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Inter-War Books: Cold Comfort Farm, Better than Beauty, and The Pursuit of Love

September 14, 2010

During August, I read three books from the inter-war period (Love in a Cold Climate was published in 1945 but its story begins before WWII, so just go with me on this), and it makes sense to me to review them together!

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons has been making the blog rounds lately, and I definitely found it delightful and funny: Gibbons’ wit is sharp and abundant. I was sitting in my new chair giggling so hard my mom came in to see what I was doing one afternoon, and I read a couple passages out loud to her. I did find the extended satirical bits tiresome, though; I’ve read some Lawrence and Hardy, so I understood the references, but I’ve never been good with extended satire (for example, I’ve tried to finish Catch-22 three times and never gotten further than 100 pages in). These passages were astericked, which was a bit odd, and I definitely skimmed through most of them. Fortunately, the rest of the book is such fun I was willing to put up with the silliness (I rather think Gibbons’ editor indulged her, since the book was satirical enough without the purple prose), and I’d highly recommend this to those who need a laugh. My current library doesn’t have Gibbons’ other novel (Nightingale Wood), but once I move my new library has it, and I shall definitely be trying it out!

I can definitely see Flora, the heroine of Cold Comfort Farm, having a copy of Better than Beauty: a Guide to Charm by Helen Valentine and Alice Thompson on her bedside table. Originally published in 1938, this is a nonfiction guide for women on how to be charming. As someone who adores 1930s films, I really loved reading this. It’s slim (I read it during a long bath), and the tone is a mixture of friendly and no-nonsense that reminds me of being sat down by a slightly-older good girlfriend and getting the world explained to me. I was expecting the advice to feel more dated than it does, but unlike some of the things I’ve read published later, this sounds quite modern (it resonated far more with me than A Guide to Elegance did, despite my enjoyment of the latter). It begins with advice on grooming, moves on to dress, then manners and social etiquette. I found myself nodding along and laughing with the authors at many a point (for example, they say that if dieting makes you cranky, you’ll be more charming with a few extra pounds than a shrewish personality), and I found the insight into the wardrobe-approach of the 1930s woman very interesting (how they updated their previous clothes, how to buy for quality, etc.). The funny thing is, although I went into this expecting to be, more than anything, amused, I can’t help thinking this would actually be a perfect gift for my thirteen-year-old cousin. Of course, the world has changed, but the philosophy behind all of their advice (be sure to be yourself and play up your natural strengths, charm comes from making the people around you comfortable) is quite timeless.

I think my expectations might have been too high when it comes to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. I’ve heard so much about the Mitfords, and everyone seems to really enjoy Nancy’s writing. I saw the BBC adaptation (which combines this one and Love in a Cold Climate) earlier this year and adored it, so I went in fully prepared to find a new favourite author. Unfortunately, just like in the case of North and South, I think my previous viewing of such a good BBC adaptation spoiled the book. The adaptation followed all of the plot points of the book, and all of the actors had brought their characters to life so well that the book characters fell a bit flat in comparison. Also, the characters feel as if they’re strongly based on people from Mitford’s life, and as such she knew them so well she didn’t feel the need for more than a brief sketch…for me, that meant that most of them didn’t rise above the kind of stereotypes I have of British aristocracy I already have (this in direct contrast to, say, Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsy). Fanny, the narrator, was my favourite, and I couldn’t help wishing the book focused more on her own story. Mitford’s writing style is more utilitarian than I had anticipated, and so that didn’t make the book sparkle for me. And while the story was engaging, I already knew it! So basically I’m kicking myself for first viewing the adaptation. I definitely want to give Nancy another try (usually I always refer to authors by their last names, but since several of the Mitford sisters wrote books, I feel odd doing it here), but I’m not sure where to go next. My edition of Pursuit of Love included Love in a Cold Climate, but I’m afraid that the BBC effect will be in full force for me. So for those who are more acquainted with her, should I give her earlier works a try or skip directly to the last of the trilogy (Don’t Tell Alfred) or go ahead and read Cold Climate anyway? I definitely liked Pursuit of Love…the concerns I’ve outlined here are what stopped me from loving it, not from enjoying it. So I think given time Nancy Mitford could become as much a comfort read for me as she is for so many other readers!

