Classics of the Month: Cold Comfort Farm and Crossing to Safety

These were terrific reads. A comic novel set on a Sussex farm and a look back at banner years in the friendship of two couples. Both:

 

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

I’d heard so much about this over the years. It was one I had to be in just the right mood for, though – I’d picked up my secondhand copy and read the first few pages on four different occasions before it finally took. If you recognize the phrase “something nasty in the woodshed” or know of a fictional plant called sukebind, you’ll appreciate the extent to which the story has entered into popular culture.

When Flora Poste’s parents die of the “influenza or Spanish Plague” (oh dear), she’s left an orphan at age 20. Her best option seems to be moving in with relatives she’s never met: Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadder cousins of Cold Comfort Farm in Howling, Sussex. They’re a delightful collection of eccentrics: mad Aunt Ada shut away in her room; her son Amos, a fire-and-brimstone preacher; cousin Seth, with his movie star looks and multiple children by the servant girl; cousin Elfine, a fey innocent in a secret relationship with the local landowner’s son, who’s dumb but rich; and so on.

Relying on her London sophistication and indomitable optimism, Flora sets out to improve everything and everyone at the crumbling farm. The blurb calls this a “parody of the melodramatic rural novels of the time,” but I thought of it more as a skewering of Victorian stereotypes, not least in that the farming folk speak like Thomas Hardy’s rustics (Reuben: “‘I ha’ scranleted two hundred furrows come five o’clock down i’ the bute.’ It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply. Was it a complaint?”). Meanwhile, Mr. Mybug, with his obsession with sex, is a caricature of a D.H. Lawrence protagonist.

It may take a little while to adjust to the book’s sense of humor, which struck me as surprisingly edgy for its time. Gibbons expresses no great outrage about Seth’s illegitimate offspring, for instance; instead, the babies’ grandmother has the enterprising idea of training them up to be a jazz band. There is also plenty of pure silliness, like the cows being named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless and one of them spontaneously losing legs. I especially liked that Flora’s London friend Mrs. Smiling collects brassieres and that Flora always samples novels to make sure they don’t contain a childbirth scene. This non sequitur also amused me at the same time as it puzzled me: Flora “liked Victorian novels. They were the only kind of novel you could read while you were eating an apple.”

 

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (1987)

(A buddy read with Laila of Big Reading Life for her Classics Club challenge.) Right from the start, I was thoroughly invested in this lovely, bittersweet story of two faculty couples, Larry and Sally Morgan and Sid and Charity Lang. Much of the action is split between Wisconsin in the 1930s and Vermont in the 1970s, the novel’s present day. Larry, the narrator, had a brief academic career in Madison but moved on to write novels. Sid longed to be a poet but didn’t have the skill, so remained in academia despite a tiny publication record.

Charity is the quartet’s stubborn mother hen, organizing everyone and tailoring everything to her own plans (don’t we all have a friend like that?). The Langs have wealth and class on their side, whereas the Morgans are described as having the intellect and talent. I found it odd that Stegner gave Charity such an obviously metaphorical name – starting with a big dinner party, the Langs lavish gifts and money on the Morgans in the name of friendship.

The novel sets up various counterparts and doubles, so Sally’s polio in the 1930s finds a parallel in the 1970s story line, when a terminally ill Charity is orchestrating her grand farewell. For all its challenges, Larry describes that first year in Madison as an idyllic time with “Two Adams and two Eves, an improvement on God’s plan.” Later on they all take a glorious sabbatical year together in Florence, too. New England, the Midwest and Italy make for an attractive trio of settings. There are also some great sequences that happen to reveal a lot about the friends’ dynamic, including an ill-fated sailboat outing and a hiking trip.

Nostalgic and psychologically rich, this is a quiet, beautifully written character study that would suit fans of Elizabeth Hay and May Sarton (though she was writing a decade and more earlier, this reminded me a lot of her small-town novel Kinds of Love and, eventually, A Reckoning). I’ll try more by Stegner.


Favorite lines:

“a chilly Octoberish smell of cured leaves rose from the ground, the indescribable smell of fall and football weather and the new term that is the same almost everywhere in America.”

Sid and Charity as “the people who above any other two on earth made us feel good, wanted, loved, important, and happy.”

