I loved this novel. It was an impulse purchase although I was looking for a Delaney. I’d read that he was a close friend of James Tiptree jr, whom the world now knows was Alice Sheldon, and wrote feminist sf, so I wanted to find out more. Babel-17 (1966) is certainly feminist, but in a breathtakingly audacious way: it simply isn’t made an issue. Delaney just writes a novel about language, xenotranslation and mathematics, and wraps it around a pirate space opera. All the potentially contentious feminist, post-racial, gendered stuff is tucked out of the way, under the hood, where it powers the novel unnoticeably, just purring along.
Babel-17 is beautifully well written. It’s adorned with poetry, because Rydra Wong the protagonist is a poet as well as a xenolinguist, and I can believe her poems are real. (Apparently they are real poems, by a real poet, not just mugged up for the novel.) The space opera feels like a James Blish engineering romp, but aeons ahead in social attitudes. We have the pleasure of superbly plausible space-tech details to ease us through an engaging plot about people who live, work, and continue to work after living is over.
Delaney’s invention is stunning. Old pilots and navigators never die, they just become discorporate, and inhabit a special space station afterlife facility until their skills are needed for voyages where the physics and working conditions would pulverise living bodies. Rydra breaks the alien code (Babel-17), and is plunged into an alternative existence of enhanced senses which makes human speech and thinking impossibly slow. Bored crews save their money for cosmetisurgery so they can wear tails, or remodel their bone structure for better shipboard function where navigation means a whole-body interface with the shipbrain. The discorporate crew have no audible voices, but they speak directly to Rydra’s brain, so she can self-program their remarks into Basque before they dissipate completely. (Why Basque? It’s a memorable sound, so Rydra can recall what those crew are saying from phoneme memory rather than meaning.) Navigation crew triad up in threes in a marriage that lasts until death, working and playing together through the stars.
Who cares about the plot: Delaney’s details and world-building create the real magic. It was joint winner of the Nebula Best Novel for 1966. Go find a copy. I’ll race you to the Delaney shelf.
The immortal E F Benson begins this podcast scripts catch-up from Really Like this Book, loosely based on the English country village. I wanted to collect together novels that showed different aspects of an English village in fiction, to see how a village was used, and what the village actually was. Benson’s undying contribution to this genre is the Sussex village of Riseholme, ruled over with an iron grip by Mrs Emmeline Lucas, more commonly known to her intimates as Lucia. Benson was the son of a future Archbishop of Canterbury, who represented England at figure-skating (it says on Wikipedia), shared a villa on Capri with a close male friend before the First World War, and is usually regarded as one of the great gay novelists of the 20th century. He is also one of the great English short story writers, but wrote over 50 novels, his most famous being the Mapp and Lucia novels, of which Queen Lucia (1920) is the first. I won’t say any more about Miss Mapp just now, but once you’ve experienced Lucia in this book, you absolutely must go on to novel 2, Miss Mapp (1922), and then relish the clash of these titans in the fourth book, Mapp and Lucia (1931).
While the Mapp universe is set in Tilling, based on the Sussex town of Rye where Benson lived, Lucia’s village of Riseholme is more of an invention. It is four hours away from London by train (probably more like one hour today), and it has a plethora of Elizabethan buildings which the incoming, middle-class inhabitants have refashioned into their idea of a perfect idyllic residence for all seasons. Some residents do more refashioning than others. Lucia, who first promoted Riseholme as a desirable residence, actually built an extension to her house that is more Elizabethan than anything else in the village. She decorated it in period perfection with rushes on the floor, a mermaid door knocker, almost no modern lighting, and black-letter volumes in unreadable Gothic script to suggest that, really, this room was where Shakespeare would have preferred to have written his immortal works rather than a scrubby theatre in London, a place that Lucia abhors. Her garden is planted with Shakespearian flowers, and her friends come to coo at the latest blossoming each spring. Does this sound twee and camp and rather too rarified for anything more than mild amusement? Is Riseholme merely a playground, rather than a place to live? Let us leave the setting, and focus on Lucia, for she makes Riseholme an arena for epic battles of socialising and showing off.
