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Cold Comfort Romance

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I've just reread Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm -- an event rapidly becoming an annual ritual.  As always, I was delighted by the book's comedy (which does get better with every re-read), but for the first time, I was struck by its character as a fundamentally romantic work.

Of course, the book ends with Charles sweeping Flora off in his plane, to a life of civilized marriage, and Flora's last words in the book are, "I love you."  However, this happy end is not the romance to which I am referring.  Flora + Charles is entirely plausible; their pairing is not the stuff of fantasy -- the incredible openness to possibility -- that characterizes the romantic vein.

Rather, romance rears in Flora's triumph with her relatives.  As Lynn Truss describes this victory in her introduction to the 2006 Penguin edition:

[T]he huge delight of Stella Gibbons's novel is the way Flora approaches an eternal and universal difference of temperament: as a brisk, cheerful person, she discovers a whole farmful of people wallowing, self-thwarted, in chronic misery and simply makes them stop it.
(p. ix (emphasis added).)  But, rather than a "huge delight," Stella Gibbons, looking back on Cold Comfort Farm thirty-three years later in an article for Punch, remarks that, when she glances at the book now, she is "filled by an incredulous wonder that I could once have been so light-hearted -- but so light-hearted."  (p. xiii.)

What's the cause of this incredulous wonder?  My guess is this: in real life, Flora could never "simply make them stop it."  The denizens of Cold Comfort Farm were invested in their dysfunction.  As Flora observed about Aunt Ada:

Persons of Aunt Ada's temperament were not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, and faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings for ever, and misunderstandings, and interferings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!
(p. 57.)  People of these sorts are well-defended against Flora's weapon of choice: reason.  Nobody snaps out of dysfunctional behavior patterns simply because, as Flora does with Aunt Ada, someone points out that they could have a better time being a reasonable person. 

Having spent a good chunk of my life negotiating with just such freaks as inhabit Cold Comfort Farm, I can relate to the wonder Stella Gibbons feels about her youthful light-heartedness.  The romance of Cold Comfort Farm arises from the glorious possibility that these nasty head-cases could be persuaded to reform, and the concomitant hope that, therefore, you can reform by choosing to, that you're not bound to repeat the disastrous patterns of your family -- that being "born in the woodshed" -- to paraphrase Stella Gibbons (p. xviii) -- doesn't mean that you won't marry the prince with the airplane.

The reality, in my experience, is that negotiations inevitably fail with people who are committed to irrationally miserable patterns of behavior, and the experience of having tried and failed (repeatedly) to persuade them leaves one leaden and old.  What a buoyant relief, then, is a dose of light-hearted romance.   
DorothyParker.jpgSo said Dorothy Parker, quoted in a recent NY Times book review of the book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, by Elaine Showalter.

Since I myself have been told -- repeatedly and derisively -- that I write "like a man," I grimaced reading Parker's prayer.  If I were the praying type, my prayer would be: to live in a time when writing like a man was marketable!

That said, I've never been too fussed about whether I write in a gendered manner, or whether I can be classed as a "woman writer" -- a category that many of the renowned females who are the subject of A Jury of Her Peers rejected.  I understand their objections.  The task of all writers, whatever their genitalia, is to develop a voice, to write in a manner distinctive to their individual persons.  Having crafted unique voices, why should women writers be subjected to critical generalizations that lump their achievements into the denigrating sub-class of "women writers"?  And what male writer would find himself in an anthology of "Writers with Penises"?

Still, violent antipathy to being classed with one's peers bears with it a whiff of mythologizing ("I'm the most unique woman ever"), as well as self-loathing ("Don't group me with women -- contemptible").  It's also unreasonable.  "Women writers" is as legitimate a classification, and as useful a basis for comparison, as "British writers" or "Post-colonial writers" or "detective fiction authors."  Such classifications are external to the writing process, devised by critics (non-writers) to aid the understanding of readers (non-writers), and in their hierarchy of values, Stella Gibbons' vagina is more important to understanding Cold Comfort Farm than her internal process of developing an authorial voice, and the influence that P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh or any of the other great, male, British, comic novelists might have had on that process.    

If critics and readers find such classifications helpful, god bless, as long as they're reading.  It makes no difference to my task as a writer, which is the honing my own authorial voice.  In the service of which task I pray: Dear God, please make me stop writing like an unpublished author.

(Photo courtesy of The Boston Globe.)


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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Gibbons, Stella category.

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