The country for miles, under the blanket of the dark which brought no peace, was in its annual tortured ferment of spring growth; worm jarred with worm and seed with seed. Frond leapt on root and hare on hare. Beetle and finch-fly were not spared. The trout-sperm in the muddy hollow under Nettle Flitch Weir were agitated, and well they might be. The long screams of the hunting owls tore across the night, scarlet lines on black. In the pauses, every ten minutes, they mated. It seemed chaotic, but it was more methodically arranged than you might think. [p.45]
Reread, because it is lovely and witty and dry. Flora, orphaned and impecunious, throws herself on the mercy of her Starkadder relatives, who farm at Cold Comfort (somewhere in the South Downs) and incarnate a great many stereotypes of rural life. "'...highly-sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like.' Mrs Smiling said sombrely: 'I hope there will be a bathroom. ' "[p. 22]
Flora is a practical young woman with no time for the dreary romantic meanderings of young Elfine, or the mollocking ("What does mollocking mean?? No, you need not tell me. I can guess.") Seth, or the tragic Miss Judith laying out her cards in the attic. Not given to metaphor or melodrama, Flora bursts upon the Starkadders and - apparently immune to the bestial forces of nature, and the emotional excesses of the Romantics - transforms their lives. The mundanity of their secret hopes and dreams revealed, Seth and Elfine leave the cloying confines of their ancestral home, and Aunt Ada emerges from the attic at last ?
Cold Comfort Farm, written in 1932, is set in The Future: there are video phones (though public callboxes are not fitted with a 'television dial'); Flora's suitor, Claud, is a veteran of the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of '46; postal deliveries arrive by air. In other ways, though, it's very much a novel of the interwar period. There's a general sense of placid contentment. Seth's secret vice is Hollywood movies, which he sneaks out to the village to see at the cinema. Elfine, without Flora's intervention, will likely 'keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist'. Despite the mod cons of London life (and I have a special love of Mrs Smiling's brassiere collection, 'the largest and finest in the world') technology doesn't really impinge on the Starkadders. They still, after all, wash the dishes with twigs. Rural life, as portrayed in Cold Comfort Farm, is carnal and covert and full of dark looks. There is a great deal of mollocking.
Gibbons' prose is often hilarious, but she has the gift of insightful metaphor: the novel's full of vivid images, for instance 'the wet fields fanged abruptly with flints'. She takes (and gives) pleasure in luxuriant sentences: 'the remaining railway companies had fallen into a settled melancholy; an idle and repining despair invaded their literature, and its influence was noticeable even in their time-tables.'
One day I must read her other novels.