Barbara Comyns - An impossible balance between accuracy, wonder, and disgust. She creates a paradoxical sense of a world that might want to embrace you lovingly, unless instead it wants to smother you
Barbara Comyns, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, Dorothy, a publishing project, 2010. [1954.]
"This is the story of the Willoweed family and the English village in which they live. It begins mid-flood, ducks swimming in the drawing-room windows, “quacking their approval” as they sail around the room. “What about my rose beds?” demands Grandmother Willoweed. Her son shouts down her ear-trumpet that the garden is submerged, dead animals everywhere, she will be lucky to get a bunch. Then the miller drowns himself... then the butcher slits his throat... and a series of gruesome deaths plagues the villagers. The newspaper asks, “Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?” Through it all, Comyns’ unique voice weaves a text as wonderful as it is horrible, as beautiful as it is cruel. Originally published in England in 1954, this “overlooked small masterpiece” is a twisted, tragicomic gem."
"Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was the first book I read by British novelist Barbara Comyns. I knew nothing about Comyns at the time: I picked up the novel exclusively because of the title, which struck me as promising and intriguing.
In fact, the book turned out to be a great deal more than that: it was downright astonishing. Beginning mid-flood, with ducks swimming through Grandma Willoweed’s drawing room windows “quacking their approval,” Comyns’ narrator quickly moves on to “[a] passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding,” and then the sun comes “out bright and strong and everywhere became silver.” That last fact is a good thing if you side with one of the book’s several astonished children, but bad if you’re Old Ives the handyman, superstitiously convinced that the sun will draw the moisture back into the sky. Inside the house, maids pin up their skirts and try to make breakfast while wading red-legged through the water, laughing and screeching. Meanwhile, the bodies of drowned peacocks eddy round the garden, the hens in one shed commit suicide by falling from their perches into the water, and the hens in the other shed fatalistically sit “on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. They squarked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.”
All of that happens in the first two paragraphs of the book. None of it is lingered over; each moment is allowed to come and go in Comyns’ distinctive way, and by the time you’ve digested the image or moment and begun to apprehend what lurks behind it, she has moved on to something else. The third paragraph offers a blazing sun and a litany of “[s]trange objects of pitiful aspect” floating past in the flood: more dead peacocks, a drowned sheep with “the wool withering about in the water,” a floating beehive surrounded by “perplexed bees,” a newborn pig “all pink and dead,” among other things. These are indeed pitiful objects, but described with such exacting care and quirky accuracy that the language itself creates a kind of warmth and wonder—there’s nothing else out there quite like the strange and marvelous usage of “wool withering about” for instance, or the tension found between “all pink” and the blunter “dead.” Comyns approaches the world as if everything is worthy of clear-eyed attention. In this novel in particular, she is better than any other writer I know at striking an impossible balance between accuracy, wonder, and disgust. She creates a paradoxical sense of a world that might want to embrace you lovingly—unless instead it wants to smother you. What it will do in the end matters less than the way in which Comyns almost effortlessly engineers that vision of the range of possibility and allows us to maintain our shaky perch suspended above it. The Irish Censorship of Publications Board apparently saw only one part of her vision—disgust, death, and decay—and not its broader sweep: when this novel (Comyns’ third) was first published in 1954 it was banned in Ireland, though it is difficult to understand today what they found offensive.
At heart, the novel is the story of the Willoweed family, which consists of the wealthy, deaf, and tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed; her shiftless and widowed son Ebin, a former newspaper columnist; Ebin’s three children, Hattie, Emma, and Dennis; the servants that keep the household running; and the village surrounding them. In Comyns’ prose, everything is leveled out: all things are worthy of attention and potentially anything can be examined, and the third person narration is quite democratic in terms of who it chooses to attend to. Sometimes we are close to one of the children, sometimes to Ebin, sometimes a servant or a doctor or the town baker. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead offers the same meanderings and floods and retreats as the river within the book itself. At times, it feels like an extended daydream; at other times it descends into nightmare. The two events that most shape the book, and indeed the lives of the people within them, are external events: the flood and its aftermath on the one hand, and the odd and initially unexplained outbreak of illness on the other.
The novel has a progression and a movement forward, though not exactly a plot. Things change, things happen, people make choices, and by the end things are different. Do the characters change and develop? Well, maybe. Though one could also argue that it’s less a question of changing and developing than of simply responding to stimulus. Ebin’s life, for instance, seems radically changed by the outbreak in that it allows him to regain his former profession and escape the tyranny of his mother, but he goes through yet another transformation once his mother dies, one that partially effaces the first one. Dennis and Emma experience far-reaching changes as a result of the outbreak as well, though quite different ones than their father. One has throughout the novel a sense of things happening almost in spite of the characters. Most things that happen in fact happen almost accidentally, and the few definite steps that characters take rarely work out the way they expect them to.
Comyns is merciless as a portrayer of human relationships as well. She manages to depict the power struggles within the family itself in a way that seems every bit as naturalistic as the events of the flood. The adults in particular get no sympathy from her: their human masks are very damaged and one can see the animal within. The social graces and etiquette that remain often function mainly as means of maintaining power. The grandmother in particular takes a sinister delight in the misfortunes of others, though this is combined with a deafness that makes her detached from the world around her and prone to misunderstandings. Indeed, the older the Willoweeds are, the more they seem to have accepted the viciousness found in nature around them while losing track of its more marvelous and redeeming qualities.
But that marvelousness permeates the book, which seems as a whole to side with childlike wonder over grown-up viciousness. The novel possesses a remarkable sense of lightness (in Italo Calvino’s usage of the term) despite the floods and deaths and basic human pettinesses found therein. As Comyns has admitted, “I set it in my childhood village [Bidford-on-Avon] and my imagination took hold of me and it almost wrote itself.” It is perhaps for this reason that her evocation of childhood feels so palpable here, so honest. This is all done through language: through the simplicity of the style, forthright and honest; through her tone, which Patricia Craig calls “confident and uncalculating”; through the honesty of the gaze itself; through the way that startling details are rendered in a fashion that captures something essential about them before the narrator moves quickly to other things. The results are a kind of hybrid of the pastoral and the naturalistic, an idyllic text about what it’s like to grow up next to a river, a text that also just happens to contain some pretty shocking and sad disasters. That combination shouldn’t work, but in Comyns’ exceptionally capable hands it does.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead strikes me as Comyns’ best and most original book (with The Skin Chairs and The Vet’s Daughter lagging only a little behind it), and it still remains one of my favorites. Comyns’ dark pastoral is an overlooked small masterpiece, and one that has opened pathways that other writers have yet to pursue.” - BRIAN EVENSON, from the Introduction
“The strange off-beat talent of Miss Comyns and that innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrence.” - Graham Greene
"Most of the great writers achieve their resonances through a careful, harmonized attunement to a common understanding—they invoke and manipulate those things that we collectively recognize as universals. But there is a smaller, more remote group who work primarily from a private, incommunicable notion of the world. Authors such as Kleist, Emily Brontë, Gogol, Melville, Djuna Barnes, Robert Walser, Wittgenstein, Jose Donoso, Ingeborg Bachmann, and perhaps the most famous and misunderstood, Kafka: each works from a world schema that belongs to him or her alone.
Barbara Comyns, who published her first novel at age 40 in 1947 and ten more over the next forty years, was of this latter type. She stands with one foot in the plain-spoken world of early 20th-century England, and another in a realm of cracked-mirror fairy tales that Gabriel Josipovici memorably invoked in discussing Kleist:
His great novella, 'Michael Kohlhaas', takes many of the elements that go to make up the Grimm Tales and stands them on their head, bidding an anguished farewell as it does so both to community values and to the power of wishful thinking. But Kleist had no successors.
I would add that Kleist made it impossible to have successors. This sort of maneuver is precisely one that makes imitation futile. The emergence of someone like Comyns seems to be a matter more of chance than of tradition. Having a private vision is not enough—the success of these writers lies in the degree to which they can translate their hermetic world into common linguistic terms that are comprehensible to others.
Recently reissued by the press Dorothy, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is Comyns’ third novel (more or less; she had previously started a fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, but would not finish it until a few years after) and her first instance of actively engaging narrative traditions. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, is an unfathomably strange set of autobiographical scenes from her childhood, alternately pastoral and horrific, yet with little change in narrative tone between the two moods. The second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is an autobiographical chronicle of her pained first marriage. The material is far more normal, but the voice, half-detached from the world, a bit maladapted, and yet absolutely certain of itself, is clearly the same.
That voice persists in the omniscient third-person in Who Was Changed, which was does not rely on biographical details and yet proceeds with exactly the same confidence. With utter smoothness, Comyns blends jarring and sudden narrative twists into what seems to be a naturalistic novel. Looking back after reading, the amount of time events seem to take is wholly at odds with the number of pages they occupy, in one direction or the other. Digressions and seemingly awkward phrases seamlessly fold into whole.