Lucia is the ruling tyrant. She has all the best parties, and all the best ideas for fun and entertainments. Her husband’s wise investments means that she can keep pouring money into her social whirl and thus lead the entertainment with resources as well as with her ideas. Her ideas are magnificent. She is a stupendous collector of fads, adopting them so quickly, and becoming expert in them so ruthlessly, that hardly anyone could guess that she is usually only one step ahead of the herd in spotting the latest trends coming and going. Her husband, Peppino (or Mr Philip Lucas, if you want to be tiresomely English about it) is her faithful consort, but has few natural skills apart from making money, and spotting gossip where others might miss it.
Lucia’s most important supporter is Georgie Pillson, her Prime Minister and courtier, a camp little man with admirable talents in embroidery who is quite the nicest person in Riseholme. She and he memorise Italian phrases to shriek at each other lovingly in public. They like it to be suggested, by others, that they are unreasonably devoted to each other, but that his devotion is fated to be unrequited in any meaningful sense. For a man who has his hair redyed every few weeks, who wears a little cape over his white linen suit when the evenings threaten to be chilly, who likes to dust his own bibelots and who is protected from the world by his devoted parlourmaid Foljambe, avoiding marriage is probably wise.
Lucia’s enemy, her rival in striving for social pre-eminence, is her hearty neighbour Daisy Quantock. Daisy is just as good as Lucia in spotting trends that she can give exclusive little parties for, but she is much more rash. She invites total strangers to stay with her for weeks because they have told her that they are an Indian guru, or a medium, and so she usually gets taken advantage of. However, Daisy is also shrewd: she can cover up her own mistakes very skilfully. Since pride requires that none of her friends must know when they’ve been taken for a ride by imposters, or when something has been got wrong, Daisy’s quick damage-control actions are admirable, quite as good as anything Lucia can do herself.
Lucia, however, has the extra quality of artistic integrity. She set herself up as THE arbiter of all aesthetic judgements in Riseholme, and the dispenser of correct musical and dramatic tastes to her friends. She has refined senses: she cannot bear to hear a gramophone. She cannot bear to play the second and third movements of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 14 in C-sharp minor, not because they are too loud and abrupt in comparison with the First (which she casually refers to as ‘Moonlight’), but because (whisper it) she has never learned to play them. She and Georgie rehearse secretly and separately for their duet playing, pretending to each other that they haven’t practiced at all; such is the spirit of competition in Riseholme that keeps everyone eager to improve themselves, to show they are worthy of the efforts that Lucia puts in to keep the village’s artistic tone thoroughly raised.
In such a heaven of well-controlled acolytes, who act as an obedient chorus meeting each morning for gossip on the village green, how can anything go wrong in Lucia’s paradise? It does when a stranger comes to town: one of the two classical beginnings to any story. (The other is: someone goes on a journey.) The stranger arriving in Riseholme is someone truly famous, the marvellous prima donna Miss Olga Bracely, who is the Real Deal compared to Lucia’s seriously limited understanding of music, art and the theatre. Georgie falls in love with Olga (platonically: she’s married, and we know he’s not the marrying kind), and Olga adopts Georgie as her new best friend in Riseholme. This brings out the really honourable side of his nature, which such a long and close association with Lucia had begun to turn just a little bit catty. For Lucia cannot endure competition, and she exposes herself horribly when she is thwarted in her schemes by Olga’s incomparably better ones, and bitches like a fishwife. Georgie is shocked at such a failing by his former idol, but his noble nature, encouraged by Olga, helps Lucia recover her poise, and find a way for her to be happy again. Olga submits gracefully to being patronised, Georgie is admitted back as Riseholme’s Prime Minister, and the parties and soirées continue pleasantly without that rather unrestful sense of vicious, Medicean competition that Lucia had instigated. For she will not lose control of her kingdom: it is her realm, her validation, her reason for being.