In the past, most of the 1930s authors I’ve read have been of the mystery variety. Ana’s 1930s mini-challenge and her wrap-up posts have me wanting to change that! Do you have a favourite interwar author that I should give a go? (Bonus points if they’re not British or American. ;) )

55 Comments leave one →
  1. teadevotee permalink
    September 14, 2010 9:55 am

    I felt like I got more out of ‘The Pursuit of Love’ having read the biography of the Mitford sisters by Mary Lovell – it’s incredible to think that so much of the incidents she describes (feeling sad about a match, hanging out in the airing cupboard) were real family events. If you didn’t enjoy this, I doubt you would enjoy Don’t Tell Alfred…it fell a bit flat for me, and I really enjoyed the other two. Inter-war literature is my absolute favourite! I wish I could go to their glamourous Bright Young Thing parties. Would you count Brideshead Revisited, even though it was published in 1945 (I think?) – it has the right sort of feeling.

    • September 17, 2010 1:05 am

      I do want to read a biography of the sisters (and their letters!), but I thought it’d make more sense to start with their fiction. Perhaps I’ll do it the other way around. :)

      You know, I tried Waugh’s Decline and Fall last year and couldn’t get into it, but I’m still curious about Brideshead. :)

  2. Sabine permalink
    September 14, 2010 10:06 am

    You really make me want to read Cold Comfort Farm now.

    I have a recommendation for you: Schloß Gripsholm (Castle Gripsholm) by Kurt Tucholsky. It was published in 1931 and it is one of my favourite summer books. Nevertheless you should be able to enjoy it although it’s getting colder each day. Plus, the author is German! (Bonus points?)

    • September 17, 2010 1:07 am

      You definitely get bonus points for your rec! ;) My library doesn’t have it, but I shall try to ILL it. :) (Plus, I’m moving to south Texas, where it’ll still be warm in October!)

  3. September 14, 2010 11:05 am

    Aw, too bad about the BBC effect! I totally understand that & it makes me glad I hadn’t seen those adaptations prior to reading Mitford.

    “Inter-war” includes basically the entirety of High Modernism, so you have a lot to choose from, even if you’re just focusing on the 1930s! As I recall you’ve already read & loved Woolf’s The Waves, but there’s also The Years (1937) and Between the Acts (1941) (which is very overtly “inter-war”). Both of those are more “accessible” than The Waves and early Woolf, but still very enjoyable!

    Elizabeth Bowen was Irish, and I liked her The House in Paris (1935) and The Last September (1929). Celine’s Journey to the end of the night (1932) and Death on the installment plan (1936) are some of my favorite absurdist French writing, but I don’t know if you’d like them as they’re pretty dark, and fairly anti-woman. Isak Dinesen’s most famous stuff came out in the 30’s; don’t know if you’ve already read it. Oh! and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy came out between 1930-1936 (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money). And the Christopher Isherwood stories later released as The Berlin Stories were written between 1935 and 1939.

    Sorry that got so long… :-P

    • September 17, 2010 1:10 am

      Oh I love Elizabeth Bowen! (I’ve read Last September and To the North): I really need to get more of her! And I’ve read Dinesen and Woolf’s Between the Acts (though not The Years). :)

      Thanks for all of the other recs: the authors are new to me! And I’m delighted you took the time to list them out for a silly Eva who didn’t know about High Modernism. ;)

  4. September 14, 2010 12:40 pm

    Better than Beauty sounds timeless.

    • September 17, 2010 1:10 am

      A lot of it is, down to an anti-drunk driving message! hehe

  5. September 14, 2010 12:45 pm

    I’ve also recently finished The Pursuit of Love, and am thrilled to hear that there is a BBC production of it. Like you, I enjoyed the book, and loved Fanny, but found it a bit thin in places. I read Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women in the same week, which outshone Mitford by far.

    • September 17, 2010 1:11 am

      I’m glad you found it thin w/o having seen the adaptation! Once you’ve read Love in a Cold Climate, definitely track down the BBC adaptation: it’s quite lovely. I haven’t read any Pym: sounds like I need to correct that!

  6. September 14, 2010 12:53 pm

    I read Cold Comfort Farm and while I liked it, I think I found some of the satire a little alienating, too. I haven’t read any Hardy or Lawrence, so I didn’t have those as foundation for the humor, and I think I was somehow expecting a more serious book that had funny bits in it (if that makes any sense). I did watch the film version with Kate Beckinsale, however, and that’s quite good and made me appreciate the book all the more, so you might want to give it a try at some point when you’re looking for things to watch!

    • September 17, 2010 1:13 am

      That does make sense! I was expecting a silly book, but not so much over-written prose. I wish she’d stuck to the other style. ;) The film version sounds like fun, but does Kate Bekinsdale play the main character? I can’t picture that for some reason!

