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In these times—no, in any time—we can be grateful for the cheer of a great comic novel about a seemingly gentler world. Gibbons’ 1932 Cold Comfort Farm is just such a masterpiece. Its heroine, Flora Poste, rivals Wodehouse’s Jeeves in her ability to (in her case) charmingly help people solve problems before they even know they have them. The excuse for including this novel in a column about psychological trauma comes from two brief passages describing Flora’s friend, Claud, who initially seems to be a pleasantly aloof member of the British mid-20th century materially comfortable class. In the passages shared below, Gibbons uses the literary skill with which she amuses the reader in the rest of the novel to describe the traumatic psychological effects of war.

In the scene shared here, Flora and Claud are at a ball which Flora has turned into an opportunity to manage an engagement felicitous to both her young cousin and the son of the local grandee. 

“Flora and Claud lingered long over the supper-table, enjoying the spectacle of the brilliantly-lit elegantly decorated apartment filled with young persons of both sexes, most of them handsome and all of them happy. Claud who had served in the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ’46*, was at his ease in the comfortable silence in which they sat, and allowed the irony and grief of his natural expression to emerge from beneath the mask of cheerful idiocy with which he usually covered his sallow, charming face. He had seen his friends die in anguish in the wars. For him, the whole rest of his life was an amusing game which no man of taste and intelligence could permit himself to take seriously” (p. 168).

And a little later at the ball:

“And Flora, energetically pranced herself to a standstill as the Lancers ended, clapped her hands vigorously, half with the desire for an encore, but more for the joy she felt in the evening’s work.

‘How you do enjoy yourself, don’t you, Florence Nightingale?’ observed Claud.

‘I do.’ Retorted Flora, ‘and so do you.’

"It was true; he did. But never without a pang of exquisite pain in his heart, and a conviction that he was a traitor” (pp. 171 – 172).

Gibbons could write about the many problems with which her characters had to contend and about Flora’s charming efforts to resolve them with deft humor. However, living as she did in post-WWI Britain and, perhaps, when it came to the problem of the psychological effects of war, and what she, herself may have witnessed, she needed to take the opportunity, through Claud, to say that the seriousness of this problem needed to be acknowledged, even if in an otherwise comic context.  

*A fictional war; the novel is set in a time after it was written.

References

Gibbons, Stella (1932, 2014) Cold Comfort Farm. Stellar Edition.