The village chorus on the green are amusing, perfectly nice ordinary people, but they are also rather stupid, and have no initiative to compare with Lucia’s. The only people who can see right through Lucia are the outsiders. Georgie’s beefy sisters Hermione and Ursula are two of her most sarcastic critics, but they don’t really care: Lucia doesn’t play golf or like dogs, so for them she is really only worth laughing at, not exposing. They can be bribed with good food and champagne not to rock any boats. Peppino probably does see right through his wife’s schemes, but he is powerless against her basilisk stare. They have no children; I wonder why? Actually, there ARE no children in Riseholme, except for a village boy who runs errands for the shopkeepers. Children, and the local working classes, exist only to serve, and if they don’t serve, they don’t exist. They have no function in Riseholme’s social life, except at Christmas for carol-singing purposes. This is again an aspect of their serving function: they help to decorate the village for the amusement and comfort of the middle-class rentiers who live there as if in a playground.
Other normal aspects of a village community are similarly twisted towards the perpetuation of a tyranny of culture. Church is something one goes to on a Sunday because that is correct behaviour: it has nothing to do with religion, and the vicar is hardly invited anywhere. Possibly he and his wife are too dull, not admiring enough of Lucia. Church is also a place for oneupmanship. After a long and very fashionable party of romps at Olga’s one Saturday night, from which Lucia departed offended without anyone actually noticing, she was pleased, though of course suitably and audibly disapproving, that Olga was not at Morning Service next morning. Doom once more fell upon Lucia’s snootiness when Olga’s perfect, highly-trained and utterly glorious voice rang out from behind the organist’s throne in an anthem. It was not even criticisable as a showy personal performance, since Olga stayed out of sight throughout.
There is nothing Lucia can do to vanquish Olga, and nothing Olga can do to persuade Lucia to stop being such a domineering grabby, superior old cat. For the good of the village, Olga and Georgie hatch a plan to bring Lucia back into some popularity (for her friends can see perfectly well how good life can be when the tyrant is unseated), and peace is restored when, after a magnificent performance of some Wagnerian tableaux in her home, Lucia advises Olga, who has previously sung at Covent Garden and probably at the Met, on stage presentation. The village is whole again: only one queen may rule.
I’ve been waiting for a biography of Josephine Tey for years, and was so pleased when I saw that Sandstone Press were to publish this one. Henderson’s book gives a vast amount of new information (new to the casual but devoted Tey re-reader, but possibly not new to a proper detective fiction scholar), and depicts Elizabeth MacKintosh’s life admirably. Henderson should be praised for her assiduous research which must have taken years. I have a sense from the style of some of the chapters that, during her research, Henderson may have been giving talks to local Inverness audiences about her project. The biography’s narrative voice, so to speak, explains a lot about otherwise well-known English places and people, as if expecting her readers not to know who or what these were. Henderson also explains Highland geography, Gaelic culture, and Inverness history and traditions, possibly in more detail than the non-Inverness reader might expect, but it’s all excellent background material. Overall, I did like this biography, and am grateful that it’s been written. But I was annoyed, throughout the book, by Henderson’s preoccupation with her subject’s sexuality.
Henderson has done some speculative detective work which ‘reveals’, she suggests, that Elizabeth MacKintosh had had a brief romance with an officer who died in the First World War: so brief that there is absolutely no evidence for it. I found it annoying that Henderson kept returning to this speculation, turning it later into an assertion, and then into assumed fact. She does the same with the episode of apparent friendship and non-love affair between MacKintosh and a local poet. Rudimentary connections between them (they published their poetry and stories at the same time, they wrote some letters to each other) are embroidered into a fantasy of mutual emotional dependence and literary influence on no evidence, just ‘what if’ guesses as to the possible existence of evidence. It is so exasperating that Henderson spends so much of the biography dwelling on these two ‘relationships’ which had no discernible effect on MacKintosh’s life or writing.
