Could there possibly be any better way to spend the last day of the year than to curl up by the fire with a good book? Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm has been on my to-read list for ages, and when, browsing in the library last week, I happened upon Penguin’s paperback edition with its irresistable cover by Roz Chast, I bumped it up to the top and brought it along to read during this self-indulgent week in Michigan.
The first sentence, alone, made me see how it became one of those “cult” books that so many writers love. “The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged: and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.”
Unfazed by her lack of skills, Flora has no intention of trying to find work. When her friend and confidante, the widowed Mrs. Smiling, points out that the hundred pounds a year left to her by her parents won’t even keep her in stockings and fans and inquires, “What will you live on?” Flora replies, “My relatives.”
She rejects her Aunt Gwen’s offer, which involves sharing a bedroom; her elderly father’s cousin’s offer, which is likely to involve not only bird-watching but hearing about his ailments, and her mother’s cousin’s offer, which involves a cohabitating with a parrot—leaving the offer from her mother’s eldest sister’s daughter, Judith Starkadder to take up residence at Cold Comfort farm.
“It sounds “interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling,” Mrs. Smiling observes.
What ensues is rather like Jane Austen gone awry. Flora arrives at the ramshackle farm, takes stock of her relations—among them, the miserable Judith; smoldering Seth; free-spirit, Elphine; Amos, preacher to the Church of the Quivering Brethren; and mad Aunt Ada Doom, who “saw something nasty in the in the woodshed” when she was a child and has never gotten over it—and sets out to civilize them, with the most delightful laugh-out-loud commentary along the way. Like—
“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”
“It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists call a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.”
The vague gesture of her outflung arms sketched, in some curious fashion, illimitable horizons. Judith’s gestures had the same barrierless quality; there was not a vase left anywhere on the farm.”
“Most young men are alarmed on hearing that a young woman writes poetry. Combined with an ill-groomed head of hair and an eccentric style of dress, such an admission is almost fatal.”
Cold Comfort Farm was the perfect last book of the year: it made me face the new one, smiling.