The plot itself is simple. In a small English village, Warwickshire, sometime in the 19th century, still water causes a case of ergot poisoning in some loafs of bread, and those who eat the bread change, die, or both. Mostly we see the effects through the eyes of one family and their two maids. The craven father Ebin, who sees opportunity in the tragedy, is the focus of much of the plot, but at the center of the book are his children. The younger two, Dennis and Hattie, are pre-teens, young enough to not be terrified by events but absorb them through the gauze of childhood. The oldest, Emma, is 17 and stands halfway between their world and that of the adults. Not coincidentally, she most closely resembles Comyns’ other protagonists.
As with Kleist and Kafka, the navigation of the ground between the mystery and common parlance is something more easily experienced than described. All I can do is point out a few mechanisms used by Comyns that help her achieve her sui generis effects.
The Voices. Comyns’ novels frequently have children in them, and their view of the world destabilizes the narrative. For them, the loss of a toy can be as great as the death of half a dozen townspeople, and Comyns’ ability to depict that strange, almost arbitrary agenda is nearly unparalleled. (It ranks with that of Richard Hughes’ brilliant and surreal A High Wind in Jamaica, the only book I can think of even remotely similar to Comyns’, though Hughes uses a great deal more explicit fantasy to achieve this effect.) Consider this passage about the young brother Dennis:
The children were by this time extremely dirty and rather tired and did not want to be hustled home. Then, unfortunately, they came to one of the fields filled with the cows their father had so much admired. Dennis was frightened of cows and, when he saw the great beasts tossing their heads adorned with their curling horns, he knew he could never pass them. Even the ones who were grazing kept slashing at flies with their tails in an alarming manner. He stood at the gate and refused to budge while Hattie coaxed him and his father swore, “You bloody little fool, they won’t hurt you. If you don’t come immediately, I’ll leave you here and you’ll have to face them all alone!” And that is exactly what did happen. Ebin went on, although both children begged him not to, and he forced Hattie to go with him, which she sulkily did, looking over her shoulder every now and then at the sad little figure standing by the gate.
This scene comes after the poisonings and deaths have started, and Comyns manages to make cows as terrifying as the grotesque events around them. The words carefully trace a short change in perspective. Comyns starts by describing Dennis’ feelings as “frightened,” goes into his head with the more exaggerated words of “beasts,” “adorned,” and “slashing,” then returns to a more distanced narration with “alarming.” We next hear Ebin’s quoted irritation among words suggesting Hattie’s sympathetic, weary way: “coaxed,” “sulkily,” “sad little figure,” even “shoulder.” The transitions are so unobtrusive that it’s easy to forget how easily they can go wrong and become stilted, especially so when switching between adults and children.
The Natural World. This new edition unfortunately omits Ursula Holden’s insightful introduction to the old Virago edition in favor of one that makes the mistake of saying that the narration is “democratic.” While Comyns’ voice wanders between characters quite frequently, there is one character in particular (I won’t say who) who never gets an internal voice of any kind, not even third-person articulation of her thoughts. And this is significant, because this rather evil, or more accurately monstrous character is closer to being an impersonal force, a part of nature, than to being a human. But the line is never quite so clear. Like Rhoda in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Comyns makes far less distinction between humans and the rest of the world than most writers. People bleed into the landscape and vice versa. Some of her humans are as impenetrable, soulless, and voiceless as a natural disaster. Others speak as though obscured, their voices channeled through a third-person narrator that cannot be them. And some, particularly children, are so vivid that their voices are pure and unmediated.
This graduated continuity makes Comyns something of an anti-humanist. We don’t hear that one character’s inner voice because, like the wicked characters in fairy tales, she simply doesn’t have one. She is but a force that acts upon others. Being human is not enough to make one a subject, and it’s not really a question of one’s acts either, as those seem to be prescribed by one’s pre-existing nature. Some people just have terrible parts to play, like that poisoned bread.
The Ending. In general, these sorts of disaster stories, be they The Plague or Blindness or what have you, do not have satisfying or significant endings. By their nature, many characters do not survive. And the survivors too often face the reality of what has happened with either deflationary resignation or a hollow epiphanic transformation. Comyns, however, takes a different tack. It’s not a twist and it’s not exactly a “surprise,” but the book takes a turn very close to the end that marks Comyns as extremely savvy about her material and the devices she is using. It is very clever, brilliant even, and I don’t know of an example of it being done anywhere else. (One possible example is Etron Fou Leloublan’s chanson “Christine,” though it is used for very different effect).
It is enough to say that with the ending, Comyns manages to recontextualize what has gone before on several levels: plot, myth, symbol. To call it ironic or fatuous, which it may seem to some, is to miss the point. Comyns evidently has access to creative realms that are intensely private, intensely alien, and the ending is her way of joining them, unexpectedly and perversely, with the world we know, and also with the stories we know. It makes her world vaguely resemble ours, but she is always closer to it, and we are always at bay." - David Auerbach
"Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is the story of a family, a household and a village in a time of flood, plague and savagery. The year is 1914 and the family is that of widower Ebin Willoweed. Ebin is the lethargic home tutor to his three motherless children – Emma, Dennis and Hattie. He is also the dependent and resentful son of the rich forbidding matriarch – Grandmother Willoweed. Grandmother Willoweed is an old tyrant with a forked tongue who refuses to step upon land that she does not own. The wider household includes their tender maids – the sisters Norah and Eunice – and their gardener – the frank speaking, keeper of traditions – Old Ives. Beyond the gates of their manorial home sits a community wider still; the doctor, the baker, the farmer, the miller, the rector, the idiot; their wives, their lovers, their children. As the novel opens the river has burst its banks and flooded the house and the village. Ducks swim through windows and Ebin rows his daughters around the garden in a small boat. Everything is displaced. But soon it will be worse – for plague follows flood and madness follows hard behind. Who will be changed by it, and who will be dead?
The tone of this tale is surreal and slightly magical – but it is not meaninglessly strange. Rather – bizarre happenings and peculiar interludes are used to illustrate themes that are close to us all. Barbara Comyns explores snobbery and insecurity alongside kindness and understanding. She explores the casual cruelties of family life, the odd traps of domesticity, the secrets and lies that lurk in every household. She shows how people can become displaced – by their own attitudes and the mentalities of others. The characters that she creates are powerful because they are candid. Although the moral compass is stronger in some than it is in others, everyone in this stricken village has more than one side – there are no pantomime villains or heroes beyond reproach. Barbara Comyns builds a topsy-turvy world and uses it to illustrate a landscape of great familiarity.
This is not a story without horror. Indeed, the grotesque descriptions of the damage caused by the flood led to the book being banned in Ireland when it was published in 1954. Barbara Comyns was not a user of the euphemism. She wrote frankly and unapologetically. But if a history of censorship suggests to you that this book might be gratuitously unpleasant – then her history of censorship has done Barbara Comyns wrong. In Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead there is an overwhelming feeling for the profound and confusing oddness of everyday life. The true horrors of the novel are the ease with which people will turn to violence – the speed with which they will lose compassion – the comfort which they will take from prejudice. Alongside this disturbing narrative – there are also the unexpected new beginnings that emerge from chaos – the happier, surer future beyond the disaster. This is a lyrical and humane book which ought not to be forgotten." - Hannah Stoneham
"What a twisted, tragic, but nearly laugh-out-loud funny tale! Originally published in England in 1954 (and immediately banned in Ireland, so a suitable Banned Book Week (Sept.24-Oct.2) read on top of a R.I.P. V one!) this book is set in a charming English village on the banks of a pretty river, and it is about the Willoweed family – wealthy, squawking, tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed, her slacker son Ebin, and his three children. The book opens with a flood, and we find ducks paddling through the drawing room, poor dead kittens and piglets floating in the garden, and the children caught between sorrow for the destruction and excitement over the fact that the adults will be too distracted to make them do their lessons. After the flood waters drain away, the village seems to return to normal until a mysterious madness begins infecting people. The miller drowns himself, the butcher slits his throat, children scream in the night…
Comyns maintains a remarkable balance in this book between wonder and horror. Half the time I felt like I was reading a fairly typical story of the relationships and yearnings of a quirky family in a familiarly idyllic English countryside – the world of The Railway Children or something similar. Then with the same straightforwardness, she describes some rather awful things in such away that you’re shocked or disgusted but you don’t lose the feeling of lightness. In Comyns hands, the ‘bloated body of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water‘ deserves as much clear-eyed interest as anything else. Her story is one of human pettiness and the destructive power of nature, and yet I never felt weighted by it. She told it matter-of-factly, somehow infusing it with a sense of the marvelous. Thinking about it now, my mind rebels against the concept – such a weird balance shouldn’t be possible! Comyns pulls it off somehow, I can only guess through her peculiar style and skill with the language, and I am left astonished." - tuulenhaiven
"Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) takes its striking title from Longfellow’s ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood’:
We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;
Like the poem, the novel concerns itself with recounting the past: “Summer about seventy years ago” is the setting. At the beginning is a flood: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.” The windows belong to Grandmother Willoweed, formidable matriarch of both her family and her Warwickshire village, more or less of the landed gentry but not always ladylike (“What do you think I pay you for, you insubordinate slut?” she rebukes one of her maids). Dependent on her are her son Ebin and his children Emma, Hattie and Dennis.
