Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Cold Comfort Farm" and an Uncertainty....

I mentioned in lecture that I have a slight uncertainty about some — albeit minor and inconclusive textual elements of Cold Comfort Farm that amount to a faint scent of Fascism. The following is offered as a example of the kind of minute clue-hunting which characterises the sensibility of the literary academic. It is also, I own, quite plausibly — & thus culpably — open to the Muggeridgean charge of 'taking a spade to a soufflé.'

As detailed earlier, there is only little readily-available biographical treatment of Stella Gibbons, and therefore until I investigate thoroughly and with scholarly rigour, the matter has to be left as a mere open question, and the satiric aspect of the text has to be affirmed as the currently-conclusive explanation covering the issues here raised.

The textual concerns begin at the opening of chapter II (p.19 in our Penguin Classics edition) with the narrator's unpleasant-sounding and unnecessary remark that Mrs. Smiling was returning to "....the slums of Mayfair" for something "....which she had noticed in a Jew-Shop." Next is the discovery, at the close of chapter IX, p. 108, of the parodied intellectual "....that his name was not Mybug but Meyerburg and that he lived in Charlotte Street...." Now,
  • "Meyerburg" is an emblematic Jewish name,
  • the shortening of the name (the sole such in the text) suggests diminution of person,
  • "My" makes him property
  • "bug" matches the Nazi (mis-)characterisation of the Jews as vermin
  • Charlotte Street is a Bloomsbury address, which fits with the text's satire of the entire effected ethos of the Bloomsberries, but it is also a London Jewish neighbourhood (e.g. Virginia Woolf's husband Leonard was Bloomsbury-Jewish.)
Lastly, at the end of chapter XIX, p.200, we read that "....Flora took advantage of her lassitude to impose her fresh will upon her cousin's flaccid one" and on p.202 Flora watches "....a distraught patient grow calm beneath the will of the [psycho-]analyst." (Emphasis mine.) (Note the psycho-analyst's nomenclature....)

The fetishistic attraction of the concept of Will for Fascists ― deriving from the German writer Friedrich Nietzsche's (paradoxically impotent) attempts to valourise what he called Will to Power" ― is set in motto by odious Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl in her film glorification of Fascism The Triumph of the Will.

Flora orients her actions around 'will-to-power': power for its own sake. The representation of Flora's attitude to will and power by Gibbons is chilling.
  • p.75: "And yet she shrank from boldly entering the kitchen where the family sat...and introducing herself. Such a move would lower her dignity and, hence, her future power. It was all very difficult"
  • p. 129; "Difficult times lay ahead. But this is what Flora liked. She detested rows and scenes, but enjoyed quietly pitting her cool will against opposition. It amused her; and when she was defeated, she withdrew in good order and lost interest in the campaign. She had little or no sporting spirit. Bloody battles to the death bored her, nor did she like other people to win.
Now this is all a textual interpretation, and could be absolutely off-base. The publication of Cold Comfort Farm in 1932 does coincide with the creation of the British Union of Fascists by the truly loathsome Oswald Mosley, and among its supporters were several London writers, intellectuals, and journalists. One early & consistent feature of the Fascist programme is anti-Communism, and it happens that the text of Cold Comfort Farm shows a sympathetic awareness of Communism. What is described as:
....a copy of the 'Internationally Progressive Farmers' Guide and Helpmeet', which Flora had ordered from London, where it was printed by some Russian friends of hers living in West Kensington' (p.195)
is unmistakably a typical Flora Poste attempt to modernise, here in a Communist direction, life at Cold Comfort Farm: the specific textual referent is on p. 172:
....Aunt Ada could dimly be discerned beating at everybody with the 'Milk Producers' Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers' Guide', and shrilly screaming....
Again, this is a pattern, but entirely inconclusive without biographical support, and should simply be allowed to stand as an illustration of a certain cast of scholarly mind, under the prick of sensible vigilance that the evil of fascism unceasingly demands.

Update: reference to the existence (not to the validity) of charges of fascism against English 1930s literati can be found in academic literary journals. See, e.g. Death of a Porcupine: D. H. Lawrence and his Successors. Author(s): John Fordham A1 A1 Middlesex University. Journal: Literature & History. ISSN: 0306-1973. Volume 9 Issue 1, Spring 2000, pp 56-66 (Available in online .pdf form through
Update 2: An excellent way to understand how the abortive Fascict movement in England was .... aborted? is to read this article in the Atlantic Monthly by the uneavenly creditable Christopher Hitchens on a recent biography of the sublime P.G. Wodehouse. The portion available for free viewing treats of Wodehouse's supreme instance of the typical English derogation of Mosley. But best is to obtain your own copy of The Code of the Woosters.

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