'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella Gibbons is excellently entertaining. Recently orphaned (but not really destitute) Flora imposes herself on her distant relations at Cold Comfort Farm where Cousin Judith informs her regularly that 'there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm', Great Aunt Ada Doom just as regularly complains of the 'something nasty in the woodshed' that she encountered in childhood, and everyone seems to have their own brooding resentments about the domestic arrangements. Nobody there is living the life they dream of, and being a young woman of considerable common sense and determination Flora sets about sorting out their untidy and neglected lives; Reuben suspects her of having designs on the farm but it is not, in fact, for any reason other than that she loves a challenge, and she really doesn't want to have to work for a living (how uncivilized):
"Besides, there is sure to be a lot of material I can collect for my novel; and perhaps one or two of the relations will have messes or miseries in their domestic circle which I can clear up.'
'You have the most revolting Florence Nightingale complex,' said Mrs Smiling.
'It is not that at all, and well you know it. On the whole I dislike my fellow-beings; I find them so difficult to understand. But I have a tidy mind, and untidy lives irritate me. Also, they are uncivilized.'" (p.21)
Aunt Ada has lived her life as a dictatorial matriarch, keeping the whole family in her thrall, and keeping an even tighter rein on the purse strings. This quote gives a nice impression of the gloomy, brooding atmosphere: here the young people return from Richard Hawk-Monitor's birthday ball:
"Perhaps 'ablaze' is too strong a word. There was a distinct suggestion of corpse-lights and railway-station waiting-rooms about the lights which shone forth from the windows of Cold Comfort. But compared to the heavy, muffling darkness of the night in which the countryside was sunk, the lights looks positively rorty.
'Oh, my goodness!' said Flora.
'It's Grandmamma!' whispered Elfine, who had gone very white." (p.168)
And this one shows a lovely contrast between the inside and the outside worlds (Rennet is a neglected and much maligned spinster sister):
"The dawn widened into an exquisite spring day. Soft, wood-like puffs of sound came from the thrushes' throats in the trees. The uneasy year, tortured by its spring of adolescence, broke into bud-spots in hedge, copse, spinner, and byre.
Judith sat in the kitchen, looking out with leaden eyes across the disturbed expanse of teeming country-side. Her face was grey. Rennet huddled by the fire, stirring some rather nasty jam she had suddenly thought she would make. She had decided to stay behind when the other female Starkadders had gone off with Adam; her flayed soul shrank, obliquely, from their unspoken pity." (p.180)
Over the course of the tale Flora gradually introduces many revolutionary ideas to the household, such as afternoon tea, washing curtains and contraception. She contrives a very fortuitous marriage for the wayward Elfine, sets several family members off on the path to new lives, and tops it off by coaxing Aunt Ada out of her room and into the real world. Even the poor unfortunate cows get a new home. She doesn't come in and tell them how they should be living, she just sets the wheels in motion and encourages them to take the chance:
"Anyway, Flora was beginning to feel that things were happening a little too quickly at Cold Comfort Farm. She had not yet recovered from the Counting last night (was it only last night? - it seemed a month ago) and the departure of Amos; and already Seth had gone, and Mr Mybug was falling in love with Rennet, and doubtless planning to carry her off.
If things went on t this rate there would soon be nobody left at the farm at all." (p.190)
The story was written as a parody of the romantic rural novels that were popular at the time, of which Stella had been writing scathing reviews in The Lady. Her writing career covered forty years of novels, short stories and poetry but she came to feel that the lasting impact and reputation of Cold Comfort Farm had a detrimental effect on the impact of her later writing. In the spirit of support I have ordered 'Here Be Dragons' from the library.