The realisation that we are in for a surprising journey comes early, when as a result of the flood “the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below. [...] For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.” This detail is more significant than it appears. By comically giving human attributes to birds, Comyns also pre-warns us that the people in her book will be no more dignified or impressive than animals for their supposed higher status. Certainly she is not lenient on her human characters. Ebin Willoweed, emasculated by his mother, feels so much “a failure in everything he undertook” that he is depressed by the mere sight of the full river “flowing with such purpose and determination.” With money worries and family fears, “sometimes in the night he thought about the future quite a lot.”
Who, the reader wonders, is the real tyrant here? Grandmother Willoweed, or her creator? When her anti-heroine licks her lips to tell her granddaughter a brutal story, Comyns lets us know (those animal qualities again) that Grandmother Willoweed has literally a forked tongue.
She put her glass down on the sideboard and said, “Doctor Hatt was called away in the middle of my whist drive. His wife was worse – her nose was bleeding.” She filled her glass from the decanter and gave Emma a strange glance.
“Well, people’s noses are always bleeding. You are supposed to put a large key down their back.” [...]
Grandmother Willoweed took a sip of port, and looked with her lizard-like eyes over her glass.
“Well, my dear, a key wouldn’t have been much use in this case; this was a peculiar kind of nosebleed. It went on and on until the bed became filled with blood – at least that is what I heard – it went on and on and the mattress was soaked and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs Hatt died.”
Grandmother Willoweed is teasing her listener just as Comyns does with the reader; the truth or otherwise of what she says is neither here nor there. We are all engaged in this process of storytelling together. What Mrs Hatt suffers is nothing to what is yet to come for other villagers: they will follow the hens and the doctor’s wife to a liquid death.
In a book where everything seems to have double meanings, Grandmother Willoweed is mocked as well as feared. Her refusal to cross any land she doesn’t own means she must attend Mrs Hatt’s funeral by sailing down the river on a barge, looking simultaneously like the guest of honour and figure of fun. Unable to hear the villagers’ jeers from the shore, she “thought [they] were paying her homage, and bowed gravely.” Later, a delivery of small loaves of rye bread to every villager is to be as ominous as the chapatis in The Siege of Krishnapur. “Then the shouting started, that appalling shouting started…”
If all this doesn’t persuade you of the merits of this eccentric, charming, ambiguous little gem, then recognise the mark of honour that Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was banned in Ireland on its publication. Perhaps they were fearful of the suicidal chickens exerting a malign influence on Ireland’s own poultry and domestic fowl." - Palimpsest
"At the beginning of June the river floods, ducks swim through the drawing-room windows, and Ebin Willoweed rows his daughters round the submerged garden. The grandmother dresses in magenta for her seventy-first-birthday whist drive and looks forward to the first prize of pate de foie gras. Later Ives the gardener leads a morose procession up river, dragging her to a funeral in a black-draped punt. The miller goes mad and drowns himself and a cottage is set alight. Villagers keep dying, and at the house on the river plates are thrown across the luncheon table and a tortoise through a window. The newspaper asks `Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?' Originally published in 1954, this strange novel with its macabre humour, speaks with Barbara Comyns' unique and magical voice."
(The novel was banned in Ireland, and generally received less acclaim than her first two novels, being held to `wallow in repulsiveness'. I doubt that many would share that view now - though the sort of person who bans books is difficult to predict. At any rate, it's very funny, and brilliantly written. Barbara Comyns got the idea from reading about an outbreak of ergot poisoning in France in 1951.)
Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter, New York Review of Books Classics, 2003. [1959.]
"The Vet’s Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. The vet lives with his bedridden wife and shy daughter Alice in a sinister London suburb. He works constantly, captive to a strange private fury, and treats his family with brutality and contempt. After his wife’s death, the vet takes up with a crass, needling woman who tries to refashion Alice in her own image. And yet as Alice retreats ever deeper into a dream world, she discovers an extraordinary secret power of her own.
Harrowing and haunting, like an unexpected cross between Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King, The Vet’s Daughter is a story of outraged innocence that culminates in a scene of appalling triumph."
"Told in the first person by a young girl, [The Vet’s Daughter] has the vividness and innocence [and] the revelatory intensity of the narrations of Pip or young David Copperfield. It projects its fantastic story with a tangible realness and manages to make public and inevitable a realm of private sensation close to nightmare… A wonderful and original novel." — Alan Hollinghurst
"`Some day I'll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me - both doors at once, perhaps...'
"The daughter of a bullying veterinary surgeon, Alice Rowlands' world is Edwardian South London at its most oppressive. In her own vivid uneducated words, she here relates the story of her girlhood and the growth of her fatal occult powers. Longing for romance and excitement, Alice is trapped in a life which is dreary, restrictive, and lonely - made bearable only by the kindness of her dull suitor, Blinkers, and briefly, hopelessly, and rapturously by Nicholas, a handsome young sailor. Through the eyes of Alice we watch strange events unfold - events which lead her, triumphantly dressed as a bride, to Clapham Common and her moment of final ecstasy..."
"I have sort of an unwritten rule to avoid talking too much about beginnings of books, because I think people focus on them as an excuse for short attention spans. I’ll easily sacrifice the first sentence or the first chapter of a book in exchange for a solid structure and a real thematic coherence, but the trend today seems to be to favor the details over the whole, and what details are more likely to be appreciated than beginnings? Still, The Vet’s Daughter deserves mention for its first paragraph because its oddness is so representative of some of Comyns’ central tactics:
A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, “You must excuse me,” and left this poor man among the privet hedges.
We don’t hear from the man again, and the narrator (a teenage girl named Alice, it turns out) is soon preoccupied by matters inside the vet’s house. The vet is her abusive, alcoholic father, and the story concerns itself with how she copes with him and his wretchedness, including his longstanding mistress, who moves in with them after Alice’s mother dies.
The book is more linear and “normal” than Comyns’ first published novel, Sisters by a River, but they both share an odd gothic quality and a firm, assertive young woman narrator. I think it’s the juxtaposition of those two things that gives Comyns her unique quality. It’s not typical to see such a matter-of-fact narrator facing such outsized characters. There’s no attempt to humanize the father; his monstrousness has its contradictions, but there’s no question, in either the narrator’s mind or the book’s conception, that he is a monster. Yet a girl facing such a character would typically be more passively receptive to her impressions (say, in a Hardy novel, or even in Charlotte Bronte), and Alice is not. She thinks and speaks.
And the first paragraph, even if it doesn’t have much to do plotwise with the rest of the book, sets this up. She engages with the man, perceives his nature, provides for him momentarily, and dispatches him. Even as her thoughts run along a distinct, parallel track, she naturalizes him as part of a landscape, regards his needs, and caters to him as she would to an animal. (It’s this attitude that allows the gothic quality to emerge in the outside world.) Before she meets him, her unspecified thoughts are already elsewhere, which is where she finds her liberation and her autonomy. The central conceit and tragedy of the book is the invasion of her private realm by the outside world; as is made clear, she can survive anything but that. Comyns was evidently luckier." - David Auerbach
"This is one of those reviews where I can’t wait until the end to say that I that I loved the book. From the moment I glimpsed the first page I knew I could get on with this authors written style, and a couple of chapters in, I was totally involved in the world of Alice Rowland.
When I started Vet’s Daughter, I didn’t have much of an idea what the story would be about, so I was surprised at how sinister it was. The story follows Alice Rowlands, a young girl who grows up in a house surrounded a menagerie of animals with a brutal father (the Vet) and her downtrodden mother. Later, she moves away from home to a far more pleasant environment.
The book is written in the first person, and Alice’s voice is clear as a bell and compelling as she reveals her living circumstances. The animals in the house create a cacophony of noise and a claustrophobic atmosphere. A shrieking parrot screams when there is unrest in the house and Alice is constantly tending to the needs of ailing creatures such as a sick mongoose. The whole feeling is one of claustrophobia. Alice’s mother is a sad, small person, finally at the end of a life of years of abuse. Descriptions of brutality are never overplayed – they are matter of fact which makes them even more shocking. Her father’s callous actions build on one another to expose a monster of a person.
Only three weeks after her mother’s funeral her father brings home Rosa Fisher “The strumpet” from “The Trumpet”. When Rosa starts trying to introduce Alice to men, things go from bad to worse and her only escape is through Henry Peebles a locum vet who comes to the practise after her mother’s death and takes her on day trips. I worried for Alice at every step, trying to work out Peebles’ intentions and wondering how on earth she would get away from such an oppressive and dangerous environment.
When Alice does finally escape from home, the relief is tangible. As she describes taking in her new environment I felt as if I was experiencing it with her:
“When I went outside, the sun had just risen and it was very light. The garden was large and open, and beyond it lay the water, shimmering between the pine trees. Through a small fir plantation there was a narrow path. I followed it to the water. This is how I’d hoped the Island would be; but it was far more beautiful.”
