Stella Gibbons burst upon the English literary world in 1932 when her first novel, Cold Comfort Farm, was published. It proved enormously popular and remains one of our most enduring comic novels, making the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” part of the common vocabulary, and the novel is repeatedly cited as a favourite masterpiece of the comic genre. Yet the author remains largely unrecognised except for this one work. Although highly regarded in her lifetime as a poet, and the author of several other novels, Gibbons is almost exclusively remembered for that single work of fiction. While it is an exceptional piece in many ways, it is by no means her only publication of merit.
So why is Cold Comfort Farm so special? It is helpful to know something of the author’s background. Gibbons had a reasonably successful career as a journalist, working first for the Evening Standard and then The Lady. She was a sharp reviewer of new fiction and plays, and her familiarity with current trends in the world of books gave her a solid base for the structure of Cold Comfort Farm. The plot, for those unfamiliar with the book, revolves around the activities of a thoroughly sensible middle-class urban girl who is dropped into a world full of malfunctioning rural stereotypes. At the time there was a fashion for a kind of rustic fiction which has now dropped completely off the radar. Gibbons particularly disliked the work of Mary Webb, who wrote novels set within a fictional rural world full of bizarre individuals with semi-mystical inclinations and incomprehensible language. Like Webb, Gibbons delighted in making up words which had no meaning in the real world, and she plays the game with consummate skill. One of the greatest ironies of the book is that the word 'sukebind,' a plant invented by Gibbons to symbolise unbridled human lust, has now found its way into the OED. Indeed, the book is full of delightful parodies, many aimed at the pomposity of the literary establishment. For example, the opening dedication ‘To Anthony Pookworthy’ is a thinly disguised attack on the pretensions of Hugh Walpole, an author popular at the time for his quasi-intellectual/spiritual novels which are now deservedly unread —Gibbons awards ‘Pookworthy’ the titles A.B.S and L.L.R. (Associate Back Scratcher and Licensed Log Roller) after his name. The final literary target is more general, often overlooked but, once noticed, a constant delight. It is flagged by the use of *** at intervals throughout the text. In the dedication to Pookworthy the author indicates that she has placed these to assist readers and reviewers to admire these finer passages of literature. They are very clever parodies of the genre that she so disliked — over-blown, quasi-intellectual writing which confused elaborate, exaggerated hyperbole with genuine emotional impact. Take, for example, this extract from Chapter 7, when Flora meets Ruben, the Starkadder who personified the hyper-strong man of the earth, for the first time:
“The man’s big body, etched menacingly against the bleak light that stabbed in from the low windows, did not move. His thoughts swirled like beck in spate behind the sodden grey furrows of his face. A woman ..... Blast! Blast! Come to wrest away from him the land whose love fermented in his veins like slow yeast. She-woman.”
A major strength of Cold Comfort Farm is the portrayal of Flora Poste, the female protagonist who takes it upon herself to reform the Strarkadder clan of rustic misfits. She is introduced in the opening paragraph of the book, in which the death of her parents is explained, and described as well-educated and in possession of “every art and grace save that of earning her own living.” However, she is not the only self-possessed young woman in Gibbons’ work. Mary, the protagonist in The Yellow Houses, is described by her headmistress as a young person whose “strongest characteristic is common sense.” Although aged just seventeen, Mary runs away to London where, rather than rebelling or getting into trouble, within hours she has found herself comfortable and safe lodgings and a job in a clothes shop noticed on her previous visit some months before. She journeys through the narrative as a beacon of normality, consistently sensible even when tempted to be led astray. The Yellow Houses is one of two books (the other being Pure Violet) which were published posthumously. According to Gibbons’ only biography, written by her nephew, these books were not published in her lifetime because she did not want them edited in any way.