However, once we reach the letter written by ‘Mack’ to her actress friend Marda Vanne, explaining that Vanne’s advances to her had been a complete surprise and that MacKintosh, unlike Vanne, was not in fact lesbian, I did wonder if this was the reason for Henderson’s insistence on ‘proving’ that MacKintosh had been in love with men earlier in her life. Fishing through the footnotes and scattered references in the biography (it is well footnoted) I see that a series of modern detective novels starring a fictionalised MacKintosh depicts her as gay, and that this has exasperated and/or annoyed some of the Tey readership. I’ve never heard of these novels so have no opinion on them, but I enjoyed speculating on Henderson’s motivations for her own speculations. Honestly, does it matter if MacKintosh was or was not gay? There are many reasons for choosing not to marry. Henderson goes on to discuss a female Tey character (sorry, spoiler) who dresses as a man in order to pursue a masculine career, as if cross-dressing is a guarantee of lesbianism. The character displays no homosexual tendencies in the novel at all, and is in fact a rather unmasculine girl in trousers and short hair (fashionable for the period). Again, relying on evidence rather than on fallacies about sexual orientation, would have been preferable.
As you’ll see above, it is hard to keep to one name for Elizabeth MacKintosh. Henderson made a maddening stylistic decision to use the name most suitable for the context of MacKintosh’s life at that point. So she is rarely ‘Elizabeth’, but is called her childhood family name, her school name, her college name, and the names of her literary pseudonyms Daviot and Tey, with several different names being used on the same page, depending on the context. I can see the logic behind this decision, but it interrupts the narrative no end, and feels like a theory applied to the project, rather than a practice that emerged naturally as Henderson’s writing developed. This hopping about between names and personae is exacerbated by Henderson’s continual reportage of MacKintosh’s feelings, motivations, and other internal thoughts that she could not know herself. She is speculating, again.
Yet it is a good biography, and contains a really magnificent research finding from MacKintosh’s literary career that I will not divulge here, but which made me excuse all the biography’s stylistic irritations. Henderson has done Elizabeth MacKintosh proud, even if she takes far too many liberties to make a good story in the face of factual evidence.
It’s Graphic Novels week over on Vulpes Libris, and although I was planning to write about the 1970s comic strip version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Spiderwoman jumped off a shelf and told me otherwise. Jessica Drew is pregnant, she’s still working but about to submit gracefully to maternity leave, and she’s spideytastic. Captain Marvel suggests an intergalactic maternity unit she happens to know, so Jessica checks in for the birth, just as the Skrulls arrive with all weapons blazing. Javier Rodriguez drew the pictures and they are wonderful.
Angela Thirkell is resurrected here from the Really Like this Book podcast scripts, for her wonderful, joyous, comic novel Summer Half (1937), in which the headmaster’s daughter gets engaged to the junior classics master, and causes mayhem by being horrible to him for the rest of the term. Other engagements also happen, because no Angela Thirkell novel is complete without at least one, but the real joy of this novel is that it brings summer back, whenever you read it.
From the 1930s and throughout the Second World War Angela Thirkell was a best-seller, and she went on to publish a novel every year for about fifteen more years. This isn’t always a mark of quality or excitement, but it certainly tells you about her self-discipline, and what her readers wanted. She wrote about the same thing for thirty years: the small-town and country lives of a group of upper-class characters and their servants, tenants and neighbours. She was a great comic novelist in the sharp-toothed pastoral tradition of Jane Austen, yet her novels are marinaded in Victorian literature, and she quite clearly loathes the bad manners and slovenly standards of the present day. Most fascinating of all, she uses the fictional landscape invented by the Victorian novelist Antony Trollope, re-setting his Barsetshire in the twentieth century. She uses his character names, his topographical features, his family histories, and the events of his novels to construct a brilliant parallel universe in which to enact her saga. Her purpose was to satirise modern county life with an affectionate eye, and to be very unpleasant about character types and modern institutions she could not abide.