While life isn’t perfect, it opens her up to new experiences including meeting a young man. However something rather strange starts to happen to Alice which for me was quite unexpected and adds rather a surreal flavour to the book. She discovers that she has an unusual ability. I was quite taken aback by the strangeness of it all but it also added to making this a very special and original book for me. I don’t want to elaborate too much as I really enjoyed how events unfolded in such an unusual way.
The Vet’s Daughter is an offbeat and quirky read. I became completely involved in it. It was unsettling rather than upsetting for me because Alice’s narrative felt quite emotionally detached and this detachment only added to the stark horror of her situation. While Comyns’ writing style is descriptive, she uses adjectives rarely, describing things simply but somehow managing to produce a vivid impression. I was stunned by how much is covered in this book and how much impact it had on me. Highly recommended.
I read Vet’s Daughter as part of a readalong with Simon T of Stuckinabook and Claire of Paperback Reader. You can read Simon’s review here, and Claire will be posting her thoughts soon too." - Novel Insights
"Every so often I am lulled into a false sense of security by a Virago; some of them are quite short books with rather large print and thus I am deceived into expecting them to be ‘easy’ books. That was certainly what went through my mind when I picked up The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns to read on the train yesterday morning, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was very surprised to learn that Barbara Comyns was inspired to write this while on her honeymoon in Wales though, as it’s far from being the idyllic, romantic novel that you would hope someone would produce while in the first flush of love and is really rather dark. This was not a book I bought myself, but one that I was kindly sent by my LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa in 2010, so I knew very little about it and the author was entirely new to me. All I can say is that she did a splendid job of choosing books for me if this one is anything to go by, as, while it wasn’t an easy read and I would hesitate to term it an enjoyable one, it was very powerful and well-written book and the perfect way to begin Rachel and Carolyn’s Virago Reading Week.
The Vet’s Daughter tells the story of Alice, the eponymous vet’s daughter, who lives in an unfashionable area of London with her irritable, brusque, cruel father, her timid, suffering mother and a whole menagerie of animals. Following a series of traumatic occurrences in her life, Alice discovers that she has the ability to levitate and things appear to improve for her: she moves to rural Hampshire to act as companion to a frail lady and finally begins to enjoy herself away from the tyranny of her father. However, this cannot last for long and soon she finds herself even worse off than before.
The novel is written in the first person from Alice’s perspective, in prose that is spare and bleak with not a single word being wasted and no event without significance at some point in the novel. The starkness of the writing makes the terrible things that happen stand out because they are reported in such a mundane way, such as when she tells the reader:
One morning a dreadful thing happened. A man came to measure Mother for her coffin as if she were dead already. He said Father had told him to come. (p. 18)
The straightforward nature of these simple statements makes it seem as though these situations are usual, and my heart went out to Alice every time I read something like this that she should think that the case. Her voice is lost and sorrowful, a child trying to make sense of an adult world which is cruel and confusing, and at times it is almost painful to read. There are brief flashes of happiness, but these are fleeting and serve only to provide glimpses of what the reader quickly suspects Alice will never be able to attain. These pleasant experiences are always cut off prematurely, such as when Alice’s friend Lucy comes to visit:
Then she produced a fortune-telling tape-measure and we laughed a lot over it. My waist measurement said, ‘Next year’, and my wrist ‘He loves you’ and my nose ‘A sailor’, and my head ‘You will be surprised’. We were still laughing when I heard Father come in and I knew our happy time was over and I would have to get Lucy out of the house quickly. (pp. 33-34)
Although she is the narrator, Alice has no agency in this sad little novel: things happen to her and all she can do is talk about them to the reader. Her power goes no further than little things, such as rescuing a woodlouse from the fire with a teaspoon, and that makes this actions seem all the more poignant and significant. There are times when she appears to be able to exercise her own will, but this is swiftly undermined as Alice is brought back down to where she started. Her lack of ability to act makes her seem somehow detached from the events of the novel, as though she is disconnected from them even though they happen to her. This detachment is manifested in Alice’s levitation, which Comyns handles very skillfully. I like the way that at first it is impossible to say whether Alice really floats in the air or whether it is just her imagination protecting her mind from things that have happened to her. Even so, told in the same style of prose as the rest of the novel, her levitation comes across as simple fact and I accepted it without question. At one point she makes the very logical argument that:
Perhaps it was something that often happened to people but was never mentioned, like piles — I’d seen an advertisement “Why suffer in silence?” — but they were rude things, most likely, and floating would be rather nice when one became used to it. (p. 121)
Even Alice’s levitation goes from being something that she can control at will to something that she must do at the will of others and so it is in many ways emblematic of her position in the novel. It’s not just a silly device to add interest or get around awkward plot problems (my issue with a lot of magical realism) but an integral part of the book which is vital to the tragic yet inevitable ending.
I thought that the cover of this edition is perfect. The girl in the picture by Walter Crane, famous for his children’s book illustrations and his beautiful edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, not only has Alice’s distinctive blond hair, she also displays a blend of innocence and sadness which is exactly in keeping with Alice’s character. Virago haven’t done nearly so well with their cover for the newer reissue of the book, brought out in 2000. The girl on the cover looks altogether too healthy, robust and jolly to be Alice and, for that matter, scandalously dressed for an Edwardian lady. In fact, had I seen this book with the new cover I would never have picked it up, assuming it was about sturdy, practical girls having a jolly good time in the countryside. Don’t let the rather ill-chosen cover image put you off though, as this is an excellent book and well worth reading." - Old English Rose Reads
"Barbara Comyns’ first published work, Sisters By a River, was a light fictionalisation of her chaotic gentry childhood in early twentieth-century Warwickshire. Later novels like Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr Fox reflect her insecure, bohemian life as a young married woman in London in the 1930s and 40s. But across all her fiction, her narrative voice remains distinctive. Her style is artless – though never quite as artless as it appears – and full of comic juxtapositions and non sequiturs. Her heroines rattle along in their posh, wide-eyed way, getting by – just about – in a world of worn linoleum and rings around the bath, hungry gas-meters and feckless husbands.
In The Vet’s Daughter, however, her vision darkens considerably: here, as in much women’s fiction and art, the grubby domestic detail becomes grotesque and actively menacing. Bullied by her odious veterinary father, child-like Alice leads a shadowy existence, eating ‘damp bread and jam in the kitchen’ with her creeping, whispering mother. When her mother dies, Alice’s life grows steadily grimmer and odder, and as a sort of hysterical reaction to her powerlessness she develops a surreal talent – the ability to levitate. In her naïveté, she is only mildly baffled by this: ‘Perhaps it was something that often happened to people but was never mentioned, like piles.’ To the more worldly, however, her talent renders her a freak. It frightens away the handsome young man with whom she has fallen in love; and it prompts her father to set her up as a money-making spectacle on Clapham Common – with horrifying results.
The Vet’s Daughter is an inverted fairy tale, with Alice as a luckless Cinderella. It’s also a small Gothic masterpiece – part, perhaps, of a distinctly female Gothic literary tradition, and certainly anticipating the work of another brilliantly idiosyncratic novelist with a taste for surreal south London settings, Angela Carter. I have read it many times, and with every re-read I marvel again at its many qualities – its darkness, its strangeness, its humour, its sadness, its startling images and twists of phrase. It deserves to be much better known than it is." - Sarah Waters
"It must seem a little silly, but I’ve counted Barbara Comyns amongst my favourite writers since I read 3/4 of her Sisters by a River several summers ago. Since then, I’ve steadily collected her works, but I’ve never finished that initial read and never pulled another one of her books off the shelves.
But surely you know how it is, the feeling you have immediately and completely connected with a storyteller, that something has burst into being between the two of you, reader and writer?
So when Claire mentioned that she was reading The Vet’s Daughter, as a read-a-long with Stuck in a Book and Novel Insights, it seemed the perfect reason to take hold and make some time for Barbara Comyns. (Many thanks for the encouragement!)
Admittedly, alongside my enthusiasm, I was also a little nervous. What if I had jumped the proverbial gun and added her to my MRE list on a reading whim. (This could throw the seemingly solid status of all of my MRE authors into chaos: imagine the soul-searching!)
What if, setting aside my impressive but incomplete reaction to Sisters by a River, my first serious start-to-finish read of Barbara Comyns’ work had me considering the policy whereby an author is removed from my MRE pages.
Fortunately, my reading of The Vet’s Daughter only reinforces my initial sense that Barbara Comyns’ books must be read. Well, must be read by me — and clearly she has lots of other fans too, like Claire and Simon and Polly above — although I can see where the element of the Bizarre would give pause to many readers. On my MRE list, she falls between Anita Brookner and Margaret Drabble, but I can imagine that most readers of these two writers’ works would be a bit thrown by Barbara Comyns’ intensity.
When I think of the kinds of books that Virago has reprinted, I tend to think, first, of stories like Margaret Oliphant’s and Charlotte Young’s, like E.M. Delafield’s and Molly Keane’s, and then of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Rosamund Lehmann’s; I only think of tales like Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter afterwards, partly because they are more modern (publication-wise) and partly because they’re, er, a bit kooky.
