When talking about the classics of modern literature people usually number Joyce, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Burroughs, Miller, and Mailer among those authors who have penned works worthy of that status. While they, and others, may have pushed the art of writing in new directions and redefined the boundaries of what constituted a novel, the elevation of their work into some separate firmament has had the unfortunate side effect of causing other worthy writers to be ignored and their work to fall by the wayside. This problem is compounded by our world’s tendency to always be looking for the next “best thing” and our general disregard for the past. As a result, outside of the occasional university survey course in fiction, the majority aren’t even aware of the vast body of fiction, most of which is of a much higher quality than what’s available today, written in the first part of the 20th century.
Thankfully there are still some publishers who have memories and who also realize there is value to be found in their back catalogues. I know there are those who look at a massive conglomerate like The Penguin Group of publishers with disdain, but the fact remains they have been one of the most consistent producers of English language books. While some may still see in them vestiges of the old British Empire as they maintain outposts in former colonies India, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland, they do in fact publish work by authors from each of those countries and don’t just use local branches as clearing houses for remaindered works and boosting international sales. There’s also an enormous plus side to their English language history as to what it means in regards to the books they have at their disposal from the past. Even better is the fact they make good use of this material and periodically reach back in time to dust off titles which otherwise might be lost to obscurity.
This year they have reissued a group of titles under the heading of Penguin Essentials, with works by authors ranging from Thomas Hardy to Hunter S. Thompson and all sorts of stops in between. While some, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov and Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence have already been enshrined as classics and are familiar to a wide range of people, others are perhaps less well known. While it might never obtain the same status as some of the others in this list, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, released earlier in May 2011 by Penguin Canada, is more than deserving of its new release.
First published in 1932 as a wonderful satire of its times, the humour and points made by the author are timeless, so even if some specifics might be lost on a contemporary audience, its overall impact is still strong and the subject matter still relevant. You see, Gibbons’ targets are universal as she pokes fun at the artistic pretensions of the idle British rich, rural melodramas along the lines of Wuthering Heights, and other tales of steamy passion set amidst the wilds of Sussex farmlands. Along the way she also manages to take some shots at the “talkies”, the upper classes in general, and the extremes of evangelic Christianity. However this is not the broad humour, almost farce, that passes for satire today. This is subtle and dangerous stuff in that you may not be able to catch on immediately to what is and isn’t being made fun of. In fact she seems to have very deliberately made some of her targets very obvious, while others require careful thought and observation before being spotted. She may have felt the need to be somewhat circumspect with her barbs as some of those targeted were also those who would have made up her potential audience.
Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of twenty-something Flora Post. After living a privileged early life she discovers upon the demise of her parents that she’s nowhere near as well off as she thought as her father left her nearly as many debts as assets. While she’s taken in by her affluent friend, Mrs. Smiling, Flora feels she must make her own way in the world. Having no money and no inclination to work, she wants to write a great novel when she’s 53 and spend the interim period accumulating experiences, so she decides to draw upon her one asset — a wealth of relatives. Encamped in fashionable London she sends out plaintive letters to relatives inviting herself to live with them. While most of them “just won’t do”, her cousins the Starkadders, owners of Cold Comfort Farm in darkest Sussex, sound ideal.
Flora is obsessed with organizing other people’s lives and making sense out of the chaos most of them seem to live in. In the Starkadders and Cold Comfort Farm she finds the perfect subjects to put her skills to work. Her great aunt Ada Doom has hidden in her room for the past two decades, horribly scarred by what she saw as a youngster in the woodshed (or was it the potting shed or the bicycle shed?) Ada rules the roost at the farm, not allowing anyone to leave and controlling finances down to the last penny. Under her thumb are her son-in-law Amos, part time evangelical preacher; daughter Judith who gives new meaning to the word gloomy; their children, stolid farmer Reuben, over-sexed Seth and artsy, will o’ the wisp Elfine and various other assorted cousins and hired hands.
By the time Flora is finished with them their world has been turned upside down as she proceeds to take them all in hand individually and sort out their lives for them. While this process is the nominal plot for the book, the real joy in the reading comes from how Gibbons manages to weave her hooks and barbs into the story. Whether it’s her description of a church service conducted by Amos, the conversations between Flora and her various cousins, or what’s revealed through the thought processes of her characters and their opinions of life, she manages to hit each and every one of her targets in the bulls eye. Gibbons not only gives a clinic on how to write satire, she shows how it is possible for a skilled author to have multiple targets in a single book without creating a tangled mess.
Cold Comfort Farm is an example of just one of the wonderful treasures from our past awaiting our reading pleasure. Just because a work hasn’t been designated a classic or isn’t deemed literature doesn’t mean it should be relegated to some dust heap. Hopefully new e-book readers will gradually make works like this one more readily available, but in the mean time we should just be grateful that some are at least hitting shelves of a book store near you.