While other, similar characters can be found in the short stories, perhaps the most complete expression of this female ideal is Margaret Steeples in Westwood. Often acknowledged as Gibbons’ most accomplished novel, this is the story of a plain, somewhat ordinary girl who, through the chance find of a ration book, becomes involved with the Hampstead literary circle which surrounds the incredibly self-centred Gerard Challis. He was based upon the writer and critic Charles Morgan, a man for whom Gibbons had a particular dislike, and the narrative charts first the fascination and then the disillusionment experienced by Margaret after meeting him. Set in war-torn London, the book contains far subtler satire than Cold Comfort Farm, for it is also a serious portrayal of the complexities of human relationships. It has the same sharp dialogue that can be found in Gibbons’ first novel, but the plot allows her to explore more challenging aspects of human experience such as hope, loss and disappointment. In her insightful introduction to the 2011 reprint, Lynn Truss makes the valid observation that this book would have received far more acclaim and attention if it had not been written by the author of Cold Comfort Farm.
In a short story “The Friend of Man” contained in the collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, there is a brutal dissection of what Gibbons saw as the unsustainable social conventions of the modern era, epitomised by those pretentious literary figures whom she found so easy to ridicule. Yet again, the main character is female, and “was not a witty or a sophisticated person, but she was a good listener, kind and well balanced, inexhaustibly sympathetic, yet sensible.” In this story Gibbons exposes the shallowness and selfishness (as she sees it) of those who profess to live up to the supposedly higher ideals of the artistic temperament. This is consistent with her novels, in which she often denounced and exposed the hypocrisies that she saw in literary types. For example, Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm epitomises the one-track-minded writer who sees sexual significance in everything. Certainly a caricature of D H Lawrence, speaking in the latter’s idiom, Mr Mybug represents the kind of literary persona whom Gibbons deeply mistrusted. Confident, assured, intellectual but emotionally suspect, Mybug is engaged in a pointless (and sexist) literary investigation to prove that it was really Branwell Brontë who wrote Wuthering Heights. In one of the book’s finest lines, Gibbons makes this unforgettable observation:
“Flora sighed. It was curious that persons who lived what the novelists called a rich emotional life always seemed to be a bit slow on the uptake.”
Finally, there are the poems. If Gibbons’ novels, with the one obvious exception, have been generally ignored (but are now thankfully being republished) then it is almost as if her poetry does not exist at all. The collected poems were published in 1950, to a thunderous silence. Out of print since then, they are seriously difficult to find, even in libraries, but they are worth the hunt. Lyrical and often romantic, they deserve to be more commonly known. Her poetry suffers in the same way as her other novels and short stories, completely overshadowed by Cold Comfort Farm.
Stella Gibbons holds a unique and problematic position in England’s literary canon. Unlike most authors, she began with a hugely popular masterpiece, and equally unusually, it has not faded from view but has maintained its popularity. This has been something of a poisoned chalice, for her other books (mostly) have great merit, but are, unfortunately, constantly compared to the earlier work. The rest of her oeuvre is well worth seeking out, full of sharp dialogue and masterful observations. This example comes from a short story called “The Wild Tame Party.” (Haven’t we all been to parties like this?)
“The party had now reached Stage Five, or Regrets For a Mis-Spent Past; this would be followed by Stage Six, the Belligerent, and Stage Seven, the Amorous or Final. People sat about in clots, regretting.”
And finally this, from “The Hoofer and The Lady,” exactly describes the sort of character that Stella Gibbons was not:
“She really was a lady, and only eighteen. She lived with the only unforgivable type of aunt: the type that throws a detestable philosophy of life at a young mind until it is compelled, in self defence, to wrap itself in layers of silence and apparent stupidity.”
Far from silent, and with a fierce intelligence which could cut through pretension like a sharp blade, Gibbons should be acknowledged as a major writer of the twentieth century. The irony is that she probably would be so regarded if she had not written such a wonderful first book. However, her others are out there to find and enjoy — happy hunting!--Paul Flux
Recommended Reading (Vintage Classics have reprinted most of these, so that they are now relatively easy to find):
Cold Comfort Farm (1932) Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (1941) The Bachelor (1944) Westwood (1946) Conference at Cold Comfort Farm (1949) Starlight (1967) Pure Juliet (2016) The Yellow Houses (2016)