Judging from the title alone, you might think The Vet’s Daughter is gentle Herriot-ish tale of lambs and calves, but a reader who seeks a story of care and comfort will be very disappointed; the story of Alice’s life is a disconsolate one, an existence punctuated by abuses and threats.
The story is soaked in solitariness but whereas with an Anita Brookner, that sometimes takes the form of a quiet meal with hot, buttered toast and tea, soft music playing in the background for companionship, a peaceful kind of loneliness, The Vet’s Daughter is a fingers-across-the-proverbial-chalkboard tale of relentless isolation and torment.
I say ‘relentless’ because Alice is constantly worrying, always forced to return to a sad and unfilling life, consistently anxious about upsetting a fragile balance, always trying to please people who have an untoward degree of power that they exercise over her (whether her father, an abusive housekeeper or an exploitative acquaintance).
Sometimes she recounts horrifying events, which punctuate her sorrowful state. Sometimes she describes a pervasive sadness. Maybe she has rescued an imperilled wood lice and is struck by the sight of a dried leaf tossed on a wintry wind, uncomfortably sharp, whipping down a still street: “It’s minutes like this that seem to last so long.”
Nonetheless, Alice does have moments of happiness that exist alongside this troubled state. There are glimpses, moments of pleasure, whether shared with her young friend Lucy, or a sense of alliance with Mrs. Churchill, the housekeeper, who tries to ease Alice’s situation as much as she can, even joking about Mr. Rowland’s dictatorial nature — “We mustn’t let old Moustaches know you’re going all ragged underneath or he’ll make us return that fine coat. Silly old fool! A nice coat’s more important to a girl than woollen knickers, any day” — to give Alice a sense of partisanship.
And there is The Other Thing, about which I’ll say nothing. It’s the Bizarre Bit, the bit that makes this story a little harder to recommend. Well, in and of itself, it might not have been so bizarre but even it comes to be twisted in the grip of exploitative individuals who have only their own selfish needs in mind. So what might be been a little unsettling becomes something else entirely.
And perhaps, given Alice’s environment, it can be no surprise that her life holds no true comfort. As such, the story itself contains many images of destruction and devastation. They are parcelled out tidily, not dwelt upon, but they are disconcerting all the same.
What of the poor parrot? “He had never been the same since he had lived in the lavatory, and now he had started pulling out his own feathers and bald patches had come, revealing pale and scaly skin.” (This is, technically, my second Reading Parrot of this Reading Year.)
And what of the house? “There were two doors to this kitchen, and later I learnt the other two led to two terrible rooms that were completely black and burnt. The remains of charred furniture still stood in them forlornly against the blackened walls. There was a twisted frame of an iron bedstead like some tortured skeleton, and at the glass-less windows the ragged remains of brittle black curtains crumbled.”
But, most of all, of course, what of Alice? That is the heart of a reader’s connection with The Vet’s Daughter — and Alice suffers so, which makes the reader’s connection an uncomfortable one, as witness to her anguish — but I think the stronger connection, for me, is that with Barbara Comyns’ writing. It’s an unsettling tale told unflinchingly. And it certainly cements her niche on my MRE list.
How about you: have you read Barbara Comyns, or have you thought about reading her? Have you read about any parrots lately?" - Buried In Print
Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Virago Press, 1983. [1950.]
"Sophia is twenty-one years old, she carries a newt around in her pocket, and marries - haste - a young artist called Charles. Swept into bohemian London of the thirties, Sophia is ill-equipped to cope: poverty, babies (however much loved) - and her husband - conspire to torment her. Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with the dismal, ageing art critic, Peregrine, and learns to repent her marriage - and affair - at leisure. Repentance brings an abrupt end to a life of unpaid bills, unsold pictures, and unwashed crockery, plus the hope of joys in store: this novel has a very happy ending..."
"this, [Comyns' second novel], takes a tragi-comic look at artistic life in London before the Second World War through the child-like eyes of the endearing, ebullient Sophia."
"`Eventually we bought a mattress and were able to tuck the clothes in and the sheets were washed and didn't smell and we became proper married people.'
"It was Stuck in a Book’s Simon who introduced me properly to quirky Barbara Comyns when I joined in the readalong for The Vet’s Daughter (my 5/5 review of which can be found here).
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is quite a different book, but with the same off-beat writing style and while the main character is named Sophia, it is also quite clearly autobiographical in nature.
The blurb on the book aptly sums up what could be described as the theme of the book – “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a young woman Sophia, who at twenty-one marries an artist named Charles. They barely have a penny to rub together and much to the dismay of their family and their own, Sophia becomes pregnant almost immediately. The couple live a bohemian lifestyle in 1930’s London on a very limited income from Sophia’s odd-jobs. Charles is more concerned with painting than providing for his young family and while there are moments of happiness at the start of the novel, life becomes harder and harder for them.
Because the novel is written from Sophia’s perspective, we never really understand Charles that well. He seems feckless and at times downright cruel, but his actions seemed to be mainly due to immaturity more than anything else, which unfortunately at times results in quite tragic moments. In many ways though, Sophia seems quite accepting of Charles’ failings throughout most of the book and the overall impression is one of extreme naivety on the part of both Sophia and Charles.
What I enjoyed most about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths was the authors unique voice. Throughout the book, Sophia speaks to the reader in such a conversational tone, it is as if you are sitting having a cup of tea together! Her tone is matter of fact, and mostly lighthearted despite the fact that there are some pretty serious moments in which she surely must have felt devastated. It is probably because her descriptions at times seem quite childlike which makes the account so poignant. For example, Sophia describes how she is treated by the hospital staff when her first child is born:
“The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.”
The beauty of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the way that it captures the beautiful moments between the difficult times. One or two particular moments come to mind – like when the milkman accidentally delivers a pint of cream instead of milk “we ate everything simply smothered in cream…”, or when Sophia describes how she had brightened up their bare flat by painting all the furniture with a coat of sea green paint.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is an off-beat and bittersweet book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read while at the same time being really quite sad in parts. Like a bright splash of colour on a canvas, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, paints a vivid impression of 1930’s London through the eyes of a young woman going through turbulent times with beautiful brevity and style." - Novel Insights
"There is something about Barbara Comyns’ writing that I find completely irresistable. I also find it difficult to explain, but here are three words to start with: clarity, simplicity, eccentricity.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is Sophia’s story. It is set in the thirties, but told, some years later, to a good friend who didn’t know Sophia then.
It was a simple, and very well executed, framing device. And I was very glad that it was there, that I knew Sophia would be alright in the end.
You see, I liked her from the very start. She was engaging. naive, and yet terribly perceptive. And so wonderfully matter-of-fact.
At the age of twenty-one, Sophia eloped with Charles, a struggling artist to live the Bohemian life in London. They were young, they were in live, and so. of course, they gave no thought to practicalities.
Charles painted, oblivious to what was going on around him, while Sophia tried to keep house and earn enough money for essentials. Things like food and rent.
I had my doubts about Charles from the start, but I hoped I was wrong. His family encouraged him to be selfish, and accused Sophia of dragging him towards domesticity and responsibility when he was far too young. But maybe, when the chips were down, his love for Sophia would make him do the right thing.
Sadly, when Sophia fell pregnant I found that my fears had been founded. He hadn’t wanted a baby and so it was nothing to do with him.
A son was born and the family had a few up and rather more downs. Poverty was never too far away.
Eventually, inevitably, the marriage crumbled.
Sophia had to find another life, for herself and for her son. And find it she did.
She found a happy ending too.
A simple story, but it was oh so engaging, listening to Sophia as she speaks of characters, incidents and spoke of people, places, events, the details of her life.
It wasn’t quite perfect: the pace flagged at times, and the happy ending felt a little contrived.
Not many authors could pull off a book like this, but Barbara Comyns could.
It isn’t her best book (that would be The Vet’s Daughter) but it is well worth reading and, I think, the best introduction you could have to her work." - Fleur Fisher in her world
"What's good about this novel?
In my opinion, there are a lot of good things about this novel. Firstly, the characters within this novel are brilliant. I loved Sophia, the central character. She is funny and has a naivety about her, which I couldn't help but like.
She reminds me of a less exaggerated version of Alice Tinker, a character in the BBC sitcom 'The Vicar of Dibley'. Like Alice, Sophia isn't stupid, but it's as if she is a child pretending to be a 'grown up'.
Despite her lack of knowledge of the real world, Sophia is a very determined person. Despite all of the trouble she has with the 'waster' men in her life and everyone blaming her for everything, she tries hard. Throughout the novel, I longed for her to do well.
What Barbara Comyns succeeds in doing with her characterisation, is the ability to create quirky characters and write about them so well, that they are still believable. You can tell that Comyns really knows her characters and for me that thorough knowledge, helps to create wonderfully complex characters. The only other author that I feel that has been able to achieve this, is Kate Atkinson.