“she was the same old Charity. She saw objectives, not obstacles, and she did not let her uncomplicated confidence get clouded by other people’s doubts, or other people’s facts, or even other people’s feelings.”


See also Susan’s review.

26 responses

  1. I loved Cold Comfort Farm – not at all what I was expecting, and so funny!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree. It looks like there are a couple of sort-of sequels. I might think about reading those, even though I generally avoid sequels, just for another kick of that humour!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve never found anything of hers to match up to this. There is a short story collection Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm which has some good stories, but mostly not CCF ones.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Both excellent choices. I taught CCF a few years ago at A level, which was great fun. Isn’t it strange that it’s also a sort of near-future sci-fi novel, though SG never seems that interested in developing that aspect. The Stegner is deeply moving.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I noticed that tiny note at the front about being set sometime in the near future. Perhaps that’s why it felt ahead of its time to me. I think it’s much better known and loved in the UK than elsewhere.

      Like

  3. I’ve not come across Crossing to Safety, although it sounds my sort of book but I love Cold Comfort Farm. There was a marvellous television version of it some years ago with Ian McKellen as the ranting religious fanatic. Unfortunately, anything else of hers that I’ve tried has been extremely disappointing, some of it almost like wading through treacle. After a couple I decided not to try any more for favourite contaminated my memories of Cold Comfort.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That TV version sounds great — what interesting casting! Hmm, I’ll think carefully about whether to try another by Gibbons. If my library has one of the sequels there’s no harm in reading one chapter or story.

      Like

  4. I haven’t read Cold Comfort Farm – a real gap in my reading! I was late to Crossing to Safety but absolutely loved it. I have another of Stegner’s books – Angle of Repose but will probably need to get glasses before I read it. Seriously. The font is tiny, there’s no white space on the pages, and the paper is thin. I ordered a copy from the library – same problem!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I also have a copy of Angle of Repose (in a box in America), and remember it looking enormous compared to Crossing to Safety. Someday…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is! My edition has 626 pages of tiny, tiny print.

        Like

  5. I love Cold Comfort Farm, but don’t know Crossing to Safety. Thanks for the introduction. It’ll have to wait though. (a) Ploughing through my ‘to be read’ pile, (b) library shut, and (c) not buying more till I’ve done (a).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very sensible goals. I hope to clear my library stack, make a good dent in the April-May review books and get to some of my own books on my bedside table.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks so much for the link, Rebecca. I’m delighted that you enjoyed the Stegner.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your review encouraged me, and then Laila reading it at the same time was the final nudge I needed. (Otherwise something new always takes priority, doesn’t it?)

      Like

      1. Even more pleased now! The lure of the bright, shiny and new so often does push classics aside but it would be hard to better Stegner’s writing.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I should re-read Cold Comfort Farm, a delightful book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve seen talk on Twitter about having it around as a quarantine book. I imagine it was an inspiration for Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land.

      Like

  8. I read Cold Comfort Farm many many years ago – my Mother had a copy – then managed to buy my own once it was reprinted, and have read it several times since. One of my all-time favourite books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It seems to inspire devoted love 🙂

      Like

  9. I am so glad you enjoyed a Crossing to Safety. I really did as well. His writing style is so soothing, even when the topic is serious. I read Angle of Repose years ago and loved it. It’s one I’d like to reread someday. I haven’t yet written up any thoughts about CTS but hope to do so soon. And Cold Comfort Farm is on my TBR and my bookshelf right now. Maybe this is the time for it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for giving me the excuse to finally read Crossing to Safety! I bought it at a library book sale maybe 8-10 years ago.

      A lot of people seem to be picking up Cold Comfort Farm at the moment. If you like Nancy Mitford, it’s in that same sort of sharply witty style.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I love CCF and have read it a few times, a love that has been only enhanced by reading dear Mary Webb, who she also parodies. Do NOT read Conference at CCF, however, which is laboured as anything. Hadn’t come across Crossing to Safety and it sounds good, esp the setting.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did see afterwards that it was specifically supposed to be parodying Precious Bane, which I’d not heard of. Thanks for steering me away from Conference!

      I think Stegner would be to your taste.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] From the list of “The Ten Best Novels to Lower Your Blood Pressure”: Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto by Maile Chapman & The Waves by Virginia Woolf (and I’ve read another three of them, including, recently, Crossing to Safety). […]

    Like

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: