After my recent discovery of Stella Gibbons courtesy of her rather marvellous 1946 novel ‘Westwood’ I thought it only right to take in her ‘classic’ debut novel ‘Cold Comfort Farm’. And at the risk of coming over all “mumble mumble… I actually prefer the demos… mumble mumble” it’s… pretty good. I mean, I can understand why it would have been such a breakthrough hit at the time of publication, and I can just about get why it should have remained in print and bundled up under the ‘classic’ tag, but, on the other hand… really? Again, I wonder if it’s An English Thing, for much of what Gibbons supposedly parodies in the book is that terribly earthy and inescapably English infatuation with Nature and the whole Garden Of England thing, with barely suppressed sexual urges, ahem, erupting everywhere. So perhaps that Englishness is the reason I cannot quite fully connect, although equally I know that this excuse is largely ludicrous as I have spent the majority of my adult life living deep within the folds of England’s South West.
Perhaps then it is something more to do with the nature of successful parody, which relies on a strange closeness to and a certain affection for the thing(s) one is poking fun at. So if ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ seeks to sneak a giggle at the likes of DH Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb then it also necessarily embraces something of their style, content, themes etc. Enjoyment of the parody on the readers part, then, must surely to some extent rely on a degree of enjoyment of the source texts, which means that on a personal level, the ‘joke’ here for me rather quickly wears thin. This is perhaps why I could not help feeling that ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ might have been more enjoyable if it had been shortened by a third, or even a half. I freely admit that whereas ‘Westwood’ held my attention throughout, ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ rather outstayed its welcome. It’s a strange kind of book too in that it doesn’t seem to quite know what it wants to be and as a result rather falls between stools. I appreciate that saying this will surely Go Against The Grain, and I also willingly surrender to the accusation that I haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, but there it is. The ‘science fiction’ aspect is thin and, I rather suspect, something that has only been highlighted by readers from the second half of the 20th Century onwards. Gibbons barely acknowledges the notion of it being ‘science fiction’ though, and the pointers to the book being set at some point in the indeterminate (near) future are few and far between. Something about an Anglo-Nicaraguan war of 1946 and descriptions of airplanes landing and taking off in the field as if they were buses… Yet these hints of The Future are unconvincing, particularly when viewed through the lens of history. So whilst air travel appears to be as workaday as bus trips or train journeys, there is no suggestion that the technology might have improved much, for passengers still need to don warm leather outfits as if the aircraft of the future will still be open to the elements, or at least will not have discovered pressurised cabins or heating. There is too a strange need to call cinema films ‘talkies’, as though in this near future the notion of silent cinema will still be popular enough to require distinctions to be made. Surely even in 1932 no-one much bothered making that distinction? It might just be another means of showing up the supposed gulf in ‘refinement’ between the urbane city dweller and the un-educated country bumpkin, but I don’t think so.
Such criticisms are largely nit-picking pedantry, of course, yet they do diminish ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ to some extent, as does the notion that it is down to the ‘civilised’ city types to ‘rescue’ or liberate the ‘backward’ farm workers, supposedly stuck in their ways and trapped in a world of nonsensical folklore and superstition. Once upon a time I would have been wholeheartedly behind the idea of Modernism transforming the rural world but I’m afraid those days of believing that ever newer technologies might Solve All Our Problems are long gone. These days I’m more likely to side with the Starkadders and rather want to tell Flora where to get off and to Stop Interfering.
Another reason why ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ doesn’t quite do it for me is that whilst, yes, it is quite comedic, it is not convincingly so. There are moments when Gibbons is almost Wodehousian in her flair for dialogue and believable ridiculousness, but it is not sustained. This was really brought home to me by following my reading of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ with Wodehouse’s ‘Mr Mulliner’ stories, the vast majority of which are prime Wodehouse and therefore enormously funny and engaging. Wodehouse is very definitely An English Thing of course, and a specifically Upper Class English Thing to boot. There is always something in his stories, though, that neatly punctures the very Englishness that they inhabit, like Bertie Wooster popping a hot water bottle in a fellow Country House guest’s bed. Indeed, this particular Wooster prank is referenced in one of the Mulliner tales, where it is joined by various other characters and names from the Jeeves and Wooster realm. This kind of Balzacian/Marvel Universe approach is one of the things that makes Wodehouse so, ahem, marvellous, as is the manner in which he so deliciously celebrates and eviscerates the very characters and environments he creates. The Englishness that Wodehouse conjures is as illusory and mythical as the one later created by Ray Davies in that it is both informed by reality and transformed by the artist’s mediation. It is an England as sculpted by the needs and expectations of Hollywood as it is by the ‘truth’ of The Country House Weekend. Nothing is real. Everything is tarnished. Isn’t it hilarious? Have another hot scotch and lemon and pull out that copy of the ‘Cowkeepers’ Weekly Bulletin and Milk Producers’ Guide’. And, incidentally, did the goat die?
