Cold Comfort Farm is set gently but irresistibly a decade or two after its original publishing date, with video phones and the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of '46 and so forth.

However, setting the action in the future doesn't impact the plot or characters in any particular way, and although Gibbons places many movements and genres in her satirical sights I don't get the impression futurism or speculative fiction are among them. It seems like a peculiar choice for a novel most famous as a satire of the "loam and lovechild" genre.

What does setting Cold Comfort Farm in the future add to the novel?

  • Video phones? Where in the novel are there video phones? The last phone call Flora makes to Charles is audio-only: "She took off the receiver, and listened." Have I missed another phone call somewhere in the book that's video?
    – verbose
    Commented Mar 18 at 7:07
  • 1
    @verbose Chapter XII: Claud twisted the television dial and amused himself by studying Flora’s fair, pensive face. ... She could not look at him, because public telephones were not fitted with television dials.
    – BESW
    Commented Mar 18 at 20:11

1 Answer 1



Setting the novel in the near future allows Gibbons to deploy metatextual elements that sharpen both her parody of the conventions of rural novels and her satire of the values they espouse.


Cold Comfort Farm is, as you point out, a parody of the "loam and lovechild" genre. To see how the near future setting intersects with Gibbons's parodic aims, it might be helpful to begin by examining the conventions of that genre. This passage from Thomas Hardy illustrates quite a few of those conventions:

      "Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?"
      "All like ours?"
      "I don't know; but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard tree. Most of them splendid and sound—a few blighted."
      "Which one do we live on—a splendid one or a blighted one?"
      "A blighted one."
      "'Tis very unlucky that we didn't pitch on a sound one, when there were so many more of 'em!"
      "Is it like that really, Tess?" said Abraham, turning to her, much impressed, on reconsideration of this rare information. "How would it have been if we had pitched on a sound one?"
      "Well, father wouldn't have coughed and creeped about as he does, and wouldn't have got too tipsy to go this journey; and mother wouldn't have been always washing, and never getting finished."
      "And you would have been a rich lady ready-made, and not to have been made rich by marrying a gentleman?"
      "Oh, Aby, don't—don't talk of that any more!"
      Left to his reflections, Abraham soon grew drowsy. Tess was not skilful in the management of a horse ...

Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the D'Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented. 1831. New York: A L Burt, 1921. Accessed at archive.org 17 March 2023. p. 30.

This passage reflects several salient characteristics of such novels:

  • Archaic or dialectal vocabulary featuring farm tools or landscape elements (stubbard)
  • Illness and alcoholism as key elements (coughed, tipsy)
  • An emphasis on futile chores endlessly repeated (washing)
  • A surprising lack of competence around basic tasks of farm life (not skilful)
  • Spurious insight into the deepest mysteries of life, presented through natural imagery (like the apples)
  • Injunctions to secrecy or silence around painful topics (don't talk of that)
  • A mismatch between the narrative voice and the diction of the characters, such that the former is in a much more polished register (reconsideration of the rare information)
  • A portentous aura of doom hanging over the whole (a blighted one).

Cold Comfort Farm cheerfully skewers these conventions, dealing briskly with each one. The near future setting works in three related ways toward this goal:

  1. To enable the parody
  2. To sharpen the satire
  3. To reflect on the nature of fiction.

Let's look at each in turn.

Enabling the parody

Throughout Cold Comfort Farm, Gibbons invents words that, like "stubbard," sound plausible enough, but whose meaning the reader takes on faith or derives from context: sukebind, clettering, cock-spider, pruning-snoot, and so on. Such made-up words are a feature of works set in a near future. For example, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), published the same year as Gibbons's novel, offers up bokanovskify, hypnopædia, vibro-vacuum machines, etc. Gibbons uses the conventions of one genre (the made-up words of futuristic fiction) to undermine the conventions of another (the obscure vocabulary of rural novels). Made-up words allow Gibbons to suggest that despite their claim to be representing life in an authentic way, the world of rural novels was every bit as made-up and conventional as the futuristic fictions of someone like Huxley.

