Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Further beyond the woodshed

Further to Beyond the woodshed, a colleague just sent me a link to a fascinating paper, unfortunately in a controlled-access journal: Cold Comfort Farm, D. H. Lawrence, and English Literary Culture Between the Wars (Faye Hammill, MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 831-854).

It's generally known that Stella Gibbons parodied various "loam and lovechild" novels for the 1932 Cold Comfort Farm, but as many of the source novels are little-read nowadays, the sheer extent and explicitness of that parody goes unnoticed. Faye Hammill's paper fills in that background, showing it to be "an extremely sophisticated and intricate parody whose meaning is produced through its relationship with the literary culture of its day" ... many of them books Gibbons reviewed for the Evening Standard ... "and with the work of such canonical authors as D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy, and Emily Brontë".

Apart from such generalised connections, which also include George Eliot and the Powys brothers, Hammill identifies particularly explicit influences in the works of Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. For instance, the scenario of the doom-laden farm and family comes straight out of Webb's 1920 The House in Dormer Forest, and the farming-obsessed Reuben Starkadder is clearly modelled on Reuben Backfield in Kaye-Smith's Sussex Gorse. Likewise, Gibbons' village sect, the Quivering Brethren, is very similar to the Colgate Brethren in Kaye-Smith's Susan Spray. The names Micah, Amos, and Agony appear to come from Harold Alfred Manhood's completely forgotten 1931 Gay Agony (I can't find this online, but Dashiell Hammett described it as "monstrously overwritten", Arnold Bennett said of it, "I await the next phase of Mr Manhood's talent with anxiety", and the Google Books keywords ...

Tobulus, Silla, Linah, Mistress Rue, Tampion, meadowsweet, splin, Seahouses, Goldcrest, cider, Coze, rhines, ramekins, taproom, Twas, pigeon's milk, Micah felt, costmary, marriage, Micah thought

... show clearly that it's in the kind of overblown faux-rustic idiom that Gibbons satirised. Another link is to Hugh Walpole's family saga set in the Lake District, the "Herries" chronicles, written in the early 1930s. Although the novels themselves have no close resemblance, Gibbons' spoof dedication to "Anthony Pookworthy", whose The Fulfilment of Martin Hoare she praises for its 100-page masterly analysis of a bilious attack, has a strong resemblance to Walpole's pompous dedication to JB Priestley at the beginning of Judith Paris.

The Hammill paper also analyses a number of reasons why Cold Comfort Farm, despite its popularity, had a relatively low status on the academic literary circuit. One, Hammill argues, is the until-recent general downgrading of female authors in appreciations of fiction in the inter-War years. Others are its tension with the genres of its time: its hostility toward the literary establishment (as in its dig at the Bloomsbury-style Mr Mybug - thanks to Beyond the Pale); its proto-feminism (in its heroine's rejection of Mybug's DH Lawrence view of women in primarily sexual and reproductive roles); and in its embracing of modernity. Rural-themed works of the period, such as Vita Sackville-West's poem The Land and Flora Thompson's Lark Rise to Candleford, characteristically accepted rural England as a timeless fixture or lamented its passing (a stereotype that still persists - see Views of the countryside) whereas Gibbons' Flora improves the Starkadders' lives by bringing them into the modern world of motor-vans, boutiques, contraception, psychoanalysis, and cleaning dishes with a mop instead of a thorn twig.

If you have academic access, the paper is here. Otherwise, you may have to be content with Reggie Oliver's biography Out of the Woodshed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1998, ISBN 0747539952), which has a good discussion of the book's inspirations; many of his identifications appear in the Faye Hammill paper.
- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Excellent research! This has help me immensely to no end for my essay on "Cold Comfort Farm". I only wished I had found it early then I might have been able to read "Out of the Woodshed". For the time being the above has to be suffice.