If Flora’s goat did die then who killed it? Was it murder? Can animals even be murdered according to English law? Might Agatha Christie have written a mystery around it? ’Poirot and the Goat’ perhaps, though I would prefer it as a Marple mystery myself. Preferably with all the juicy discomfiting racist and sexist language of the period left intact. It’s part of what makes those old ‘Golden Age’ novels so interesting, after all, at least for me. Seeing something of the historical period through the written words of those who were living through them. Understanding that language which we might, quite rightly, now deem unacceptable and offensive was once commonplace. It’s interesting to see how we got here from there, and if such Errors Of Our (collective) Ways are airbrushed from existence then what does that say about our (collective) contemporary paranoia and weakness? But commerce must prevail, and if one needs to rewrite text in order to protect the profits from the sale of old books to new generations, then so be it. Heaven forbid that those new generations might read something offensive to their sensibilities and therefore decide to buy something else. Regardless, the media attention of the very act of such retrospective censorship will Create Attention and surely encourage sales. Safeguard the profit margin at all costs.
There are certainly some uncomfortable notions filtering through Christie’s 1939 novel ‘Murder is Easy’, a book that I read recently after hearing that there is apparently a new BBC dramatisation in the offing. It will be interesting to see what is made of the story and what kind of treatment it receives. Will it continue the trend of highlighting the supposed Dark Side of Christie’s writing? I can see why that temptation might hold, for ‘Murder is Easy’ is at root a Serial Killer thriller, but I rather hope too that the producers pick up on the humour of the book, which is richly, darkly (but not DARKLY) funny. It reads like Christie having a bit of fun with the thriller form, blending it with her more familiar ‘whodunnit’ mystery genre. Indeed, as a ‘whodunnit’ it is not particularly convincing, as even I had worked out the perpetrator quite early in the book (and I am so dim that I rarely work these things out, even on re-reads). Instead there is something humorous about wondering just how long it is going to take the (male) detective figure to cotton on, and indeed there is a lovely moment during the denouement where a female character explicitly voices this frustration. So yes, it’s partly a book about gender stereotypes and laughing at the incompetence of the male, but it is also a book where one feels a certain tension between Christie simultaneously playing up to those stereotypes and societal expectations and confronting/exposing them. There is, for example, a degree of homophobia that ripples whenever the Mr Ellsworthy character appears. He is first described as “a very exquisite young man” with “a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Another character murmurs “The artistic temperament” to which Ellsworthy turns “with a flash of long white hands” and says “‘Not that terrible phrase, Miss Conway. No – no, I implore you.’” Later he is described as a “Nasty bit of goods” with “A nasty mind and nasty habits”. Later still he’s described as “the only one who is definitely queer. He is queer, you can’t get away from it!” Yet whilst it might be a spoiler to say that Mr Ellsworthy is not the serial killer (you’d have to be even dimmer than me to really suspect him) it’s interesting that ultimately these descriptions come from characters who are either untrustworthy, a bit stupid, or just rather unpleasant.
Christie may not be as obviously humorous as Wodehouse or Gibbons in ‘Cold Comfort Farm’, but she is nevertheless adept at wielding the odd barb with flamboyant precision. When one character professes “a somewhat illogical prejudice against lawyers in general – based on the grounds that so many politicians were recruited from their ranks” I admit that I did indeed LOL, as I did when another is described as being “dressed in careless-looking country clothes” that “were unkind to his figure, which ran mostly to stomach.” Ouch.
Now ‘Murder is Easy’ is not a Marple mystery, and indeed Christie had written only one Miss Marple novel when it was published, but one rather thinks that Jane was on her mind. The books is filled with old ladies about whom there is “something very cosy and English” but that “are as sharp as nails in some ways”, and one can’t help but wonder if the book might have begun life as a prototype Marple before Christie decided that the serial killer theme leant more towards the blood thirsty realm of the thriller than the more subtle disquiet of the Jane Marple universe. Indeed, the book does rather get lost in its latter stages, falling a little too much into the rampaging action of the thriller genre for my tastes, but it is all carried off exuberantly well regardless. And this is the crux of the thing with Christie, and with ‘Murder is Easy’ in particular. For whilst it is too easy (and lazy) to think of Christie books as being ‘cosy’, so too is it to play up the darkness that underpins the (multiple) crimes committed in their pages. Christie (like many Golden Age crime writers) is more complex than that, but crucially, only slightly more so. It’s the combination of those contrasting flavours and the injection of the intangible Entertainment ingredient that make them so enjoyable. As Christie says herself in this book: “Gossip and malice and scandal – all so delicious if one takes them in the right spirit!” Quite the cocktail.
Mix me another.