Flora Poste is nineteen, orphaned, practical-minded, fond of restrained and elegant beauty such as Purcell
and Jane Austen
, and likes things neat and tidy and peaceful around her. Having no employable talents, she resolves to live on her relatives, and to mould them to her own way of living, to make it more pleasant for her.
Aunt Ada Doom married into the Starkadder family, and they live at Cold Comfort Farm, near the village of Howling. (The local pub, the Condemn'd Man, is run by a Mrs Murther.) These are the relatives who seem like her best bet, having rejected all the others as even less suitable for her projected way of life. So down to deepest, darkest Sussex Flora goes.
Flora is all good sense, clean linen, and simple pleasures. The Starkadders - Seth and Reuben and Amos, Micah and Urk and Harkaway and all the rest - are all about creeping horrors, doomed farms, curses and torments and the brooding evil of the earth, and the inevitable sick sexuality that unfolds its ugly animal nature to mock the barren and dying...
She is met at the station by Adam Lambsbreath, the old retainer who is at least ninety years old and could be somewhere over two hundred, whose two deranged loves are the farm's decrepit cows, Aimless, Feckless, Graceless, and Pointless, and the dizzying young flower-girl daughter of the family, Elfine. He always addresses Flora as "Robert Poste's child", hinting at the dark horror that the Starkadder family did to her father.
Flora meets her cousin Judith (you'd think with a name like that... oh never mind), deep in the throes of depression, despair, and a crazed pride in her handsome panther-like son Seth that borders on the incestuous. The head of the family, Aunt Ada Doom saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a little girl, so spends her time in her room, mad, and threatening to go even more mad if any of her family disobey her or leave Cold Comfort Farm: a convenient form of madness. Cousin Judith should be managing the farm but she spends her time consumed with despair, and Amos is consumed with preaching hellfire to the Quivering Brethren of Howling, and Seth is consumed with mollocking in the sukebind (a mysterious process that annually results in the confinement of the serving girl) and the talkies, and Urk is consumed with catching water-voles and brooding over Elfine...
Although she makes it her business to rescue, reform, or simply clean up numerous of her relatives, it is Elfine who interests Flora first. Elfine is wild, unschooled, fleet of foot, long of hair, and writes poetry and loves communing with nature. She is also tremulously attached to nice but dim Richard Hawk-Monitor, one of the county set, and Flora sees that she needs to be taken in hand, tidied up, and divested of poetry, before she can be acceptable to the Hawk-Monitors, and before she goes entirely to the bad and opens a little craft shop in Brighton.
Cold Comfort Farm is hilarious, a comedy classic since its first publication in 1932. Stella Gibbons did write a number of other books, interesting and quirky and touching in various ways, but this one's the masterpiece. In many places it's a parody of the fashionable nature novelists of the time, people like D.H. Lawrence, one of whom appears in the novel as Mr Mybug. He sees sex everywhere: the buds are nipples, the hills are breasts, the earth is a womb; and this fashionable conversation is just boring to sensible Flora.
Kenneth Williams did a classic radio recording of the book. He does the deep Sussex rural accent (all gone: Sussex is practically London now) with inimitable relish, Seth's purring, manly, animalistic tones, and Aunt Ada Doom's querulous, mad, horrorstruck "I saw something nasty in the woodshed!", and old Adam's idiotic, fearstruck "Nay, niver say that, Robert Poste's child!" all to perfection.
For some odd reason Stella Gibbons set it in the near future - 1950, perhaps. So we get video telephones and personal aeroplanes playing a minor part in the plot, but nothing essential, just another distancing element. To make the reviewers' jobs easier she marked particularly literary bits of (parodic) description with one, two, or three stars according to the system of Mr Baedeker.