Twentieth-Century Classics: Stella Gibbons

I tell everyone I know to read Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.   And when I recommend it,  I try to remember to mention that you really should read the foreword at the beginning, the author’s little chat before she dives into the novel proper. It’s written as a letter and it becomes more and more hilarious the further you get into the book.  Don’t skip the foreword!

Miss Flora Poste, our heroine, cannot abide messes.  A cosmopolitan young woman who is left orphaned and almost penniless, she plans to live off her relations while she gathers material for a novel she will write when she is fifty-three.  This brings her to Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Essex, a profoundly messy situation with deep mud, unwashed dishes, and plenty of misery to go around. But don’t be fooled by this description! because Stella Gibbons is out to slice the exhausted trope of the earthy farm novel into tattered ribbons with the gleaming razor blade of satire (look at that turn of phrase!  This is exactly the kind of “purple” writing Gibbons is making fun of in Cold Comfort Farm. This blog post is so meta.).

Anyway, Cold Comfort Farm is a highly entertaining read.  It’s also an amusing movie, starring the inimitable Kate Beckinsale.

While Cold Comfort Farm is far and away Stella Gibbons’ best-known novel, there is much to enjoy in her other books; namely, Nightingale Wood. This is a dreamy social comedy, and somewhat of a Cinderella story as well. Enter another practically penniless orphan, Viola Wither.  Viola marries young and is widowed young. Her poverty forces her to marry Teddy Wither, who is twice her age and an unappealing prospect; and after his death, her poverty once again forces her into another unpleasant situation: living with her deceased husband’s family, the Withers.  Mr. Wither is preoccupied with money and seems to live to spoil everyone’s fun, Mrs. Wither is a flat, characterless old lady who frets about How People Will Talk, Madge at thirty-nine is a hearty, sporty dog lover, and Tina is thirty-five, devoted to whatever new diet comes along, and a romantic dreamer. Victor Spring, the young local squire, adds verve and energy to the plot as he dashes about in his elegant clothes and fashionable auto. This is a modern fairy tale in an unlikely setting, and the magical plot resolutions sparkle all the more for that.

Humor and romance, intertwining plot lines, unforgettable settings… try a book by Stella Gibbons!  She comes highly recommended from this librarian.

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