In Summer Half, she is writing about Southbridge and Northbridge, two small country towns in the south of Barsetshire. Northbridge is where the Keith family live, in Northbridge Manor. Colin Keith, the youngest son, wants to read for the Bar rather desperately, but he has also gone for an interview as a schoolmaster at Southbridge School, because he nobly thinks that his aged father ought not to be supporting him any longer. Mr Keith (a very well-off solicitor) is mildly exasperated at his son’s divergence from the one right path and true of the law, because he’s brought a nice barrister, Noel Merton, home for supper who is to take Colin into his Chambers in the autumn. Colin splutters, goes bright red, and accepts joyfully, knowing also that he will earn enough from his one term of schoolmastering to buy a little car.
Enter Lydia Keith, an overgrown schoolgirl of domineering character and a complete lack of self-consciousness. Her awkward age drowns all rational dinner-party conversation in a monologue about That Beast Pettinger (her headmistress), cocker spaniels, Robert Browning, Hamlet and Latin poetry. This is only stopped when her mother sends her to bed. Noel is meanwhile looked after impeccably by Lydia’s sister Kate, who is lovely but boring, having only housekeeping thoughts in her head.
Back in Southbridge, Mr Birkett, the headmaster of Southbridge School is realising with grim misery that the unwanted engagement of his eldest and uncontrollably stupid daughter Rose to the junior Classics master, a red-haired Communist called Philip Winter, is going to make the summer half (which you and I would call the summer term), well-nigh unbearable. Philip is inflammable because he is so miserable in his betrothed state, so the other masters creep round him saying as little as possible, because when they do they will always be wrong. The head of Philip’s house is called Everard Carter, and he is in love with Kate Keith, while accepting that of course Merton the sophisticated London interloper must have fair play if Kate is indeed in love with him.
The schoolboys are the real stars of this book. They are knowing, delightful, horribly learned, show-offs, and maliciously devious. Lydia gets on with them famously, and when they come to stay at her house for May half-term, they help her clear out the pond by dumping mounds of evil-smelling pondweed and mud onto the lawn.
Other rule-breakers are more subtle. Eric Swan deliberately looks at Philip through their spectacles, which makes him lose his temper. Tony Morland has already been introduced to Barsetshire as the son of the novelist Mrs Morland, in a collection of short stories called The Demon in the House. He is a smart-alec, manipulative, witty, devious, frighteningly knowledgeable about the Russian ballet and classical music, but only, we suspect so that he can crush his schoolmasters with his superior knowledge. At the same time, he is endearingly young. Shortly after an earnest and learned discussion with his schoolmasters, he and Swan re-enact an epic struggle from Bulldog Drummond on the second-floor landing, and are discovered struggling in a death-grip, just like any other small boys. Thank goodness they’re human.
My favourite of the Southbridge boys is Hacker, a shy Classics whiz in spectacles. He is liked and respected by his friends, for whom he does the odd bit of classical homework, and he has a pet chameleon. One night, a little tired from several straight hours of Latin hexameters, Hacker decides to have an illegal bath, but he also wants to keep the chameleon warm under the bedside light. He shrouds the lightbulb in a silk handkerchief to reduce the betraying light, and goes off to the bath with his volume of Sophocles for a little light reading. After some time he emerges from Ancient Greece to smell burning, and leaps from the bath, treading on his spectacles. He rushes to his room in a towel to rescue the chameleon, who is quite all right, though the handkerchief is rather charred. Carter captures him and is about to send all the excited boys back to bed who are hoping for a complete conflagration of the school, when Tony announces that the stairs from the bathroom have turned into a waterfall, and that the kitchen ceiling below is collapsing.
