of which will appear only later—the book (which appeared in the 1930s) is a kind of cult classic, beloved of many among a certain generation of English readers, who it seems are given to quote lines like, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” at the drop of a hat.
Second, the book is set in a vaguely futuristic possible world, in which videophones and private aeroplanes are common. This would be easy to miss, as the videophone appears late in the book, and the airplane could simply be a function of its owner’s wealth.
Third—and most important—Cold Comfort Farm, the first book Gibson published, though she went on to become a rather successful novelist, is a parody. It sends up not only D.H. Laurence and similar high-falutin late Romantics, but a whole genre of rurally-set romance novels that were popular at the time. I’m glad I knew this, because if I hadn’t, the parodic elements of setting, style, and character would most likely have seemed simply odd, and possibly incompetent or even offensive.
The story follows a young orphan, Flora Poste, recently orphaned and with an inheritance too small to support her. After a series of high-society exploits in London with a more established, widowed friend, and wanting to see herself as more interesting than the usual run of young employed single women, she decides to allow one of her relatives to act as her host. She receives a series of hilarious letters from them in response, of which the most promising is a bizarre, and physically filthy, screed from an aunt in the countryside.
Flora and Mary have some fun imagining the farm will be like something in a book, and to Flora’s surprise, that is exactly what she finds. Only with much untidier housekeeping. Flora determines that her purpose in life shall be to improve her country relatives, and she sets about her task in a way that nevertheless ensures that they are always more interesting than she is. Gibbons’ ridicule is never directed at rural life itself (as long as its denizens are allowed to choose their life mates and the times of their children’s birth as they wish, and keep the curtains clean, and sit down for afternoon tea), but against the silly cultural impositions we lay over that life: the hellfire preacher, the girl who sits and sighs in the grass wearing unfashionable dresses as she moons over poetry, the male poet who tries to seduce female acquaintances with his theories of the sex drive and of the authorship of the Brontës’ works by their brother, the replacement of living reality with the movies.
The book is a very satisfying summer read, if a little old-fashioned, and it’s easy to see why it’s so well-loved.
I can’t say the same about the movie, which I watched a couple of weeks ago. You can tell from the opening credits that it’s meant to appeal to the novel’s fans. As with the first Star Trek movie, viewers are supposed to sit back and sigh as they think about how their hopes are now becoming reality. But it really isn’t that good. Kate Beckinsale, as Flora, is perfectly fine, though I’m not sure she should have been the focus of the story. Joanna Lumley is hilarious as her London friend. The treatment of her collection of important brassieres, which opens the film, isn’t quite how I’d pictured it, but it’s very memorable, and sets the proper tone. Rufus Sewell, as always, is gorgeous and is just the right physical type for the role of Seth.
But: it’s kind of boring. The future setting is just abandoned, as are the extracts from Flora’s favorite self-help book, “The Higher Common Sense,” which form some of the novel’s funniest parts. There isn’t enough about Flora’s relatives other than Seth, and Seth’s parts of the film are much too serious. In the book, it’s possible to take the whole idea that Seth is so sexy, women can’t resist him, as a joke. The movie simply parodies a movie in which he’s that sexy, which is not quite the story Flora had told. Other storylines are telegraphed or omitted. Ian McKellan is very funny as the family’s paterfamilias and a part-time preacher in the village, but the movie makes fun of that kind of religion instead of focusing on Flora’s reaction to being forced to participate in it. Stephen Fry’s ridiculously, voluminously caped poet is reduced to a single scene in which he creeps Flora out by not realizing she won’t date him.