Cold Comfort Farm

From Academic Kids

Cold Comfort Farm is a comic novel by Stella Gibbons, published in 1932. It parodies the romanticized, doom-laden accounts of rural life in some novels. The most immediate model was the work of Mary Webb. Gibbons was working for the Evening Standard in 1928 when they decided to serialise Webb's first novel, The Golden Arrow, and had the job of summarising the plot of earlier instalments. More talented novelists in the tradition parodied by Cold Comfort Farm are D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy; and going further back, the Brontė sisters.


Plot summary

The heroine, Flora, stays at Aunt Ada Doom's isolated farm in the fictional village of Howling in Sussex. As is typical in a certain genre of romantic nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century literature, each of the farm's inhabitants has some long-festering emotional problem caused by ignorance, hatred or fear, and the farm is badly run. Flora, being a level-headed, urban woman, applies modern common sense to their problems and helps them all adapt to the twentieth century.

The speech of the Sussex characters is a parody of rural dialects (in particular the Somerset accent - another parody of Mary Webb, whose characters all tended to speak with a Somerset accent despite the fact they more often than not lived in a completely different county) and is sprinkled with fake but authentic-sounding local vocabulary such as mollocking (Seth's favourite activity, undefined but invariably resulting in the pregnancy of a local maid), sukebind (a weed whose flowering in the Spring symbolises the quickening of sexual urges in man and beast; the word is presumably formed by analogy to 'woodbine' (honeysuckle) and bindweed) and clettering (an impractical method used by Adam for washing dishes, which involves scraping them with a dry twig).

Characters, in order of appearance

In London:

  • Flora Poste: the heroine, a nineteen-year old orphan from London.
  • Mary Smiling: a widow, Flora's friend in London.
  • Charles Fairford: Flora's cousin in London, studying to become a parson.

In Howling, Sussex:

  • Judith Starkadder: Flora's cousin, wife of Amos. She has an unhealthy passion for her own son Seth.
  • Seth Starkadder: younger son of Amos and Judith. Handsome and over-sexed.
  • Ada Doom: Judith's mother, a reclusive, miserly widow, owner of the farm, who constantly complains of having "seen something nasty in the woodshed" when she was a girl.
  • Adam Lambsbreath: ancient farm hand.
  • Mark Dolour: farm hand.
  • Amos Starkadder: Judith's husband, and hellfire preacher at the Church of the Quivering Brethren. ("Ye're all damned!")
  • Micah, married to Susan; Urk, a bachelor who wants to marry Elfine; Ezra, married to Jane; Caraway, married to Lettie; Harkaway: Amos's half-cousins.
  • Luke, married to Prue; Mark, divorced from Susan and married to Pheobe: Amos's half-brothers.
  • Reuben Starkadder: Amos's heir, moody and jealous of anyone who stands between him and his inheritance of the farm.
  • Meriam Beetle: hired girl, and mother of Seth's four children.
  • Elfine: an outdoor-loving girl of the Starkadder family, who is besotted with the local squire, Dick Hawk-Monitor of Hautcouture Hall.
  • Mrs Beetle.
  • Mrs Murther: landlady of The Condemn'd Man public house.
  • Mr Meyerbug: a writer who is in love with Flora. His is working on a thesis that the works of the Brontė sisters were written by their brother Branwell Brontė.
  • Rennet: unwanted daughter of Susan and Mark
  • Dr Müdel: psychoanalyst.

The interrelations of the characters are complex. The family tree below is an attempt to illustrate them as they stand at the end of the novel.

Missing image
Starkadder Family Tree

Flora's solutions

The novel ends when Flora, with the aid of her handbook The Higher Common Sense, has solved each character's problem. These solutions are:

  • Meriam: Flora introduces Meriam to the concept of contraception.
  • Seth: Flora introduces him to a Hollywood film director, Earl P. Neck, who hires him as a screen idol.
  • Amos: Flora persuades him to buy a Ford van and become a travelling preacher. He loses interest in running the farm and hands it over to Reuben.
  • Elfine: Flora teaches her some social graces and dress sense so that Hawk-Monitor falls in love with her.
  • Urk: forgets his desire for Elfine and marries Meriam.
  • Mr Meyerbug: falls in love with Rennet.
  • Judith: Flora hires a psychoanalyst, Dr Müdel, who, over lunch, transfers Judith's obsession from Seth to himself until he can set her interest on old churches instead.
  • Ada: Flora uses a copy of Vogue magazine to tempt her to join the twentieth century, and spend some of her fortune on living the high life in Paris.
  • Adam: is given a job as cow-herd at Hautcouture Hall.
  • Flora: marries Charles.


Cold Comfort Farm has been adapted for television twice. In 1968 a three-episode mini-series was made, starring Sarah Badel as Flora Poste. In 1995 there was a made for TV movie, starring Kate Beckinsale as Flora.

The BBC produced a four-part radio adaptation (tapes of the adaptation are copyrighted 1989, though the series was broadcast before that date).Miriam Margolyes played Mrs. Beetle, In January 1983, a sequel, set several years later, when Flora is married with several children, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm was broadcast (Part one: "There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm", and part 2: "Reuben's Oath - or Seven Good Men and True").

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