1930pg13Today, anyone who dresses unconventionally risks being stared at or commented on when they venture out in public. This has always been the case; and in the past, when fashions took a while to reach the regions after they had appeared in London, country-dwellers could be seen as old-fashioned or strange by fashionable city folk. This is something that author Stella Gibbons explored in her classic novel Cold Comfort Farm, which was published in 1932. Nell Darby has this review.

The book is set in the near future, and in it, the orphaned Flora Poste – a young, highly fashionable Londoner with a best friend who collects brassieres for a hobby – moves to Sussex, to live with relatives on their farm. Their way of life stuns her, and she makes it her object to transform these country folk into fashionable people. Her best friend, Mrs Smiling, promises to send onto Flora the essentials of a young woman’s life – “proper clothes and cheerful fashion papers”.

One of her cousins, Elfine, is young and beautiful – but Flora despises her taste for what we would now call hippy clothes. Elfine likes to run around in a green hooded cloak, but Flora’s first reaction is to think “that the hood was the wrong green…” and to recommend to her startled relative that she should wear something blue, well-cut, and simple. She fears that if she doesn’t interfere, in another year, Elfine will “keep a tea-room in Brighton and go all arty-and-crafty about the feet and waist”.

In the early Thirties, to have an arty look was to be hopelessly old-fashioned and reeked of the arts and crafts movement of 20 years earlier. A fellow Londoner, Mr Meyerburg, recognises Flora as one of his own when he sports her “neat hair and well-cut coat”; and she in turn acknowledges that he is “properly and conventionally dressed”, unlike her Sussex family. 

Class is a vital part of the world that Flora finds herself in. She analyses what she terms the “hunting gentry” that she wants Elfine to marry into, believing that they want “girls to be well turned out”. Such people, Flora thinks, will not want Elfine to be part of their world because of “the eccentricity of her dress, behaviour and hairdressing”. The world that Stella Gibbons gently mocks is a world that Flora is part of but she doesn’t realise that she, just like the hunting gentry, can’t accept others if they have any eccentricity about their style.

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2 Responses

  1. George W

    Loved reading this- I must get the book!
    Also, Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between The Acts’ is really interesting about this fascinating period.

  2. Louise

    I absolutely adore Cold Comfort Farm. Flora Poste is one of literatures great witty busy-body heroines. Rather like Austen’s Emma, Flora sets about interfering with everyone’s lives, with rather more success than Emma did.