Meanwhile, Rose is flirting with any man that comes her way, and repelling them all since she is appallingly self-centred and immature. She also drives Philip to distraction, but he refuses to ditch her, which is of course the correct behaviour for a gentleman. Her father would so much rather that Rose broke the engagement, as her temper tantrums and Philip’s misery are wrecking the peace of his home and the work of the sixth form. Rescue comes in the form of the two hearty Fairweather brothers, who shriek and bellow with Rose for as long as she likes, and drive her to the cinema and out and about at the slightest hint, but have no interest in allowing her to be rude to anyone. She sulks, because no-one is paying any attention to her, and when Philip does try to make her feel better, she screams at him, and throws his engagement ring at his feet. Never has an engagement been broken off with so much relief for all.
This is a gloriously funny novel. The humour comes from the outrageous characters, and the social rules they break. Barsetshire is a smoothly-running English county where everyone knows their place and the class and social rules are immovable. Because the rules are solid, they can be leaned against, and bent, for increasing amounts of comic effect. The immortal Lydia is not at all a meek and ladylike quietly-spoken schoolgirl of gentle accomplishments. She is a hearty and clumsy autocrat who has not learned tact, modulation of the voice, the rules about knees together in skirts, or how to converse at dinner when guests are present. When she discovers Browning’s poetry, she comes downstairs wailing in floods of tears because it is so magnificent. She is a ferocious and outspoken hostess, and a silent and scornful enemy. At the climax of the novel, the Southbridge School sports and tea for parents and boys, she stalks the grounds like Nemesis. The summer atmosphere is somehow enhanced by her eccentric, domineering presence, since she is enjoying the food and sunshine just like everyone else.
Such are the joys of the summer in this really endearing Barsetshire novel. I highly recommend it for convalescence, because I last reread it while recovering from a gruelling hospital procedure, and I scarcely remembered I was ill until I’d finished the book. (I’ve written more about Summer Half, and all Thirkell’s novels, in my book, Novelists Against Social Change: do ask your library to buy it.)
Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ngaio Marsh lately, but when I saw in the Persephone catalogue that they were reprinting Robin Hyde’s The Godwits Fly (1938), handily on the eve of a trip to London, I went straight to their shop. I had come across references to Hyde’s writing when I was reading a recent reprint of Foveaux (1939) by Kylie Tennant, an Australian novel about 1920s small-town life. Coupled with my residual dissatisfaction with what Ngaio Marsh doesn’t say about the reality of New Zealand women’s lives a hundred years ago, The Godwits Fly seemed exactly what I wanted to read. Marsh wasn’t writing social realist novels – I do see that – but the little that she does reveal about New Zealand life in her detective fiction piques my inquisitiveness.
The Godwits Fly is intense, and seriously compelling. It’s about loneliness, isolation and ever-burgeoning life. The title refers to bird migration, and to the social and cultural expectations of the time that all young New Zealanders of education and ambition would naturally expect to sail to England, which was ‘home’. For those without the money, but still with the desperate need to be where they ought to be, the godwits’ flight was a passionate, thwarted desire.
Robin Hyde was the name of the author’s dead baby son, which colours the novel. The story is haunted with babies and the constant fear of babies arriving, the shame and scandal of babies who ought not to be there, or the babies who die but whose existence was enough to damn their mothers. Naturally this is a female-centred novel, since the men who make the babies do just that, then float off elsewhere, or stay at home angry, thwarted from their turn to go out into the world.
John Hannay is the perpetually angry socialist and a despairing father of Carly, Eliza and Sandra, and of baby Kitch who arrives after John had gone to fight in the First World War. His wife Augusta had married down, and never let him or anyone else forget it. She can only rage, and is never happy or content. Carly is the beautiful one, always anxious, and grows to become a possession that is never claimed. Eliza is the clever one, as passionate as her mother, and just as fecund. Her obsession with Timothy Cardew is a relentless journey to disaster, from which she picks herself up, wearily, to live another colourless day. She tries to find happiness with Jim, but ends up having to sail to Sydney to have her baby, a far cry from the triumphant setting sail for England that she had planned.
