Cold Comfort Farm is a book about what happens if you take a family of overwrought literary characters from the moors (think Wuthering Heights) and plunk down amongst them a cheerful, thoroughly practical modern young woman, and see what can be done by merely looking at the drama and saying "well, really, isn't this ridiculous!"
It reminded me a bit of that Jasper Fforde section where Thursday Next goes to visit the Wuthering Heights anger management classes. But where those characters could not be pulled out of their grooves, Flora is quite successful.
Flora is an orphan. She has a modest income, but instead of finding a job, she decides that the thing to do is to find a relative with whom she can live, and be an amusing companion to. The only relative to bite at this offer is a family out on the moors, whose very letters drip with overwrought emotion. She arrives, to find a family in constant turmoil. A great-aunt who rules them all with an iron fist despite appearing batty. A mother obsessed with one son at the cost of the other. A religious fanatic. A son who sleeps around with a lot of women, despite his real passion being the movies. Another son who loves the farm itself with passion that would otherwise be reserved for women. An uncontrolled daughter of the moors, in love with the local squire's son. A farmhand who thinks the muskrats (or some other small rodent) promised him the daughter of the moors as his bride in her cradle.
All of them are in the grip of their emotions, and have not let their common sense work in quite a long time. Flora breezes in, and the humour contrasts her to these stock literary characters, but also compares the styles of writing, as the prose is alternately light and breezy, and heavy and portentous.
Can Flora straighten out her relatives?
What's going on here is in no way revolutionary. Instead, it's like sitting down to tea and conversation with a witty friend, and just enjoying yourself without thought for whether or not that conversation means something, or will change your life.
Flora and her interactions with the young man in love with the farm particularly amused me, as every time she speaks on it, he assumes she's trying to steal the farm out from under his feet and starts ranting. Her way of undercutting him is charming.
The commentary on a certain genre of English rural fiction is quite hilarious, and Flora, in her officious and determined interference, a welcome commentary.
Read as part of the BBC Big Read