Review for the Invisible Friends Book Club -
While reading Cold Comfort Farm last night (it’s a good ‘one sitting’ book) I had a nagging feeling that the storyline and the main character, Flora, reminded me very strongly of another book and protagonist, but couldn’t quiet pin it down.
This morning, I realized – author Stella Gibbons is taking a leaf out of Patrick Dennis’ classic (In My Humble Opinion, and this is my blog) novel Auntie Mame.. For those of you whom haven’t read Mame and, no, the movie and the travesty of a movie musical are not the same, Dennis’ novel starts with the narrator reading a piece about an Unforgettable Character. The Unforgettable Character is generally a maiden aunt, gray haired and sweet, who suddenly acquires a baby, whom she then raises while facing a series of life challenges. Each chapter of Mame opens with an update on what the typical Unforgettable Character would do when faced with a challenge (unemployment, wartime, impending marriage of loved one, etc.) that would somehow make everything work out splendidly.
Naturally, Dennis’ heroine, Mame, is faced with challenges and meets them, but always in over-the-top style, her subtlety often shrouded in camp and dramatic flair, but all is right in the end and Mame’s wisdom proven yet again. (I think this was also the plot-line used for most episodes of the sit-com Cybil but I digress. Both Gibbons and Dennis did it better.)
Gibbons gives her readers an Unforgettable Character, in this case the nearly penniless and orphaned Flora. Flora, unwilling to take up a trade, elects to approach her nearest relatives for a home. Most Unforgettable Characters would appeal to such relations in a spirit of humility, mercy and desperation. Flora? She’s far more practical, almost mercenary, about this approach.
“I am only nineteen, but I have observed that while there is still some foolish prejudice against living on one’s friends, it is perfectly respectable to ask one’s relations to provide one with a one. Now I am peculiarly (I think if you could see some of them, you would agree that is the correct word) rich in relations, on both sides of the family.” (page19)
Naturally it is the dullest of her relations who offer to take Flora in, with the lone mysterious note that something that will never be told happened such that the family owes her a favor. The family turns out to be quite peculiar (milking cows in their sleep) and live in peculiar circumstances and in a peculiar house, surrounded by peculiar neighbors and a peculiar town. Everyone has an unmet need, and Flora, who feels that she is adept at creating order from chaos, sets about meeting each one in eccentric fashion. Note: she does take the precautionary measure of asking a friend to send her boots.
The Mame meme continues – from the names of the livestock to Gibbons’ manufactured bits of Sussex dialogue, Gibbons is determined to make the reader laugh along and recognize satire and, moreover, to enjoy them. Dennis would have approved, and Cold Comfort Farm is an enjoyable read, but I have to say that I think Dennis did it better. I never did figure out why so many people in Sussex did as Flora told them. Mame used her charm, her wealth and her love; Flora arrived at Cold Comfort Farm and immediately started bossing people about. Did they obey out of habit?
One aspect that drove me wild with frustration is that Gibbons gives no indication as to when this story is set. She would drop in a hint and I’d do some quick math, only to learn a few pages later that my guess had to be off by several decades, if not centuries.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, I hasten to add, a really great romp, and I think that the best bits are the woodcut illustrations throughout the book. The one on page 44 “There’s no butter in hell!” (great line) looks like something from Lewis Carroll, but reminded me most of Uncle Andrew in The Magician's Nephew.