As well as establishing a base of well rounded characters, I think another element that I felt was effective, as a reader, was the fact that I could connect to the story due to Comyns' use of the first person. Throughout the story, Sophia is telling you the story of her life. I find that using the first person perspective in novels extremely effective. It adds authenticity to the characters and makes you feel a involved in the story.
Moving from the characters, the writing in this novel is just brilliant. Comyns is able to subtly combine tragedy with a wicked sense of humour. Some of the turns of phrase the character Sophia uses, made me laugh out loud. What I also found in this and another of Comyn's novels, 'The Vet's Daughter', was the atmosphere that she creates. It may be not as dark and macabre as 'The Vet's Daughter', but I still felt the sense of poverty and hardship through the surroundings she was describing.
The plot never flagged at any point and I felt that it was balanced, with a satisfactory end.
hat's wrong with this novel?
Very little. If I had to be picky, I would say that at times her attitude, particularly with her affair, was a little flippant. When I was reading this part, I was thinking that surely she would understand the consequences of her actions, no matter hot naive she was? However, it didn't stop me liking her.
Is this worth a read?
Absolutely. If you like a quirky novel with great characters, then I would say you should read this. I LOVED this book and can't wait to read more of Barbara Comyn's work. She has made it to my 'Favourite Authors' list." - The Oliva Reader
"I should say that 1p spent on Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, is 1p well spent. Charming and funny, touching and direct – this is an outrageously neglected classic and a super introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns. The spoons in question belong to Sophia, a young woman struggling through the fringes of “bohemia” in 1930s London who marries a talented and personable painter called Charles. They are both young and hasty. Sophia’s adventures take in motherhood, unceasing penny scraping work, the crushing breakdown of her marriage and her own transgressions. There is a wonderful sense of place in this novel – from the smog of the streets to the bustle of the Cafe Royale in the days of Augustus John, to the maternity ward and the backstreet abortionist’s bench. She tells her story entirely without sentimentality and with a stark elegance that characterises all of Comyns’ work.
The central theme of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is the development of Sophia, from a young girl of mind-bending naivety to a middle aged woman who is altogether more knowing and more capable than her girlish predecessor. Comyns borrows a lot from the gothic tradition in telling this story – her heroine is a young girl, stranded in the world, who will travel through dark interludes and emerge a changed soul. Sophia is lovable and she does not deserve the misfortunes that befall her. But – reader be comforted – Barbara Comyns believed in happy endings and when Sophia signs off at the end of the book, you will not be too worried about her.
There is in this novel, a constant battle between facade and reality. Sophia tells the reader that her brother: “was one of those nervy people who hate knowing the truth”. In fact, most of the characters surrounding Sophia could be described in this way. She desperately tries to hide her dreadful poverty and deteriorating marriage from those around her until eventually this is impossible. Facade is stripped away it is replaced by a starker reality. There is an equal tussle between trust and duplicity. Sophia finds it much easier to trust men than women. She often trusts on an appearance basis but her judgement does let her down. She trusts and is betrayed. At the same time, Sophia herself becomes duplicitous when she was “quite good” before – she deceives Charles in more ways than one, and her deception will go right to the heart of their life together.
Sophia walks a tight rope between innocence and experience and speaks her tale wholly conscious of the transition. Related to this, her development is shown to us her readers through the tension between romance and practicality. Sophia moves from idealism to cynicism and finally arrives at a place of practical and frankly quite transactional love. She is a character who loves art and beauty and does not want to live a “waddy” conventional life. That having been said, she is increasingly aware that she has to live on something and that comfort has to be created: “He kissed the bottom of my skirt, I said “Don’t do that, the hem is coming down already””. Finally, Sophia struggles with her own strength and subservience. The reader can almost feel her growing off the page, increasingly able to defend herself against the men in her life. Becoming funnier, becoming more aware.
For these reasons this is a special book and a life affirming one. For penny purchasers of lost books, this one is a snip." - Hannah Stoneham
"Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is as offbeat as the title suggests. A little book, easily read in a few short sittings or maybe one longer one. It is told in a way that invites you to keep reading, a chat over a cup of tea where the narrator, Sophia, tells you at the beginning that she is much happier now before launching into her story, barely coming up for breath.
Her story takes place in Bohemian London in the 1930s and is characterised by naieve optimisim and severe poverty. It is the story of her marriage to fellow artist Charles, the son she has almost straight away and the struggle to make ends meet. This is a struggle she takes on alone as Charles is interested only in his painting. Fortunately with her cheery nature,talent and attractiveness, opportunites arise, both good and bad but the family are hungry and cold most of the time and desperately poor.
This book is delightful, and uplifiting and terribly sad all at the same time. Luckily I knew from the first page that it ended well as there are parts of the book that are heartbreaking. Sophia is very naieve and childlike and some of her observations and experiences could be quite funny if they weren’t so tragic. Everything about her pregnancy with her son was a complete revelation for her – so much so that when her waters break she thinks she has exploded because she has become so fat.
This lack of education and support means she is unable to protect herself from abuse – particularly from the men in her life but also from her husbands family who blame her for becoming pregnant and making a father of Charles at such a young age.
But despite all of this, the tone of her narrating is a happy one and her disposition is sunny. I loved the bohemian essence of it all and the simple style. In the end it had an almost fairy tale quality to it which was just as well – it might have all been a bit hard to bear without a cheery ending." - A Book Sanctuary
Until I received Our Spoons Came from Woolworths for this review, I had never heard of, let alone read, Barbara Comyns. Her writing was so unexpectedly intriguing that I immediately read her next two novels. These works were originally published in the 1950s, reissued in the 1980s, and are now living a third life, with The Dorothy Project publishing her third novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in 2010, NYRB Classics reissuing Comyns’s most famous work, her fourth novel The Vet’s Daughter in 2003, and now new editions of Woolworths and The Juniper Tree this year and next, also from NYRB Classics.
Certain elements of Comyns’s characters’ speech and actions may seem dated, and her depictions of medical and social practice do belong to a visibly earlier era, but her capturing of youth is so fresh and accurate that nothing is lost in the passing of decades. There is a modern sensibility at play in her women and their experiences, their attitudes and reactions towards love and sex, marriage and having children, as well as her writing of the rapid maturation of youth. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a testament to how your youth stays with you—what you remember, how you experienced time in the moment and conceive of it now. We see it in how the story’s protagonist, Sophia, conjures up those years of her early twenties from the vantage point of nearing thirty, where there is already a great distance from her twenty-one year old self.
I was further drawn to her the more I read. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is bizarre and dark in a manner quite different from Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—even banned in Ireland for reasons never made entirely clear, but one imagines the grotesque descriptions of animal and human death by flood and infection had something to do with it. It follows the Willoweed family in their small English village (based on where the author herself was raised) as first they face flood then mysterious murderous madness that possesses and kills dozens of the townsfolk. While we hop between the lives of various characters within and without the family, the heart of the novel for me was the figure of the elder Willoweed daughter, Emma. Amidst mysterious, gross death and cruel, self-obsessed adults, her discovery of love is poignant, naïve and true all at once: “I didn’t know being in love made you laugh. I thought it would make me feel rather solemn, kind of holy. But perhaps that will come after.”
The Vet’s Daughter, a quietly startling novel about a young woman named Alice who suffers greatly at the hands of her father, yet out of this suffering she discovers she can levitate, is Comyns’s most famous work. There is a slight hint of the macabre in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—a ghost is spotted for a brief moment—and here it comes to delicate fruition. After Alice’s mother dies she is sexually assaulted by an acquaintance of her father’s new mistress. The night following the attack she experiences her first unearthly sleep:
In the night I was awake and floating . . . I could feel nothing below me—and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, ‘I mustn’t break the gas globe.’ . . . I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful.
Alice’s fate is cruelly determined by her father, and unlike the women in Comyns’s earlier work, her story ends in a tragic and bizarre demise. Still, in her introduction to the 2003 edition, Kathryn Davis insisted, “But for all the exceptional terror of Alice’s position, what her voice and Comyns’s have in common is an authority of address, a powerful and almost spellbound quality that is unique to Barbara Comyns’s fiction.”
This unique quality and authority of voice is already present in her second novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, now coming back into print from NYRB Classics sixty-five years after its first publication. Comyns’s skill is subtle and surprising as she tells the tale of Sophia, a young woman facing down one emotional (and physical) endurance test after another. On the copyright page Comyns has a note that I didn’t notice until after I had read the novel: “The only things that are true in the story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.” The frank bleakness of Comyns’s note almost made me laugh, even as it heightened the tragedy of Sophia’s story all the more.
Sophia meets Charles when they are both twenty, young artists in post-WWI London. Within a year, they have fallen in love and married. What could have been an idyllic, bohemian existence, however, is abruptly curtailed as Sophia quickly becomes pregnant, and Charles’s dismay comes to weigh on the couple.