This does sound depressing. Let me try for something positive. Timothy is an absolute joy to read. He is so beautiful, so happy and caring, he loves whole-heartedly and with discrimination, and gives pleasure wherever he goes. He writes poetry, he writes letters to Eliza, he cares passionately about beauty and art. In his itinerant travelling period he gives love generously all around the North Island, to the lonely new postmistress, and to the over-willing farmer’s wife who wants a child from better stock than her lumpen peasant husband. And then he sails to England, never seen again, like a migrating bird disappearing into the dark.
Finishing The Godwits Fly left me with a picture of dreaming young women and men looking at the evening view of the hills and the bush in the 1920s. Older women rage indoors, absent men drink heavily in the dark. There is so much frustration and needless unhappiness, leavened by fleeting, unforgettable beauty.
This podcast scripts catch-up from the Really Like This Book miniseries on the mighty tradition of British humour in fiction is on Stella Gibbons’ fine satire of rural life and literary pretentiousness, Cold Comfort Farm (1932). It won a prestigious literary prize in 1933, the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais, which marked the novel out as being one of the best of that year. Its story is simple: Flora Poste decides to civilise her Starkadder relations by leaving her ordered, London existence, and goes to live on their farm, Cold Comfort Farm, in Sussex. All is Gothic, melodramatic, and rural, a parody of the style used by a particular strand of British writing from the 1920s and 1930s that wallowed in extremes of emotion to produce melodramatic, earthy effects. Mary Webb is the usual suspect as Gibbons’ main target, but Sheila Kaye-Smith, D H Lawrence and Constance Holme have also been accused of too much melodrama. Whoever the criminal, Gibbons has a fine old time tearing their style to shreds.
She begins the novel with a mock Foreword to a pretentious but invented author of note, Anthony Pookworthy, whom she addresses as an acolyte. However, this acolyte makes it clear that while her novel is intended to be funny, she is aware that his style (which we are to understand is overblown, pompous, self-important, and ridiculous) is not … funny. And so she has regretfully felt it necessary to add asterisks to her paragraphs that are deliberate hommages to his, and to others of his ilk, so that readers will be able to spot them easily, and admire them properly. Thus Gibbons makes it clear from the start that her novel will not show any weakness. Let battle commence.
Her landscape descriptions do the bulk of the work in sending up the really overblown prose styles, the kind that relentlessly connect sex and women’s bodies with fertile dimpled dells and swelling rhododendron buds. I think we can all do this now without even trying; the British have been well-educated in how to add sex to satire. D H Lawrence in particular was considered very daring and scandalous by writing about buttocks and haunches in plain English. When Gibbons sends up this style, she did two things; she released a gale of common-sense laughter to mock that particular explicitness in literature, and she showed, simply, how silly it was, as a way of writing about life.
As well as landscape ridicule, we also have Mr Mybug. Mr Mybug is a writer and a self-consciously modern Bohemian who latches onto Flora when she is visiting the local village. Mr Mybug bugs Flora by getting in her way, by assuming she is passionately interested in him (so tedious), and by being boring. Flora is much more concerned with the messy lives and melodramatic goings on at her relatives’ farm. Mybug is a Lawrentian satire on his own, a tubby little man (although Lawrence was a skinny bloke) who can only talk about sex, which is very boring for Flora, and so predictable. He is writing a book about how the Bronte sisters framed Branwell Bronte and claimed authorship of all his novels, while he died of alcoholism caused by supplying his sister Emily with gin. This may have been a riposte at current literary theories being hatched at Cambridge by F R Leavis, who famously only approved of one woman novelist in the whole nineteenth century, and that was Jane Austen. However, I’m not sure that Leavis was prominent enough on the popular cultural radar at this time for Gibbons to need to skewer his ideas in such a way. Not that it matters: the Branwell plot is ludicrous enough to be funny in its own right.