  7. September 14, 2010 1:00 pm

    I haven’t read any of these, but I’ve thought about picking up “Cold Comfort Farm”. “Better than Beauty” looks like it would be a fun, quick read. I *love* the (valid) point that dieting makes you cranky!!

    • September 17, 2010 1:13 am

      Cold Comfort Farm is a quick read and definitely fun! :)

  8. September 14, 2010 1:53 pm

    I am glad you were still able to enjoy The Pursuit of Love. I am a big fan of the Mitford sisters.

    • September 17, 2010 1:13 am

      I want to be a big fan, lol, so I’ll stick with it. :)

  9. September 14, 2010 2:25 pm

    I have such fond memories of Cold Comfort Farm – especially the sexy Seth and the way Flora reacts to him being discovered.

    You might like ‘The Post Office Girl’ by Stefan Zweig if you haven’t already read it. I think that was finished in the 1930s and the main male character has returned from fighting in WWI if I remember correctly. That book made me feel so sad, yet so understood and so alive it was kind of an amazing experience. And ‘Dance Night’ by Dawn Powell was published in 1930s (oh I love that novel of small town life).

    • September 17, 2010 1:14 am

      Seth’s hilarious! I’ve stayed away form Zweig because I was afraid he’d be too depressing, but you’ve convinced me to get over that! And Dance Night sounds lovely: small town life is such fun when done well.

  10. September 14, 2010 2:27 pm


    It hurts me to hear that you don’t have the same fondness for Catch-22 as do I. But, the first 100 pages are probably the best, if that provides any comfort (or justification). In other words, it doesn’t really get more funny, so if you didn’t like it that far, it must not be for you.

    But, you asked for possible recommendations for “inter-war” period authors. I have three suggestions:

    William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows would seem to be up your alley. It is an intimate portrait of a family set in the late teens and early 20s. Maxwell was the editor of The New Yorker for a number of years. It has the advantages of being short and extremely well-written.

    John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy. A highly regarded work which, I believe, excellently captures the period from (and including) the First World War up to the beginnings of the Great Depression. From my review: “The plot of U.S.A. is history, the central character is the United States of America. It is an American trilogy of the breadth and depth of a Tolstoy novel. While Dos Passos is earnestly concerned with the plight of ordinary individuals, this is not an examination of an everyman at a particular moment in American history as in Bellow’s Sieze the Day nor the examination of the American Dream through a single protagonist as in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Dos Passos’ subject is America writ large, particularly the gritty American experience.”

    and, lastly,

    Dawn Powell’s Turn, Magic Wheel is an almost Wharton-like novel set in the inter-war period. From my review: “Perhaps this is why critics must have called her a cynic. She portrayed romantic love as it often does live and die. She did not write fairy tells where Mr. Darcy finds the perfect Mrs., or even the passionate chase of a Heathcliffe or a Gatsby. She wrote of more ordinary loves, which, while less spectacular, can be so much more painful. Effie waiting, rather than fighting, is an agonizing character. ” I was turned onto Powell by Tony’s Book World.

    If you would read any of these, I would be delighted to hear what you think. You cannot go wrong with any of them.


    • September 17, 2010 1:26 am

      Sorry I can’t join you in the Catch-22 love Kerry! I did try. :)

      Thanks for the suggestions, especially for taking the time to go into such detail! They all sound lovely, especially the Maxwell and Powell.

  11. Ruthiella permalink
    September 14, 2010 2:55 pm

    I read all of “Catch 22” and also did not get the humor. I am glad I am not the only one!

    • September 17, 2010 1:26 am

      I’m glad I’m not the only one too! I’m impressed you were able to stick with it.

  12. September 14, 2010 4:34 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read Cold Comfort Farm – it sounds like a book that might be enjoyed more in bits and pieces.

    • September 17, 2010 1:27 am

      Hmmm: I read it in big chunks and enjoyed it that way! Once the plotline picks up, it’s such fun to see what happens to the various characters I couldn’t put it down. :)

  13. September 14, 2010 4:43 pm

    Erich Maria Remarque – I’ve read three of his so far (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’, ‘Coming Home’ and ‘Three Comrades’) and loved them all. A little differeent to the three mentioned in your post though :)

    • September 17, 2010 1:28 am

      I didn’t realise All Quiet on the Western Front was from the interwar period! (Although, looking at it now, I know I *should* have realised that.) I tend to shy away from war related books, but I’ll put on my big girl pants and give him a go. :)

  14. September 14, 2010 6:57 pm

    Whee, my library has a copy of BETTER THAN BEAUTY, and it sounds like just the sort of book I’m always on the look out for! I find those sorts of things quite helpful for historical research.

