By Stella Gibbons
Cold Comfort Farm was first published in novel form in 1932 and became an instant success. In 1934 Stella Gibbons accepted the Prix Femina-Vie Heureuse at the Institut Français in London. Virginia Woolf (who had a friend who was also vying for the award) wrote at the time: “I was enraged to see they gave the ₤40 to Gibbons…. Who is she? What is this book?” Like many other writers who suffer from one huge initial success, this popular book unfortunately eclipsed all Stella Gibbons’ subsequent writing. In 1966 she wrote: “Cold Comfort Farm is a member of my family; he is like some unignorable old uncle, to whom you have to be grateful because he makes you a handsome allowance, but who is often an embarrassment and a bore.”
If one accepts that Cold Comfort Farm is indeed a parody of the “loam and lovechild” genre so popular when Gibbons was writing, then Nicola Humble suggests the influence of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is arguably closest to the surface of the novel, and, indeed, Gibbons’s novel might be conceived of as a re-writing of Bronte’s work, combined with elements of her sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. Thus Elfine might be seen as a version of Cathy with the darkly-brooding Seth a sort of Heathcliff.
The story begins when Flora Poste, having recently been orphaned and with no means of support (certainly the idea of employment is entirely out of the question) looks to her relatives for a place to live. She settles upon the Starkadders, relatives on her mother’s side, who live on the isolated Cold Comfort Farm, near the fictional Sussex village of Howling. Greeting her as, ‘Robert Poste’s child’ they take her in to repay an unexplained wrong done to her father.
Each member of the extended family has some longstanding emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred or fear; and the farm is badly run — supposedly cursed — and presided over by the unseen yet dominating presence of Aunt Ada Doom, who is said to have been driven mad by seeing ‘something nasty in the woodshed’ as a child. Flora, a level-headed urban woman, applies modern common sense to their problems and helps them all adapt to the twentieth century.
The speech of the Sussex characters is a parody of rural dialects (in particular Sussex and West Country accents — another parody of novelists who use phonics to portray various accents and dialects) and is sprinkled with fake but authentic-sounding local vocabulary.
The theatrical adaptation by Paul Doust simplifies the plot in order to make it suitable for the stage. Many characters, including Mybug, Mrs. Beetle, Meriam, Mark Dolour and Mrs. Smiling, are omitted. Meriam’s character was merged with Rennet, who ends up with Urk at the end. As a consequence, both Rennet’s and Urk’s roles are much bigger than in the book. Mrs. Smiling is absent because the action begins with Flora’s arrival in Sussex; Charles appears only to drop her off and pick her up again at the end. Mark Dolour, though mentioned several times in the play as a running joke, never appears on stage. Finally, instead of visiting a psychoanalyst to cure her obsession, Judith leaves with Neck at the end!
Stella Dorothea Gibbons was born in 1902 and died in 1989. During her life she was a novelist, journalist, poet and short-story writer. Her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, won the Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1934. A satire and parody of the works of Thomas Hardy, his followers and especially Precious Bane by Mary Webb—the “loam and lovechild” genre, as some called it. Cold Comfort Farm introduces a self-confident young woman, quite consciously modern, pragmatic and optimistic into the grim, fate-bound and dark rural scene those novelists tended to portray.
Gibbons went on to write twenty-five novels, (many of which sold well), three volumes of short-stories and four volumes of poetry. She earned admiration from many respected writers and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1950. Gibbons herself claimed to be a poet rather than a novelist in spite of the positive reviews she frequently received.
She married actor and singer Allan Webb in 1933 and they moved to a house on the Holly Lodge Estate, Highgate, where she was to live for the remainder of her life. In October 1935 she gave birth to their only child, Laura and then later that year she published her only children’s book The Untidy Gnome which was dedicated to her daughter.
Following the death of her husband in 1959, Stella Gibbons gradually withdrew from the public sphere and concentrated on her family. After 1972 she published no further work although she wrote two unpublished novels, The Yellow Houses and An Alpha. She died in December 1989 and was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to her husband Allan. The Observer commented “It ought not to be forgotten that Miss Gibbons is a poet as well as a novelist… She handles sky, bare trees, and rough fields with the same quiet subtlety as people. She sees idiosyncrasy in nature and humanity, and makes both live”.
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