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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 831-854
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Cold Comfort Farm, D. H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars
Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (1932) has been an incredibly popular novel. Its most famous line, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed," has become a catchphrase, and the book has sold in large numbers since its first publication in 1932. It has been adapted as a stage play, a musical, a radio drama, and two films, thereby reaching a still larger audience. 1 However, its status within the academically-defined literary canon is comparatively low. One full article on Cold Comfort Farm was published in 1978, and since then, only a few paragraphs of criticism have been devoted to the novel. Critics apparently do not consider Cold Comfort Farm to be properly "literary," and it is rarely mentioned in studies of the literature of the interwar years. This is curious because Cold Comfort Farm is an extremely sophisticated and intricate parody whose meaning is produced through its relationship with the literary culture of its day and with the work of such canonical authors as D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Brönte. The novel's engagement with the gender issues of the 1930s also repays detailed examination. My reading of Cold Comfort Farm will focus on its relation to its literary and cultural [End Page 831] context and will work toward an understanding of the reasons for its marginal position in the canon of English fiction.
Stella Gibbons (1902-1989) worked as a journalist during the 1920s and became instantly famous on the publication of her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm. She went on to publish twenty-three more novels and several collections of short stories and poetry. Most of these were reasonably successful, but they are now all out of print. Briefly summarized, Cold Comfort Farm concerns a London woman, Flora Poste, who loses her parents at the age of nineteen and decides to live with some of her relatives until she marries. She chooses a family of Sussex farming cousins, the Starkadders, and resolves to tidy up their lives for them. She eventually persuades them all to abandon their eccentric behaviour and adopt what she considers to be civilized, rational lifestyles.
Flora is clearly marked as belonging to the fictional world of Jane Austen. We are alerted to this early in the narrative when she mentions her ambition to write a novel as good as Persuasion and adds:"I think I have much in common with Miss Austen" (20). Flora often reads Mansfield Park to sustain her amid the chaos of Cold Comfort, and it is the progress from disorder to order in Austen's books that appeals to her. On her arrival at the farm, Flora enters into an alien fictional world, a fact she is evidently conscious of because she remarks that she hopes to collect material for a novel while she is there. Her entirely accurate preconceptions about her Starkadder relatives are derived from her reading of novels very different from those of Jane Austen. She is excited at the prospect of meeting a doomed family and discovering a "gloomy mystery" (58), and she expects her second cousins to be named Seth and Reuben, because "highly sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, [. . .] and my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos, and if he is, it will be a typical farm" (23). She makes explicit her literary source for these ideas when she remarks on discovering the tyranny of her great aunt Ada Doom, otherwise Mrs. Starkadder: "So that was what it was. Mrs. Starkadder was the curse of Cold Comfort. Mrs. Starkadder was the Dominant Grandmother Theme, which was found in all typical novels of agricultural life. It was, of course, right and proper that Mrs. Starkadder should be in possession at Cold Comfort; Flora should have suspected her existence from the beginning...