  15. September 14, 2010 10:21 pm

    Didn’t it say in the intro to CCF that Gibbons asterisked her favorite passages? I think you may have disliked the author’s favorite parts. :)

    • September 17, 2010 1:35 am

      Nope: the astericks were to denote the mocking/satire bits, in case the author couldn’t figure it out. ;) (At least, that’s what I read!)

  16. September 15, 2010 12:20 am

    For inter-war writers, the one I’ve been bowled over by lately is Dorothy Whipple, available now in the lovely Persephone editions. She’s a writer who completely breaks your heart. I do love Nancy Mitford, but I did read her before watching the adaptation (which does cherry pick all the best bits). I agree with some of the other commenters that the biography of the sisters by Mary Lovell is a brilliant read and well worth a try.

    • September 17, 2010 1:35 am

      I’ve read two Whipples: I agree she’s an incredible writer who breaks your heart! Thanks for the second rec of the Lovell bio. :)

  17. September 15, 2010 2:57 am

    I have just picked up the biography of the Mitford sisters by Mary Lovell, so I can’t wait to read that.

    I can’t wait to hear what you think of Nightingale Wood when you get to read it. I loved it. I didn’t realise you were moving. Is that just you, or all the family?

    • September 17, 2010 1:36 am

      It’s me and my parents (and my niece, since she’s been w/ us for a couple of months now), and we’re moving back to where my sister lives, so the whole family will be under one roof!

  18. September 15, 2010 4:32 am

    I loved Cold Comfort Farm, both the book and the movie. I haven’t really read an actual Hardy book, but I was confronted too often with rural drama in uni, so mayne that’s why I got such a kick out of it :D

    I’ve only read Love in a Cold Climate and had a fantastic time, but then I haven’t seen the adaptation. You made me feel desperate to see it and dread it at the same time! :)

    • September 17, 2010 1:37 am

      I think I’d change my major if college required me to read rural drama fiction. lol

      I’ll be curious to see what you make of the adaptation!

  19. September 15, 2010 5:52 am

    All those books sound interesting, but Better than Beauty sounds excellent! I’ve added it to my wish list. It is crazy that you still find it relevant, and it sounds like actual decent advice! I haven’t read much of anything from the 1930’s, though, so have no recommendations for you. Sorry!

    • September 17, 2010 1:37 am

      I was shocked at how common sense it was! :)

  20. September 15, 2010 6:06 am

    So now I can’t decide if I should read Nancy Mitford’s books first, and try to love her as a writer, or watch the BBC adaptation and resign myself to its being better than the books. If I felt sure I’d like the BBC version after reading the books, I’d read the books first, but I’d hate to ruin a perfectly good BBC version in favor of mediocre books.

    I feel just the same about extended satire generally, but Joseph Heller has been an exception. I really enjoyed Catch-22 (the higher-up-in-the-army characters were just like my driver’s ed teacher at the time, so I identified with poor Yossarian), and God Knows has grown on me over the years.

    • September 17, 2010 1:38 am

      I think you’d like the adaptation after reading the books: it’s faithful to them, just better. :)

      OMG, driver’s ed teachers are the worst, aren’t they?!

  21. September 15, 2010 6:30 am

    I love the combo you’ve selected! One inter-war title that I’ve recently added to my TBR list for this time period, that’s neither American nor British, is Gwethalyn Graham’s Swiss Sonata. Apparently her second novel is just as amazing, but it was published in 1944, so it would miss your cut-off.

    • September 17, 2010 1:47 am

      Swiss Sonata sounds really neat (and thanks for the link)!

  22. September 15, 2010 7:11 am

    Better Than Beauty sounds like a fun gift to give women you don’t know well enough to give fiction, as well as an interesting insight to the time period. I don’t read a lot of inter-war fiction, I have to admit, besides Jeeves and Wooster and Agatha Christie.

    • September 17, 2010 1:48 am

      Definitely a fun gift! Jeeves & Wooster and Dame Agatha are both marvelous. :)

  23. Heqit permalink
    September 15, 2010 7:22 am

    oooh, lots to say here! I love the inter-war period, and these are some of my favorite books.

