Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Rating: 3 Stars

Published in 1932, Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is one of those farces that run rife with quirky characters and madcap antics. It’s an undemanding read for a rainy afternoon; once you look past the tortured metaphors, and the overly bright, brittle humor that characterizes so many British books of that period.

Flora Poste is a recently (nearly) impoverished young woman, who, scorning advice to support herself by earning her way through life, decides instead to accept the hospitality of relations with whom she’s barely acquainted. Brimming with good intentions, good taste, and good sense, she descends on Cold Comfort Farm and immediately sets to matchmaking, meddling, and reforming her socially maladjusted kin – the Starkadders.

The Starkadders, each equipped with their unique set of eccentricities, are securely under the thumb of Flora’s Great Aunt Ada Doom, who has been wallowing in her own private psychosis for the past several decades. How will Auntie’s forbidding yet fragile mental condition endure the onslaught of Flora’s relentless charm and feminine insight?

If the plot sounds vaguely familiar to some of you, it should; Gibbons is patently channeling Jane Austen’s Emma. While her literary influences are quite evident, it’s not a good idea to try to combine the style and sensibility of both Austen and Emily BrontĂ« in a single book – simply put, the twain shall never meet. However it’s not just that.

The comedy and deft characterization in Emma stem partly from the fact that the heroine consistently misreads people and situations, and embroils herself in one mortifying scenario after another. The Emma we see at the book’s end has had her ‘she-woman and mistress of the universe’ self-image slightly deflated. In the process, she has grown in both self-awareness and humility, thereby becoming much more likeable. Flora, on the other hand, undergoes no such enlightening experiences. None of her plans go awry, and she’s very clearly a superior being conferring her favors on lesser mortals. That makes a huge difference to the tone of a book.

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