Over at The Millions, Janet Potter, who has worked in bookstores all over the world for more than a decade, responds to Amazon’s 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime and similar rankings with a beautiful blueprint to the reading life.
This. Also, so many of the BBC books are mentioned in other BBC books.
Bossy. Type A. Overbearing. OCD. Nit-picky.
I like to the use the term “thorough and precise” to describe the kind of person represented by Flora Poste in Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but that’s because I have the sneaking suspicion I am that kind of person. No matter what word you use, however, there’s no denying that Flora Poste is a micromanager with a little bit of a messiah complex. Having finally completed an “expensive, athletic, and prolonged” education courtesy of her late parents, Flora finds herself unemployed and directionless, crashing with her friend in Lambeth until she can “decide where to bestow herself and her hundred pounds a year” (9). Sound familiar, fellow twenty-somethings?
Refusing to be daunted, either by her parents’ recent death or her apparent lack of career prospects, Flora decides to take a kind of gap year while she figures out whether to marry or find a job, or both, and in what order. Though she loves her friend, Mrs. Smiling, she knows she cannot stay with her for the year. “I am only nineteen,” Flora states, “but I have already observed that, whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one’s friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one’s own conscience, to the amount one may impose upon one’s relatives” (13).
At this point, it’s important to note that Cold Comfort Farm is a satirical novel that pokes fun at the kind of rural melodrama popularized by writers who took themselves and their dark, brooding country setting very seriously. Imagine if you will gloomy country estates, mouldering slowly in the English rains, inhabited by equally decrepit rural folk with rural-folksy ways and speech patterns and you’ll have exactly the kind of story at which Gibbons’s novel laughs. Indeed, all Gibbons’s characters are slight caricatures, even the über-cultured London-ites with their neat clothes and international lovers. The success of Gibbons’s work relies upon her unflinching parodies; her caricatures are completely believable because they seem like real people. More eerily, they seem modern. I feel like I know these people, especially Flora and her over-educated, under-employed friends.
If satire always mocks the time in which it is created, then history is truly cyclical. Flora’s gap-year mimics what one of my friends calls the “mid-twenties flail,” that inevitable period of self-doubt and confusion after college but before you feel like a fully-fledged adult. While nowadays, my friends work internships, get online dating profiles, and become very friendly with their Netflix queues, Flora Poste decides to micromanage a farm.
Cold Comfort Farm is almost comically hard-up. Its livestock are named things like “Useless” and “Graceless” and the breeding bull, Big Business, is locked in the barn, bellowing to be let out. It is overseen by Aunt Ada Doom, a veritable crypt-keeper of a relative who lurks in her room and keeps everyone on the tight leash of her own supposed insanity. At the other end of the leash is the Starkadder family, biblically large, each burdened by a different psychological idiosyncrasy.
Rather than becoming mired in her own problems, however, Flora immediately sets about solving the problems of the farm. The overarching problem seems to be getting the Starkadders to realize that their idiosyncrasies, which they believe to be intrinsic to their personalities, do not define their characters. Gibbons’s point is directed at the Mr. Rochesters and Heathcliffs and Cathies of the literary world; in the guise of Flora Poste, she seems to scream, “It’s not all about you, so just calm down about it!” The underlying sentiment, however, is a good one: if we allow ourselves to be defined by our weaknesses, we cannot grow and improve. Flora’s presence at the farm allows the Starkadders to see their own shortcomings, and one by one they are convinced of (or tricked into) a better way of life.
Only once Aunt Ada Doom is flown off to Paris, the sprightly Elfine married to the local jock, the religious zealot packed off to America, the womanizing cousin turned into a film star, and the farm in the hands of Rueben, the only Starkadder who truly cares for it, is Flora’s work done. She has directed and cozened and persuaded her family onto the road to success, and only then can she call her boyfriend to whisk her away to the altar in his plane, Speed Cop II. The denouement of the novel is comically hasty, and yet it seems completely in keeping with Flora’s no-nonsense approach to life. Like Gibbons’s ideal woman, Flora accomplishes her duties with creativity and a good sense of humor, and is rewarded for her service in the end.
Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm should be required reading for all those entering their “mid-twenties flail,” not only for its charm and wit, but also for its ability to instruct and bolster. Many times, I found myself laughing out loud because I recognized someone from my own life in Flora’s world. It’s comforting to know that I am not the first person to experience these emotions, nor will I be the last. And, as Gibbons’s heroine suggests, I can always micromanage my way out of my troubles.
PAGE COUNT: 21,681
BOOK COUNT: 55/100
…but some things never change.
Page Count turned 2 this week, which got me thinking. A lot can change in two years…