Sunday, 14 September 2008
This week's Bibliotherapy is about one of my favourite books -- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It's a complete joy whenever I return to it (which is often), and though I didn't have enough space to write about the Branwell Bronte connection in my Sunday Telegraph column this week, there is an excellent one, in the form of the misguided Mr Mybug, who is writing a biography of the Bronte brother: "'Yes, it's goin' to be damn good,' said Mr Mybug. 'It's a psychological study, of course, and I've got a lot of new matter, including three letters he wrote to an old aunt in Ireland, Mrs Prunty, during the period he was working on Wuthering Heights... You see, it's obvious that it's his book and not Emily's. No woman could have written that. It's male stuff... I've worked out a theory about his drunkenness, too -- you see, he wasn't really a drunkard. He was a tremendous genius, a sort of second Chatterton -- and his sisters hated him because of his genius.'"
Mr Mybug's theory becomes even more misguided (sadly, there is no record of whether Symington or Daphne du Maurier ever read Stella Gibbon's novel, which was published in 1932); it's so wonderfully mad that I've got to quote a bit more... He claims that the Bronte sisters were alcoholics intent on stealing their teetotal brother's work, in order to 'sell it to buy more drink... They were all drunkards, but Anne was the worst of the lot. Branwell, who adored her, used to pretend to get drunk at the Black Bull in order to get gin for Anne... Secretly, he worked twelves hours a day writing Shirley and Villette -- and of course, Wuthering Heights. I've proved all this by evidence from the three letters to old Mrs Prunty.' Needless to say, the three old letters are about nothing but the weather...
Anyway, you can read the column here in the Sunday Telegraph. Or below here, if that's easier...) But if you haven't yet read 'Cold Comfort Farm', then please do get hold of a copy, and discover it for yourself. It's better for the spirits than gin...
Having lived in London most of my life, there are moments when I find myself longing for rural seclusion. But as a teenager, after a family crisis necessitated that we abandon the city and move to a dilapidated Welsh farmhouse at the dead-end of a pot-holed track, I loathed it, and sank into gloom as deep as the surrounding mud. What saved me – or so it seemed at the time – was the discovery in a local library of “Cold Comfort Farm”, a novel by Stella Gibbons, originally published in 1932. The title appeared to me to be an exact description of my new dwelling, and I took myself off to read it halfway up an oak tree (a place I often retreated to in order to avoid the acres of manure and swampy ground).
Within minutes, I was laughing, and also comforted by the resourceful heroine, Flora Poste, a sensible, sophisticated girl who leaves London to live with her distant relatives, the Starkadders, after she is orphaned at 20. Her new home, Cold Comfort Farm, “was crouched on a bleak hill-side, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away”. Its sullen inhabitants believe themselves to be as doomed as their gangrenous cows, but Flora sorts everyone out, introducing contraception, chic dress sense, improved cleaning methods and a Hollywood agent to the household.
When I first read the novel, I had no idea that it was written as a parody of previous rural melodramas, nor that Stella Gibbons had a thoroughly urban upbringing, albeit in a family as dysfunctional as the Starkadders. But “Cold Comfort Farm” remains as fresh and funny now as it ever was, wherever you live, and the perfect antidote to grey skies, grumpy relatives and something nasty in the woodshed.