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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.   
What causes patterns of dysfunction to repeat themselves across generations in a family?  And how can these patterns be altered?

Literature throughout history has dealt with the problem, and despite the efforts of the most creative minds in humanity, the root cause of pernicious behavior transmission remains murky.  

Moreover, the idea that the behavior patterns across familial generations can be altered seems to be a new one.  The Greeks were convinced that generationall familial disaster was the will of the gods and impossible to evade.  Even modern writers find moderate versions of that position palatable: in his preface to A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving, and their Remarkable Families, author Michael Holroyd remarks that "the configurations of family life today still echo and reflect the concealed lives of a hundred years or more ago" (as reported in a NYT book review).

One obvious possibility for dealing with such fatalism is to flee.  Oedipus tried with dismal results.  Writers, as recounted in Louise DeSalvo's, On Moving: A Writer's Meditation on New Houses, Old Haunts and Finding Home Again, seem particularly inclined to follow Oedipus' lead and obtain similarly disappointing outcomes.  "In . . . detached moments, . . . [Virginia] Woolf understood that her moves -- like many discussed here -- were efforts to obliterate the past. The next house was always, she said, the 'ancient carrot before me,'" writes Amy Finnerty in a NYT review of DeSalvo's book.

My own sense is that, literature and the experiences of writers notwithstanding, physically disassociating oneself from dysfunctional behavior is a step towards breaking the pattern.  That said, running is not a solution in itself; rather, conscientious and extreme uprooting of the environmental triggers that lead to behavior patterns seems to be necessary.  Oedipus, for example, seeminly could've avoided all his familial woes if he'd joined a monastary.

I don't mean to be blithe about the difficulty of altering behavior patterns, and I'm not typically a supporter of radical measures.  But because the causes of pernicious behavior transmission are difficult to identify with any precision, broader remedial measures seem justified.  Whatever the cause, eliminating all triggers will prevent the harm.  Whether Oedipus slept with his mother and killed his father because of the gods, bad luck, or a mixture of perversion and over-competitiveness, joining a monastary would've averted the evil.

Of course, we resist radical measures.  They're inconvenient.  Also, "[w]e typically take comfort in any discovery of connection to ancient peoples. See, we reassure ourselves, nothing has changed," writes Brad Leithauser, reviewing Anne Carson's An Oresteia for NYT.  But, whether examining the House of Atreus or the House of Alexandri, the comforts of nothing changing are outweighed by the pain of nothing changing. 

An injured body

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I love reading novels for three reasons, primarily.  The first is relief of boredom.  The second is the pleasurable stimulation I experience when I'm engaged in a story.  And the third is the comfort I derive from novels.  Learning from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, for example, that the contours of generation struggle have changed remarkably little since the nineteenth century made me feel wonder at the consistency of human travails throughout time and the support we can find in the written records of our forebears.

That said, I didn't expect to find comfort in novels for the irritation and insecurity occasioned by the current state of the publishing industry.  The decline in reading rates, the competition from the Internet and video games, the market preference for memoirs/how-to's/biz books, the current economic downturn -- these harbingers of the death of the novel I took to be burdens I'd have to shoulder without aid from authors of an earlier era.  How often I'd thought my publishing woes would be solved if only I'd been writing during the heyday of Grove Press, in the years of Max Perkins . . .

But Jane Austen set me straight.  "[I]f the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it. . . . Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body," Austen writes, taking her stand in Northanger Abbey.  "Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried.  From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers."

Ah me.  To be assuaged with such thorny balm -- the assurance that writing novels would be a miserable pursuit whenever I'd be born; to be comforted with the knowledge that reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated -- and have been so for some two hundred years; I can only love reading novels even more.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Family patterns across generations category.

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