Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
(Part of my mission to read more books by female authors; this title suggested by Patroclus.)
Cold Comfort Farm, first published in 1932, is the tale of Flora Poste, who is forced by circumstance to move in with her relatives, the Starkadder family, who occupy the titular farm in the Sussex village of Howling. As I mentioned before, my resistance to the book was based on the fact that it's widely heralded as a witty satire of the rural melodramas (by the likes of Mary Webb) that were popular in Britain in the first half of the 20th century. I've never read any of those melodramas; and I couldn't see the point of reading one, purely to see how accurately it was being mocked.
I needn't have worried, as Gibbons' comic touch transcends mere pastiche. In fact, if there's any author being sent up here, it's Jane Austen: apart from several nods to Mansfield Park, the heroine, Flora Poste, owes quite a lot to Emma Woodhouse, as she attempts to sort out the practical and emotional problems of her inbred relations.
She turns out to be a fine comic writer, with several one-liners more than worthy of PG Wodehouse in their absurd rightness: "My idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room, where everybody has to play hockey properly."; "He was drowsy with killing, in the mood of a lion lying on a hippopotamus with its mouth full." And I really want, with Flora, to see:
...a new play by Brandt Slurb called 'Manallalive-O!', a Neo-Expressionist attempt to give dramatic form to the mental reactions of a man employed as a waiter in a restaurant who dreams that he is the double of another man who is employed as a steward on a liner, and who, on awakening and realizing that he is still a waiter employed in a restaurant and not a steward employed on a liner, goes mad and shoots his reflection in a mirror and dies.
But the looming presence, which hangs over all British comic novelists of the time, is Evelyn Waugh. Again, Gibbons proves herself to be more than a match, using deapdan irony to point out the absurdity of what's happening around her. Indeed, she has the edge over Waugh in some respects, most notably the fact that the novel takes place in an imagined near future. In Vile Bodies, Waugh uses an invented Second World War (his book was published in 1930) as a lumpen deus ex machina that resolves everybody's quandaries for better or for worse. Gibbons is much more subtle, mentioning the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946 only in passing, and inventing video-conferencing with barely a second thought. These oddities serve little purpose in themselves, but they add to the air of unreality that reminds us that it's a fictional form that's being sent up, rather than any kind of reality.
And this is where I think Gibbons loses out to Waugh, if only by a nose. There's an initial sense of discomfort that she's laughing at mad, unsophisticated yokels, until you recall that her target is really the bizarre characterisation of rural people by novelists such as Webb. The metatextual nudges - it's just a story, it's OK, there's nobody really this horrid - take the sting out of her satire. There are digs at the idiocies of polite society, as in the passage where Flora and Elfine, her protégée, discuss the value of reading the regular features in Vogue:
'I like the night-gowns and "Persuasion",' said Elfine, 'but I don't like "Our Lives" very much, Flora. It's all rather in a hurry, isn't it, and wanting to tell you how nice it was?'
'I do not propose that you shall found a life-philosophy upon "Our Lives from Day to Day", Elfine. I merely make you read it because you will have to meet people who do that kind of thing, and you must on no account be all dewy and awed when you do meet them. You can, if you like, secretly despise them.'
These are posh twits, but the huge quotation marks that Gibbons constructs around her fiction mean that they're defiantly fictional posh twits, which means that we can laugh at them without, as Flora advises, despising them. Waugh's venom, on the other hand, is directed at the (real) decadent idiots he saw around him, and when he deigns to notice any characters without a private income, they too get swept up in the tsunami of his misanthropy. Which surely means that Gibbons was a nicer person than Waugh (not difficult), but maybe a slightly less compelling, less necessary author. Why write about writing when you can write about life?
Which leads to my cat-among-the-pigeons query: has any female writer indulged in the unabashed loathing for humanity that men such as Waugh, Swift, Michel Houellebecq or Bret Easton Ellis can get away with? And if she did, would she be lauded as a supreme social satirist, or damned as a freak? Within the excellent comic art of Stella Gibbons, was there a frustrated misanthrope desperate to burst out?