Perhaps this is a conventional setup for a novel, but Comyns resists the easy formula of a tale of young love and hopes dashed in an artistic milieu of charming poverty. Her words seamlessly lead you from a place of simple love and charm to shocking but realistic darkness. From the beginning there is a particular humor that is quite deliberate, to borrow a word from Emily Gould’s introduction to this new edition, that displays a strong wit and certain clear-headed sensibility on Sophia’s part, even as she is still quite innocent and naïve—in a word, young. When worrying about telling Charles she is pregnant with their first child, she muses, “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong.” I both laughed and felt a pang in my chest as I witnessed her naïve absurdity and sadly abrupt maturation. The levity of being young and married and artists continues to wear away as Sophia becomes subservient to all of Charles’s needs and wants, and with no adult in her life to guide or support her, she is not only the primary caretaker of their baby Sandro, but also often the only breadwinner.
The heart of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths are the three chapters highlighted in the copyright notice, which describe Sophia’s labor and delivery in a public hospital. The novel was originally published in 1950, and its traumatic, brutally honest description of her nearly two-week hospital stay, is a testament to the historical realities of mid-century medical practice available to the poor. The staff enforces a cruel and seemingly ineffectual cleaning regimen as Sophia goes into labor, and she is so frightened of angering the nurses that she hurts herself: “The pains got much worse again . . . I longed to cry out, but knew they would be angry, so I bit my hands. There are still scars on them now.” (Rereading this line now, I can’t help but wonder about Comyns’s palms.) She is alone in this because Charles is not allowed near and doesn’t want to be there anyway. It is heartbreaking, more so for the simplicity and directness she maintains in her tone: “I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried. Perhaps your husband would be just outside the door in case you felt lonely.” She isn’t even allowed to see or hold her baby son, until the following afternoon. After this whole ordeal, with Charles being sour because it’s a boy and not a girl, she finally returns home to find their tiny flat a mess and reeking of fish, the subject of Charles’s newest painting.
At this point, we see nothing but further disappointment from Charles. Speaking of their son, Sandro, “Charles still disliked him, but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from.” At such moments the reader may feel tempted to become frustrated with Sophia for staying with Charles, yet Comyns keeps us on her side.
The rest of the novel is hardly any kinder to its protagonists. Crushing poverty, Charles’s coldness, and, even once their circumstances change for the better for a while, an abortion he forces Sophia to have when she becomes pregnant a second time. “I don’t feel much like writing about the actual operation. It was horrible and did not work at all as it should . . . eventually I became better. But my mind didn’t recover at all. I felt all disgusted and that I had been cheated from having my baby.” Sophia has proven to be a careful chronicler of the hardships she has experienced thus far, and so her confession, “I don’t feel much like writing about the operation,” hints at the greater depths of her pain, at something too deep to revisit. Comyns’s deftness as a writer is on display here; the authority of her prose makes this novel read not as a fictionalized misery memoir, but a way for us as readers to bear witness to the testing and resiliency of youth, Sophia’s in particular. If Sophia’s narrative is sparse in its language, this is because her experiences and sentiments speak for themselves.
Late in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a bright spot for Sophia comes in the figure of an older man named Peregrine, the only person who seems to genuinely care for her, and so in the wake of the abortion they begin an affair. Sophia has endured much, but she is still young—not yet twenty-three—and her experience with Peregrine is a moment of growing up and sexual awakening, as well as one that reminds us that she spends most of her time alone with Sandro or around young men:
Some time later, when I realized I had been unfaithful, I didn’t feel guilty or sad; I just felt awfully happy I had had this experience, which if I had remained a “good wife” I would have missed, although, of course, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. I felt quite bewildered. I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.
But this affair leads to an experience that becomes another tragedy, as she gets pregnant a third time, now with Peregrine’s baby. Charles is more receptive to this pregnancy than the previous two, however, and she doesn’t tell him who the father is, especially when he’s so pleased it’s a girl. This time she gives birth in a private room in a nursing home, which is a far more humane and pleasant experience. “Charles came to see me nearly every day. He seemed to quite like this baby and made some drawings of her asleep . . . When I came home I found Charles had had a charwoman to clean the flat and everything was looking delightful.” But they are soon again in dire financial straits, and with Charles staying away from home with increasing frequency, their marriage unravels. Sophia leaves him to go live with Peregrine, but when she discovers he is back living with his wife she sleeps on the streets. Recounting waking up in a hospital with Charles hovering at her bedside and learning her newborn daughter is dead of scarlet fever, she laments “Poor, beautiful little Fanny! Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty.” Their marriage over, she takes Sandro with her and leaves to live with her brother in the country.
Amid the emotional turbulence that drives the novel’s plot, Comyns still pays careful attention to the seemingly mundane and yet very real part of a couple’s life together—in the beginning of the novel, just as they are about to get married and there seems to be a chance Charles’s family will prevent it from happening, she thinks, “I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to all our beautiful furniture.” A brief hundred and fifty pages later, at the end of their wedded life, that beautiful furniture is quickly gotten rid of. As Charles puts Sophia and Sandro in the train to the countryside, “He seemed to take it for granted that we were going to stay there permanently. I think that was why he sold the furniture in such a hurry, to make sure we couldn’t return.”
They don’t return to London for quite some time. Sophia finds work as a cook with a family near her brother, and lives there for three years with Sandro. Not much happens; time compresses and collapses, only slowing down as she meets the man who will become her second husband, Rollo. We immediately sense the difference of their relationship, as she speaks to him about parts of her past and childhood we’ve never heard her mention. This new love signals her return to London, this time in a manner financially secure and emotionally content.
After the mess of an unhappy marriage and even unhappier pregnancies, that things ultimately work out so well for Sophia might, to Comyns’s readers, feel like an ending that’s far too happy, too neat. Yet we have been rooting for Sophia the entire time, and perhaps she does simply deserve an end to her travails in a way that isn’t wholly unbelievable. Another critic felt similarly and she—Ursula Holden—noted in her 1983 introduction to the novel, speaking of Comyns, “I was struck by her sense of fun. In her work she drives her characters round hairpin bends of disaster and mishap but she says ‘I like people to be happy.’” As Comyns’s own life worked out happily after her first disastrous marriage, it isn’t surprising that she might have wanted the same for her protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and it doesn’t lessen the impact of what comes before. If anything, the contrast underscores the extent of what a person is capable of surviving while keeping a measure of herself, and coming out whole, though changed, at the end. Perhaps the title Comyns selected for her next book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead would have, despite telling a drastically different tale, worked just as nicely for the one describing Sophia’s life.
The women protagonists in these novels explore variations on a theme, capturing shades of youth and the female experience with a simple honesty. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths also raises questions of what it means to be an artist and the necessity of providing for a family, and the gender politics at play therein. Kathryn Davis wrote in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter, “To read Barbara Comyns is to feel the exquisite thrill of discovery, as well as the pride of the discoverer.” I felt this thrill and pride, and I expect as her work continues to be reissued this sense of finding a hidden gem will be shared by other readers, startled and attracted by her talent. - Lauren Goldenberg
Barbara Comyns, The Skin Chairs, Penguin (Non-Classics), 1995. [1962.]
"`"Could I see the chairs, please?"... "Chairs, chairs. What does the child mean?"... "Oh, she means the chairs in your hall, the ones your husband had covered with skin. I m afraid she is a morbid little thing." She giggled and bounced about on her rickety chair'
"Her father dies and ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by bullying Aunt Lawrence. Their new home is small and they can't afford a maid. Mother occasionally dabs at the furniture with a duster and sister Polly rules the kitchen. Living in patronised poverty isn't much fun, but Frances makes friends with Mrs Alexander who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motor car, and the young widow, Vanda, who is friendly if the Major isn t due to call. But times do change and one day Aunt Lawrence gets her come- uppance and Frances goes to live in the house with `the skin chairs'. First published in 1962, this quirky novel describing the adult world with a young girl's eye, resounds with Barbara Comyns' original voice."
"Once a guinea-pig had died in the kitchen and one of the maids had held a small mirror to its mouth to see if its breath left a mark and ever after I seemed to see the mark of the guinea-pig’s last breath on it.
Barbara Comyns is a writer whose best work, to my mind, reveals the extreme strangeness of the world alongside the ordinary in prose which seems effortlessly innocent, and The Skin Chairs is one of my favourite novels by her. This isn’t really a book review – more of a waffle – and if you (yes you, o readers I do not have) haven’t read it I do give away a lot of the plot so be warned.
Ten-year-old Frances is enduring a stay with her horrible horsey relations, the Lawrences, when her father suddenly dies. Left in reduced circumstances, Frances’s mother is cajoled by Aunt Lawrence into taking a dreary little house nearby into which she must cram her six children. Here they muddle along as best a family can when accustomed to servants and ponies; Mother dons tea-gowns as an economy and makes the family bilious with her occasional forays into extravagant cookery, the eldest daughter Polly rules the kitchen and permits only striped bacon for breakfast and Aunt Lawrence interferes constantly and unpleasantly. Two other widows befriend Frances for their own ends: beautiful Vanda who uses Frances as a babysitter for her neglected infant Jane, and the terrifying Mrs Alexander, who keeps sad animals in her conservatory, makes her chauffeur paint her slippers gold and keeps one room of her house as a surgery and one as a shrine to her dead daughter. The novel, told from Frances’s point of view, is suffused with Comyns’s characteristic charm, humour and sense of the grotesque.