Cold Comfort Farm is populated by people wallowing in their emotions. With all these extroverts preventing progress and the establishment of civilised living conditions, Flora will never be able to sort out the farm’s messy situation, so she has to remove the blockages. The male head of the family, Amos Starkadder, is a religious maniac who preaching makes his excited congregations quiver. Flora exploits his obvious passion for performance to get rid of him by sending him out into the world on a preaching tour in a Ford van. One down.
His son Seth is a sex-crazed young man whose shirt-buttons are less functional than they should be. Meriam, the hired girl, is about to give birth by him, again, and Seth slouches about looking triumphant as she approaches her Hour, which we hear about to great effect. However, when the Hour arrives, Flora finds that Meriam has already given birth, tidily and easily as this is her fourth, and she just wants to act up a bit to make sure the Starkadders realise the extent of her Trouble, and the Wrong that Seth has done her, again. Flora feels that some simple advice on contraception might help Meriam’s particular problem of being seduced in the season of the sukebind, and Meriam’s mother, the brisk and snapping charlady Mrs Beetle, thoroughly agrees. Two down.
Seth himself needs occupation; he’s a strapping lad, and needs a job. He can’t be left to slouch about the farmyard looking suggestive all day. Happily, his real passion is for the talkies, and Flora knows just the man to give him a new role. Here I think Gibbons influenced her contemporary Angela Thirkell, whose novels from the 1930s to the 1950s always have at least one film starring her film star Glamora Tudor with a different male co-star each time. Seth Starkadder fits that bill perfectly, and his removal from the farm en route to Hollywood means that the succession after Amos’s departure will be easier. Three down.
Seth’s sister Elfine is a wind-blown fey thing of the valleys, who dances and sings on the moors, and talks to birds and flowers, most irritatingly. She needs occupation, since she is a full-grown girl and in danger of being unhealthily influenced by arts and crafts-affected ladies of the village of no taste or skill. She also needs a husband and a home, and Flora has to get her away from the clutches of her cousin Urk, a grubby farm-labourer who claims that because he wrote his name on Elfine’s feeding-bottle when she was a baby and showed her to the water voles, that makes her his rightful property. Flora detects that Elfine is in love with Richard, the local squire, and she has a very soothing time instructing Elfine in the ways of Vogue and good taste, to educate her for a more county and classically-organised way of life. She and Elfine (beautifully dressed, both of them) attend Richard’s 21st birthday dance at the local Assembly Rooms (if that’s not a Jane Austen reference I don’t know what is), at which Elfine descends the stairs alone into Richard’s arms. Four down.
The more difficult members of the family are women, because, like Amos, they have to be removed from the farm before Flora can make any more progress in the family’s rehabilitation. Judith Starkadder, Amos’s wife, is a tortured victim of mother love, and is desolate when Seth escapes. Flora fixes her up with a psychoanalyst, and so Judith goes off to Germany to redirect her fixation towards something less unhealthily Oedipal. Five down.
The last to be shifted is Aunt Ada, the matriarch of the family, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was a little girl, and because of this experience she has held the family in thrall to the threat that she will go mad if her will is ever crossed. Flora finds a way for Ada to realise that, actually, living in Paris might be more fun. So Ada departs, magnificently, in a leather flying-suit: six down. The novel ends on a summer evening with the sound of another aeroplane coming to take Flora away with her true love.
But why is this novel funny? Apart from the ludicrousness of the characters, and the gentleness of the plot, and the spectacularly good use of bathos throughout, this book is funny because it restores order out of chaos, and brings pretentiousness to its knees. The requirements of a tidy life, a civilised frame of mind, and a willingness to live equably with others without fuss, are the foundation for this novel’s assumption that melodrama is just silly, and over-acting is tiresome. It is sheer delight. It is also – very slightly – science fiction. See if you can spot why.