I’ve just been re-reading one of my favourite comic novels, Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, and fallen in love with Flora Poste all over again.
Has literature ever thrown up a young woman of such uncommon good sense? Flora knows that there are few things in life that can’t be improved with a good haircut, a high standard of hygiene, and afternoon tea. So improve things she does, whisking around the eponymous farm, situated in the unpromising Sussex village of Howling, until everything is neat, tidy and normal. Even the bull is feeling better.
Flora herself is always pristine in green linen, which sounds marvellously cool and poised. She is kind, but firm, insisting that the fey teenager Elfine stop wearing unflattering cloaks, give up her dreams of running a tea shop in Brighton and writing poetry, and marry the handsome but dim young landowner’s son instead.
Marvellously self-possessed, Flora is unmoved by Seth Starkadder’s over-ripe sexual suggestions, Amos Starkadder’s hellfire preaching, and the ghastly Mr Myerberg’s sub-Lawrentian bohemianism. But then she does have Charles, her parson-to-be second cousin, waiting to whisk her off any time in his private jet.
I do sympathise with Flora’s maxim: ‘Unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life. I cannot endure messes.’
Cold Comfort Farm is comfort reading, for times when real life seems just to messy to contemplate. At which point I make a cup of tea, take a deep breath and ask myself: What would Flora Poste do?