Sharpening the satire

Gibbons not only parodies the conventions of the rural novel, she also satirizes its values. By exposing those conventions as conventions, she undercuts their implicit claim that the rural life was the only authentic life. Novelists like Hardy, D H Lawrence, and Mary Webb opposed urban or industrialized modernity with what they saw as the eternal verities of the countryside. For them, city life was attenuated, bloodless, and corrupt, while the country surged with vitality. But the rural life they depicted was hardly attractive, rife with drunken, inarticulate characters whose painful secrets left them unable even to tackle everyday tasks competently, let alone achieve personal fulfillment. By setting her novel in the near future, Gibbons questions the easy equation of primitivism with authenticity. She shows that the tropes of D H Lawrence are no less dystopic than those of Huxley.

Gibbons overturns the assumption that rural and urban values are necessarily opposed. Her protagonist, Flora, chooses Cold Comfort Farm over several alternatives, including the one most strongly urged upon her: that of staying in London, becoming a typist, and taking a flat of her own. Flora's choice of country over city allows Gibbons to show that denizens of both can lead fulfilled lives, and are not doomed by circumstance to make the worst of it. The transformation Flora effects on Cold Comfort Farm makes the farm more prosperous. Freed from the conventions of the rural novel, its residents are happier and more fulfilled. Seth Starkadder, for example, is delighted to give up his stereotypical role as a Laurentian stud and become a Hollywood star instead. But his brother Reuben is equally delighted to make a success of the farm. And their father Amos takes his rural hellfire-and-brimstone preacher act globetrotting. The point is that a life of value is possible in any setting, rural, urban, or cosmopolitan. By juxtaposing two different sorts of dystopic narratives, the futuristic and the primitivistic, Gibbons undoes the distinction between rural and urban values characteristic of the latter, and presents a vision of human happiness that is achievable in either setting.


The simultaneity of the near future and the primitive past in Cold Comfort Farm is largely a matter of pitting one set of conventions against another. The conventions of futuristic fiction: made-up words, unlikely wars ("Anglo-Nicaraguan"), impressive modes of transport (multiple characters have their own aeroplanes)—jostle with those of the rural novel. This explicit engagement with the fictionality of fictional worlds is one aspect of the metafictionality of Gibbons's novel.

The near future setting immediately proclaims that the novel is not to be read realistically. It does not purport to be an authentic account of anything. The world it constructs is pure fiction. This fictionality is foregrounded not only by the Foreword to "Anthony Pookworthy, Esq.," but also by the frame narrative. Flora tells her friend Mary that she intends to be a novelist:

      "Well, when I am fifty-three or so, I would like to write a novel as good as 'Persuasion,' but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it."

Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm. 1932. Longman Stories of Laughter 1. London: Longmans, 1936. Accessed at archive.org 18 March 2024. p. 14.

Gibbons signals metafictionality not only in Flora's stated intention, but also in her choice of model. Persuasion was published posthumously in 1817, along with Northanger Abbey. This latter novel, despite its late publication, was the first completed of all of Austen's. And like Gibbons's own first novel, Northanger Abbey is a parody, playing with the conventions of Gothic fiction as Cold Comfort Farm does with those of rural fiction.

Gibbons takes her epigraph, "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery," from Mansfield Park, and at one point Flora takes up the book to read. Mansfield Park is about a poor girl who lives with her relatives; Austen's heroine, Fanny Price, shares not only her situation, but also her initials, with Gibbons's Flora Poste. Flora avers that if she stays with her relatives, "there is sure to be a lot of material I can collect for my novel" (p. 15). She goes on to imagine what life will be like at Cold Comfort Farm:

      "[H]ighly-sexed young men living on farms are always called Seth or Reuben, and it would be such a nuisance. And my cousin's name, remember, is Judith. That in itself is most ominous. Her husband is almost certain to be called Amos; and if he is, it will be a typical farm, and you know what they are like."

p. 18.

Sure enough, on arriving at Cold Comfort Farm, Flora discovers that Judith's husband is named Amos, and their sons are Ruben and the oversexed Seth. From the outset, Gibbons announces in clear terms that Cold Comfort Farm is a place imagined by the future novelist Flora. Setting the novel in the near future reinforces the point: the novel in question is Cold Comfort Farm.

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