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Cold comfort for Ethan Frome.

COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons was published in 1932 and was well received by the reviewers of the time who described it as a parody of the melodramatic and earthy rural novels of the early twentieth century. Soon after its publication, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer said,

It is quite time that the earthy and passionate

novel was parodied, and Miss Gibbons with a

wicked and witty pen has seen to it that all the

peculiarities of the drearier back-to-the-land

school have been ridiculed. She has jumbled

her authors together, but like well made

strawberry jam they bob about whole and

recognisable in her bubbling pot ...(1) Later reviewers have pointed specifically to the Sussex novels of Sheila Kaye-Smith and the Shropshire novels of Mary Webb as the sources for her work.

In 1911, Scribners of New York published Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, who was already well established as the author of several works of fiction, mainly dealing with the leisured classes. This latest work was a short tragic tale of rural poverty and blighted love set in New England. It was a new and successful departure for Wharton, and the book remained in print throughout her lifetime. By the time Cold Comfort Farm was published, Stella Gibbons had been a successful journalist for over a decade. She had travelled to America and was familiar with its literature. However, despite some striking resemblances in certain key areas, Edith Wharton has never been identified as one of the authors bobbing about ~whole and recognisable' in Stella Gibbons's pot.

The central character in Cold Comfort Farm is Flora Poste, a newly orphaned young woman and a Londoner, who descends on her distant relatives unsuccessfully farming in Sussex and energetically reorganizes them. Wharton's story, also seen through the eyes of an outsider unfamiliar with the terrain, concerns the hopeless love of Ethan Frome (caught in a loveless marriage with an ailing wife) for Mattie, a poor relative acting as unpaid hired girl. Zeena, his jealous wife, sends the girl away and Ethan, trapped by extreme poverty and his own honesty, sees no way of escape. As he takes Mattie to the station they take a last ride on a sledge which Ethan directs towards a tree. The suicide attempt fails, Ethan is crippled and Mattie is totally disabled and requires constant care from Ethan's wife.

Wharton's stark and deterministic tragedy is in a different category from the rural melodramas which provide the basis for Gibbons' burlesque. However, leaving aside the difficult and arguable question of ~tone', both authors deal with poverty, neglect, and bad management. Succeeding Fromes have farmed at Starkfield, while there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort. Among these Starkadders Micah seems to be a Sussex version of the crippled Ethan, a man of great height who was ~the most striking figure in Starkfield though he was but the ruin of a man'.(2) Ethan is also crippled, for his right side is ~shortened and warped', his elbow ~lamed'. At Cold Comfort Flora's cousin is similarly afflicted, ~Micah Starkadder the mightiest of the cousins was a ruined giant of a man, paralysed in one knee and wrist.'(3)

Wharton's narrator describes the bleak, unwelcoming approach to Starkfield, ~we came to an orchard of starved apple-trees writhing over a hillside among outcroppings of slate that nuzzled up through the snow like animals pushing out their noses to breathe'.(4) Gibbons extends this animal imagery; the fields are ~fanged with flints', dawn is ~a sinister white animal', and the village of Howling ~huddled in the hollow like an exhausted brute'. Wharton's farmhouse is similarly ~huddled against the vast immensities of land and sky, one of those lonely farmhouses that make the landscape lonelier'.(5) Sussex being marginally more accessible than New England, Cold Comfort farm is only ~crouched on a bleak hillside'.(6)

Two engravings in Flora's room at Cold Comfort appear to refer to the insoluble situation at Starkfield. One depicts the captivity of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra. Zenobia, or Zeena Frome, is indeed a captive, imprisoned by poverty, the silent countryside, her difficult temperament and finally by her severely disabled and totally dependent relative. The other engraving shows the grief of Andromache on beholding the dead body of Hector. Though Ethan survived the sledging ~accident' he faces his shattered life with an endurance which is heroic as Wharton makes clear, ~his brown seamed profile, under the helmet-like peak of the cap, relieved against the banks of snow like the bronze image of a hero'.(7)

Mattie does the work of a hired girl at Starkfield but receives no pay as a reminder of her equivocal position as a poor relative. The antithesis of Zeena's sourness and ill health, she is warm, sensual and bursting with life, ~her rough hair ... in little brown rings like the tendrils of Traveller's Joy'.(8) This vine, otherwise known as Clematis, produces handsome flowers in summer and finds its equivalent in Sussex as ~sukebind', held responsible by the inhabitants of Cold Comfort farm for the hired girl Miriam's interesting condition, ~'Tes the fourth time.... Every year in the fullness of summer when the sukebind hangs heavy from the wains... 'tes the same.'(9) Wharton's sukebind never flowers, and the Fromes' ugly house is decorated only by ~the black wraith of a deciduous creeper'.(10)

Ethan Frome's references to the stars, to Orion and to the Pleiades,(11) recalls the book of Job, although Ethan is here playing God the omniscient instructor to Mattie's Job while his own sufferings also mirror those of Job. It is left to Stella Gibbons to create in Amos Starkadder, son of Aunt Ada Doom and enthusiastic prophet of disaster, the archetypal Job's comforter.

The novels of Kaye-Smith and Webb are always cited as sources for Cold Comfort Farm since these works seem to invite parody. However, there are also significant correspondences between Cold Comfort Farm and Ethan Frome and they suggest that Wharton's novel was a further source for Gibbons despite the tragic nature of Ethan Frome. (1) The Times Literary Supplement Review; ~Cold Comfort Farm' 8 Sept. 1932. (2) Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (New York: Charles Scribner and sons, 1911) edition cited Penguin Books Ltd. Harmondsworth, 1987, 3. (3) Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (first published 1932, first published Penguin Books 1938), 39. (4) Wharton, 19. (5) Ibid., 20. (6) Gibbons, 32. (7) Wharton, 14. (8) Wharton, 99. (9) Gibbons, 64. (10) Wharton, 20. (11) Ibid., 34.


IN a poem that declares ~History is now and England', it is not surprising that we find occasionally oblique allusions to the country's monuments to fame. In ~Little Gidding' iii, for example, Eliot tells us how ~We have taken from the defeated / What they had to leave us -- a symbol ...'. In the fifth section of the poem we are reminded again of another gift: the words, phrases, and sentences that mark a writer's ~end' and ~beginning':

Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning

Every poem an epitaph.

This last line rephrases Henry Vaughan's concluding line of ~On Sir Thomas Bodley's Library; The Author Being Then in Oxford':

Thou canst not die! here thou art more than safe

Where every book is thy large epitaph.

(The italics are the poet's.)

How the dead live with us and continue to influence our lives is a thought Eliot elaborates a little later in ~Little Gidding' v:

We die with the dying:

See, they depart, and we go with them.

We are born with the dead.

See, they return, and bring us with them.

The opening lines of Vaughan's poem bespeak the same sentiments. The Rabbins, we are told, are still alive: ~They are not dead, but full of blood again, / I mean the sense, and every line a vein'. In a manner of speaking, Eliot's parenthetical definition of a harmonious style (LG v: 11) applies equally well to a library ~where every word is at home', where, as Vaughan believes, ~thou art more than safe ...'.
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Author:Vickers, Jackie
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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