Friday, August 17, 2007

The Plague Of Higher Common Sense

I just finished reading Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons. I haven't seen the movie. If you haven't seen the new cover by Roz Chast you gotta check it out here.

My first reaction was to feel that I didn't really get it, which is a reaction I would say I virtually never have to novels. I just mean, I don't usually think of novel-reading in terms of getting and not-getting.

I got that it was a kind of parody, of a certain kind of English, rural-centered novel, with lots of allusive jokes. Some of which, I know, went past me. But still, I was missing something.

Then I read the Wikipedia page, and I don't know if I would say that understanding washed over me, but I did suddenly have some kind of humor epiphany.

The novel centers on an unassuming and sensible heroine, Flora Poste, who comes to stay at the farm owned by a family of her relatives, the Starkadders. There are, like, 30 Starkadders and one of the jokes is that you can never quite figure out how everyone is related, because it's a sea of crazy people. Then, too, as Wikipedia puts it, each of the Starkadders has "some long-festering emotional problem." Relying on her favorite book, The Higher Common Sense, Flora sets out to solve these problems.

One great thing in this entry is a quick list of Flora's solutions.
For instance:

Judith: Flora hires a psychoanalyst, Dr Müdel, who, over lunch, transfers Judith's obsession from Seth to himself until he can set her interest on old churches instead.

Another great thing is an actual family tree diagram.

But basically the humor epiphany was this: what's really funny here to me is Flora as the instantiation of a kind of right-thinking, sunnily optimistic, clear-headed twentieth-century female. Flora is like every woman's magazine article, every chirpy advice-giver, every light-hearted pragmatist rolled into one tidy package. (See previous CC post on advice, here).

Unwanted pregnancies? Use contraception! Lonely? Find yourself a nice guy and settle down! Bitter at the injustice and cruelty in the world? Buy a ticket to Paris and have yourself a blast!

In this the novel isn't dated at all, even though it was written in 1932. If anything, I'd say the plague of Higher Common Sense just gets worse and worse. Get plenty of exercise, study hard, eat right, and everything will be OK. If you're not happy, honey, you're just not trying. Or maybe you should see a therapist?

And if something really bad happens, just remember, "It was probably all for the best!"


Captain Colossal said...

I actually really loved this movie. Funny. Admittedly, I was 19 at the time, which is an age at which a) your own stock of common sense is not yet filled and b) you haven't realized the limits of common sense.

Noko Marie said...

From what I understand the movie is kind of different from the book and is actually great. Like I said I haven't seen it.

Anyway in the book the satire of Flora is very gentle, even if she is a bit of a busy-body. And I liked it a lot! I didn't mean anything against the book. Au contraire. (Guess who is just learning HTML tags?)

Captain Colossal said...

I guess I was just impressed by how much the movie was on Flora's side -- if anything, the satire seems to gentle.

Brandon Burt said...

Flora has always struck me as a parody (or at least update) of Jane Austin's Emma Woodhouse character, so I've always wondered why Gibbons allows Flora always to avoid getting caught in her own web of helpful machinations.

Celia said...

Hahahah. I completely agree. I'm writing a paper and for some reason I haven't found much about Flora Poste as a satirical character/parody herself, but she seems just as over the top as the Starkadder's.

witwoud said...

To revive this post again...

There's no doubt that Stella Gibbons was firmly on Flora's side, and firmly against the doom-mongering Starkadders. Her stroke of comic genius was to make Flora shallow, self-centred, snobbish, and, as you say, as bright and breezy as a woman's magazine ... and also right. Personally, I'm glad that for once the bossy heroine didn't get her comeuppance and discover her true self, in the style of Emma Woodhouse or Cordelia Chase. It would have undermined the novel's main point, which is that reason, cleanliness and optimism simply are better than selfishness and gloom. But it was important that Flora was a comic character too, and that her solutions rather absurd, or it would have been a preachy, heavy-handed novel indeed.

Regarding the film, I'd say it makes Flora a bit more warm-hearted than she is in the novel, and a bit less starchy. It doesn't suffer for it.