Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Stella Gibbons’

Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons


Here Be Dragons is a more serious story from Stella Gibbons, author of the delightful Cold Comfort Farm. Here Be Dragons is set in the 1950s. The main character is Nell Sely, who has recently moved to London with her parents after her father, a country vicar, lost his faith.

Luckily, Nell’s Aunt Peggy is a rich television star who houses the Sely’s in an apartment she owns and finds Nell a job as a typist. Nell meets her cousin John, Aunt Peggy’s pride and joy, and finds him to be a dirty, artistic Bohemian, who along with his artist friends, sponges off everyone he knows, parties hard and lives in squats, take lovers and looks down on people who abide by the rules of society.

Nell becomes infatuated with John but sees his grungy friends more clearly for what they are as she accompanies him around a succession of coffee shops, squats and dives, always looking for someone who will give him an opening into the art world.

Nell quits her boring job to become a waitress in a tea shop. She is aware that she will be looked down on for waitressing but her family need the money. After waitressing for a short while, Nell decides to save for her own tea shop. In her Aunt Peggy’s eyes, this ambition makes Nell into a cliché, but Nell knows her own mind.

Nell is a terrific heroine who is likeable, full of common sense and compassion, but I struggled to believe in her infatuation with her younger, grubby, selfish and manipulative cousin John. The plot had a few intrigues and there was a moral in there somewhere, but the story and characters just didn’t take my heart the way Cold Comfort Farm did.

A passage where the owner of the tea shop asks Nell to smell the cream to confirm it was good to serve for another day made me laugh and shudder all at once, and was typical of the humour throughout the book. The bohemian set were subtly exposed as selfish, pretentious twats, and certain other characters were delightful – here I’m thinking of Nell’s ‘managing’ friend Elizabeth, who is very like the wonderful Flora from Cold Comfort Farm. There were also horrid characters, including American Gardis, who is even more selfish and manipulative than John. Not surprisingly, John and Gardis hate each other.

I’ll continue to look out for more stories by Stella Gibbons, but will lower my expectations in future. There can only be one Cold Comfort Farm.




Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

coolI wish I had come across Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons years ago, so I could have had the pleasure of regularly re-reading this book.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of Flora Poste, a young English woman who is charming, clever and an excellent manager. When Flora is orphaned at the age of 19 with only 100 pounds per year, she writes to each of her relatives with the intention of determining who she will live with and after receiving their replies, decides that her cousins, the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex, will suit her best.

I believe Flora, who reads Jane Austen when she wants to be soothed, will become of my favourite book heroines of all time.

The Starkadders turn out to be as Flora expected, stereotypes of rural people who are all eccentric in their own way. The Starkadder family is ruled by Aunt Ada Doom, who as a small child saw something nasty in the woodshed. Aunt Ada won’t allow any of the family to leave the farm, because “there have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm.”

The next generation include Amos, a hell-fire preaching religious zealot, and his wife Judith, who is jealously possessive of their son, Seth. Seth is a handsome and sexy lothario who does a lot of “mollocking” with local girls, (mullocking is best avoided, if you don’t want to fall pregnant to Seth), while Seth’s brother Reuben lives for the farm, although hampered by his father and grandmother. Amos and Judith also have a daughter, Elfine, who is beautiful, writes poetry and dances in the woods.

Other characters include old Adam and his beloved cows, Aimless, Graceless, Pointless and Feckless. There is a young female servant who falls pregnant all too often, and the wonderful Mrs Beetle, who does for the family and a number of cousins who live and work at the farm.  Flora also has sophisticated and loving friends who she regularly visits and communicates with, and a would-be romantic interest, in the form of a Mr Mybug, a writer.

Very soon after arriving at Cold Comfort Farm, Flora realises that changes are required for the Starkadders to be happy and she sets out to engineer them. Under Flora’s guidance, Amos is sent out into the world to preach to a greater audience, leaving Reuben to run the farm in a manner which will bring in a profit. Seth is introduced to a producer friend of Flora’s from Hollywood, who takes him away to become a star in the “talkies.” Judith and Elfine are also managed, as are the remaining Starkadders in ways which work out exactly as Flora plans.

Stella Gibbons is a very funny and clever writer. In the foreword, which is itself a joke, she tells the reader that she has marked her finer passages with stars, so they can be sure they are “Literature” rather than “sheer flapdoodle.” Sure enough, the most descriptive passages in the book are marked with two or three stars. I actually laughed aloud when I found the first stars.

The name throughout the book are wonderfully descriptive, with Cold Comfort Farm being located near the town of Howling, which has a pub called The Condemn’d Man. The bull’s name is Big Business. The author must have giggled to herself constantly while writing this book.

If anyone else has read Cold Comfort Farm, please tell me what you think the nasty thing was that Aunt Ada saw in the woodshed, as this is a mystery with the potential to drive me crazy, no doubt just as the writer intended.

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