    First, definitely do read Love in a Cold Climate! I’ve enjoyed all of Nancy Mitford’s books, (and Jessica Mitford’s too, for that matter), but I think The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate are her best novels. I would not recommend reading Don’t Tell Alfred until you’ve read Love in a Cold Climate. And as much as I enjoyed TPoL, I think LiaCC may be funnier. It’s a bit sharper, doesn’t have the Linda-worship, and the ending makes me giggle every time.

    If your library can get hold of it (mine got it on inter-library loan), do read Nancy Mitford’s [non-fiction] Noblesse Oblige. The U vs. non-U language/cultural notes are fascinating and hilarious.

    Cold Comfort Farm is so great! It took me forever to figure out that it’s actually science fiction, though, and that just makes it funnier. I love Gibbons’ vision of a world where everyone flies planes (because hey, it’s the future!) but still observes the British social norms of the ’30s. And Amos Starkadder’s “There’ll be no butter in hell!” sermon cracks me up every time.

    Gibbons did have that kind of amusing note about the starred passages in the introduction, but they’re totally skippable. I do kind of wish that Stella’s books were real, though. I want to read the Abbe’s Pensees!

    Finally, since I have and like both A Guide to Elegance and Live Alone and Like It, clearly I have to hunt down Better Than Beauty now. It sounds like just my type of thing, and full of advice I could probably use, too.

    I’m blanking on other non-mystery inter-war writers right now (other than Winifred Watson), but this comment is already way too long, so I’ll stop. (but read Love in a Cold Climate!)

    • September 17, 2010 1:49 am

      I’m glad Cold Climate is better, but I already know the plot! (From the adaptation)

      The sci-fi aspects of Cold Comfort Farm were so random! lol I can’t believe I forgot to mention it!

  24. Jenny permalink
    September 15, 2010 11:24 am

    I thought The Pursuit of Love was sad, actually. I came at it expecting wit and satire (like Cold Comfort Farm, which I ADORE), and found it saddening, with funny bits sprinkled here and there. I also found the plot flimsy. It didn’t make me want to pursue her other works, though I’ve read Noblesse Oblige and that was a fun pamphlet.

    • September 17, 2010 1:50 am

      It wasn’t as perky as I was expecting for sure! It might have saddened me if I hadn’t read the adaptation. ;)

  25. September 15, 2010 12:21 pm

    The first two sound amazing, especially Cold Comfort Farm which has been on my wishlist for ages anyway. I’m not sure yet about the third. I’ll be looking forward to seeing the suggestions in the comments though, this is definitely a period in history I wouldn’t mind reading more literature from!

    • September 17, 2010 1:51 am

      Definitely give Cold Comfort Farm a go! :)

  26. September 16, 2010 5:15 am

    Now I really want to hunt through my TBR box for whichever Nancy Mitford novel I bought at the last Bookfest. I think it was Love in a Cold Climate … isn’t it awful that I can’t remember when it was only a few months ago? Or maybe not. At least this way going to the box has a nice lucky-dip feel to it.

    • September 17, 2010 1:50 am

      I don’t think that’s awful! I can’t always remember which books I’ve gotten at the library sales. ;)

  27. September 17, 2010 8:36 am

    I love reading interwar literature although most of what I read is British. However, I’m also a big fan of Japanese literature and a lot of what I read is interwar (I think) such as Junichiro Tanizaki (The Makioka Sisters) and some Osamu Dazai (No Longer Human). It was a period of great change in Japan with its westernisation and growth of imperialism and also a rise in women writers who have broken out of traditional domesticity to lead independant lives. One of the books I really enjoyed this year was To Live and To Write: Selections by Japanese Women Writers 1913-1938 edited by Yukiko Tanaka ( introduced me to a lot of writers I knew nothing about. I’m not sure how easily available this book is (I found this in a secondhand shop) but it’s well worth a look.

    • September 19, 2010 8:20 pm

      Thanks for the suggestions! I read one of Tanizaki’s novels back in 2007 (Naomi), and I’ve been meaning to give him another go. But that selection of women authors sounds great! I’ve noticed a lot more reviews of books by Japanese men than women in the blogosphere, which gives me a bit of a twinge. ;)

  28. September 20, 2010 5:46 am

    I remember loving Nancy Mitford’s books but I read them when I was very young. I’m planning to re-read them soon, wonder what I’ll think now. Have you tried Winifred Holtby? I also enjoyed Barbara Pym’s books.
    You might be interested in Deborah Mitford’s memoir Wait for Me – which has just been published. I blogged about it recently.
    I’m really glad to see and hear you back!

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