Monday, August 07, 2006

Reading. Gibbons.

I was fifteen or sixteen when I first read Cold Comfort Farm. It is one of those books whose movie I saw first and loved, and then discovered the novel, which I loved equally if not more. We were in high school, and we were all in love with Rufus Sewell. (Who we had first fallen in love with in Middlemarch). He was spectacularly sexy as Seth, the smouldering young farmer who seduces all the local girls and breaks his mother's heart, and sweeps off to be a movie star when a Hollywood producer comes to Cold Comfort Farm. L. had the movie on videotape, and we would all get together and watch it every so often (usually after eating piles and piles of crêpes).

Orphaned at the tender age of nineteen, the young Flora Poste goes to Cold Comfort Farm to stay with her cousins, the Starkadders, against the protests of her dear friend Mrs. Smiling. (Whenever I think of the Starkadders I think of what P. G. Wodehouse referred to as the "sons of toil buried beneath tons of soil." Try saying that three times fast. Without giggling). Left only with an expensive education and a small income, she is resolved to live off her relatives, tidying up (because, like Jane Austen, she cannot endure a mess) and improving their lives to suit her, and gathering material for her novel, which she planned to write at the age of 53, and which she hoped would be at least as good as Persuasion. (Although to be sure, Flora is rather more like Austen's Emma than she is Anne Elliot).

At the decaying old family farm Flora immediately sets about changing the lives of all those around her (and sometimes I rather wish I had a Flora in my life to change mine), marrying her young cousin Elfine to the son of the local gentry, arranging for Seth to become a movie star, convincing Amos to leave the farm to preach his beliefs in a Ford van. Finally, she persuades Aunt Ada Doom to leave for Paris, just after Elfine's wedding. Having nothing left to do, Flora calls for Charles to come take her away in his aeroplane, the perfectly named Speed Cop II, as he had promised to do at the novel's beginning. And so it ends, everyone's life having been improved immeasurably by Flora's interference, as she flies off to find happiness with Charles. Meanwhile, the mystery of what exactly that something nasty in the woodshed seen by Aunt Ada was is never solved, much to both Flora's and the reader's dismay.

I think what I love most about this novel is Stella Gibbons' effortless prose, which slips lightly through the fingers, weightless and unadorned like the snow-white silk of Elphine's evening gown. Her writing is so funny and charming that I find myself returning to these pages year after year. It is like drinking tea and eating hot buttered toast on a cold day, or having a sweet, ripe orange on a hot day, and sometimes that is all you need to ask of literature. I never eat my oranges with a spoon, as Flora does, but oftentimes I think of her as I peel the skin away from the flesh, revealing the bright, juicy segments of fruit within....

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