Following in the footsteps?


It is a fact universally acknowledged that when discussing the works of Jane Austen, the topic of who is her successor comes around. Who do you think has filled her unfillable shoes? I propose Stella Gibbons, author of Cold Comfort Farm, a classic that has this quote from Mansfield Park in its frontispiece: Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.

It’s the story of Flora Poste, a young woman who likes to have order and sense in her world. When she is orphaned, she goes to live with her distant relatives, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. There, Flora, whose mission in life is to collect material for a book she will write three decades later in the style of Jane Austen, finds the Starkadders in dire need of not only sense and sensibility but persuasion too. She sets to work reforming her relatives, channeling their peculiar energies into rewarding occupations. Even though Gibbons is satirizing the earthy, elemental novels of Mary Webb, wildly popular in the 1920s and 1930s, it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read them–the book is still as funny as a rubber crutch. Particularly purple passages are marked with asterisks like a travel guide.

There’s Amos, the preacher who leads the Quivering Brethren; Seth, who goes a-mollocking when the sukebind hangs heavy in the hedgerows, but whose real passion is the movies; Mad Aunt Ada Doom who saw something nasty in the woodshed when she was little; Elphine, who likes to flit around the countryside wearing artsy clothes and reciting poetry; and a rich cast of non-Starkadders like Mr. Mybug, the sex-obsessed intellectual who’s writing a book proving Branwell Bronte wrote all of his sisters’ novels.

The BBC made a film of Cold Comfort Farm (1996) directed by John Schlesinger with a wonderful cast, including the lovely and talented Rufus Sewell as Seth, Kate Beckinsale as Flora Poste, and Ian McKellen as Amos.

Any other contenders for the title of the 21st (or 20th) century Jane Austen?

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