Relationships between mothers and daughters, abusers and victims, pervade the novel, but I was intrigued by the symbolism of the skin chairs of the title and have been thinking particularly about them. According to Ursula Holden, who wrote the introduction to the edition I have, Comyns declared of the novel that ‘Only the skin chairs are true. I saw them.’ In the novel, the chairs belong to the General who lives in a grand house in the village. Frances relates three significant encounters with them, the first being on a visit with her cousin Ruby:
They were dark and churchified, and the backs and seats were covered in what appeared to be vellum, blackish and cracked in places. The General’s wife looked at them ruefully and admitted that the chairs were covered in human skin. ‘He brought them back with him after the Boer War, isn’t it horrible? Five of them are black men’s skins and one white. I believe if you look carefully you can see the difference.’ [...] With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them?
Here the macabre is tempered by Frances’s pity and perhaps even identification with them as bereft and powerless. Later Frances sneaks back into the house to show the chairs to Esmé, her sister. They notice a biscuit barrel on the table with a ram’s head for a lid and real horns on it: ‘I knew that if there were any biscuits in the barrel they would taste disgusting.’ From behind a door they hear breathing: ‘There was something very red and white inside – most likely a hassock, I thought, or even a huge cherry pie.’ In fact it is the General suffering a fatal stroke, and the girls flee in terror leaving him to die alone. This time it is the horror and revolting physicality of death that is evoked.
At the end of the book Vanda and Mrs Alexander and their exploitative relationships with Frances have been banished from the little girl’s life and Mother has married the new occupant of the General’s house, to which the family now moves. Frances is convinced she can hear the chairs ‘rumbling and grumbling together’ in the library and they seem a threatening presence and constant reminder of horror, cruelty and guilt. Yet when Mother banishes the chairs to the attic, Frances feels sorry for them again. One night she creeps out of bed and downstairs to them, clutching her school prayer-book (‘As I did so, the rumbling-grumbling noises stopped and I seemed to hear a great sigh’) to read the Burial Service to them. First, though, she baptises them with water from a flower vase, naming them after her favourite poets (Percy Shelley, George Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, William Yeats and Anon. Circa) in an act which renders them safer and almost friendly. The novel ends as she falls asleep on Percy Shelley while reading out the Burial Service.
To me, therefore, the chairs represent death and the grief and horror of death, while offering Frances a way of absorbing that into herself. While she never sees her father’s corpse nor is permitted to attend his funeral, and in fact hardly refers to him after the initial devastation of his death, the chairs may provide her with a physical manifestation of his dead body and her reading of the Burial Service her own private obsequy for him.
There is a great deal more to The Skin Chairs than this (for a start, it's very funny, you wouldn't guess that from this post though) and although it’s now out of print I think you can find second-hand copies quite easily. An excellent article about this and Comyns’s other novels, which has influenced what I have written here, is ‘Skin Chairs and Other Domestic Horrors: Barbara Comyns and the Gothic Female Tradition’ by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik (2004; Gothic Studies 6 (1): 90–102). And there’s a really good review of it by Simon of Stuck in a Book here. The photograph opposite of Comyns in later life is taken from the Virago Press site and it is my favourite of the photographs of her which are publicly available." - A Gallimaufry
Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River, Penguin (Non-Classics), 1995. [1947.]
"The first of Barbara Comyns's eight novels, SISTERS BY A RIVER is told through the eyes (and spelling) of a young girl. Vivid, funny and quite unique, it evokes the author's own extraordinary childhood.
Some of the whimsical chapters: The Roly Poly Field, God in the Billiard Room, The Maids' Lav, It Wasn't Nice in the Dressing Room, As If She Had No Ears at All, The Field that Was Stiff with Skeletons, Gather Your Hats While You May, Aunts Arriving."
"`Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe...'
'Mammy had her excape in her imaginary lovers, we children did not have much excape in the winter, but when the summer came there was the sun and river, some mornings I would get up at five and row up the river before anyone else had been on it, and the larks would be singing and the cows standing together in the little bays where the water was shallow, and everything would seem so good and clean, I felt I wanted to cry with so much hapiness'
"The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep's ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats become entangled in young girls' hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then the ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the ladder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshirt, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed..." - Barbara Comyns for the 1947. edition
"Sisters by a River, the first and most eccentric of [Comyns'] eight wonderful novels, was first published in 1947. Told through the eyes (and spelling) of a young girl, vivid, funny, and quite unique, it evokes Barbara Comyns'own extraordinary childhood."
"When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, but we couldn't and for years people said `these are the children who squashed the rabbits.'"
"Sisters by a River is an odd little book. Based closely on the author’s childhood, the book is told from a child’s point of view (although references are made later in the book to the main character’s teenage years), complete with erratic spelling and punctuation, and run-on sentences. This way of telling the story is unique and charming, though I could see why it might get tiring after a while (probably the reason why this novel is only about 150 pages long).
Understanding Barbara Comyns’s childhood is the key to understanding the context of this book. According to the preface of the Virago Modern Classics edition, she was the fourth of six children, having a childhood that was “both an idyll and a nightmare” (some of this is reflected in Sisters By a River, albeit told from a child’s skewed perspective). Comyns’s father drank heavily, and there’s a family legend that her father told her mother that he would marry her as soon as she was old enough to bake a cake (this anecdote makes its way into Sisters By a River).
The story that Comyns tells in Sisters By a River is both tragic and happy; tragic because of what happens to the narrator’s parents, happy because, as a child, the narrator can’t quite understand what’s going on (though, from a distance of time, she can). I enjoyed this book for the most part, but the tone of voice confused me a bit; the author used the diction and grammar of a child, yet the story is clearly told when the narrator is much older. Still, I thought that this was a highly charming book. Some of the misspellings had me laughing out loud in some places." - A Girl Walks Into a Bookstore...
Barbara Comyns, A Touch of Mistletoe, Penguin (Non-Classics), 1991. [1967.]
"`Then I knew he had the same fearful loneliness that I had and told him he could stay "Only if you keep your socks on. I'll be safe if you keep your socks on"... I can't think why I had such faith in them'
"This is the story of Blanche and Vicky who as children read Ethel M. Dell and Elinor Glynn up a tree. Following the death of their grandfather - in whose enormous Warwickshire house they live - their mother relinquishes drink (to which she had take n in a big way) for the joys of frantic housework. Naturally the girls long to escape. Blanche trains as a mannequin at a dubious institution in London, and Vicky flees to Holland and a purgatorial life as an au pair to a lot of dogs. But this is only the beginning, and other adventures await them, including the poverty and cabbage smells of one-room living, the charcoaled fingers of art school, drunkenness and cheap restaurants of Soho bohemia, and varying degrees of excitement with several husbands and lovers. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe shows Barbara Comyns' original voice at its best, mixing a characteristic simplicity with a quiet by cunning wit."
"I stumbled upon this in a used bookstore, misshelved in the Young Adult section and marked down to a dollar. As I love the Virago Modern Classics series in general, and some of the most interesting books I've read have been misshelved in the Young Adult section, I bought it. I'd never heard of Barbara Comyns but was instantly drawn into this apparently autobiographical novel of the life of an impoverished upper-middle class British girl from the 1920's through the 1960's. And what a life! Our heroine endures an alcoholic mother who forces the family to scrub floors all day long, the arbitrary withholding of her inheritance, a period of near-slavery at a dog kennel in Amsterdam, dire poverty in pre-War London, a model-beautiful sister who finds the perfect rich husband, a marriage to a schizophrenic artist who dies of insulin shock, more dire poverty as a single mother, another marriage to an unrepentant alcoholic who leaves her, The Blitz, a scary and painful illegal abortion, middle-aged quasi-prostitution, and a final marriage to a dull control freak whom she doesn't love. Sound like a grueling slog in the gutter? Well, Comyns makes this all sound like great fun, really. She writes in a breathless, wide-eyed way that, while acknowledging the dark side of life (the killing "mistletoe" of the title), refuses to wallow in it. One could say almost stereotypically British, she brightly bounces on, finding joy in art, friends and family -- generally considering her life a great success. She was either one of these fortunate people blessed with a sanguine temperament, or else found peace enough in her later years to see her youth through rose-colored glasses, I don't know. Either way, I loved reading it." - K. Dain Ruprecht
Barbara Comyns, The Juniper Tree, Capuchin Classics, 2011. [1985.]
"In their idyllic garden, Gertrude and Bernard forge a perfect triangle of friendship with Bella, the scarred mother of an illegitimate child. Then Gertrude conceives the child which has long eluded her, and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace and madness."
Simply told yet utterly compelling, The Juniper Tree is a multifaceted jewel of a tale, exquisitely written, by a true original."
"The Juniper Tree could hardly have been more satisfactorily accomplished." - Times Literary Supplement
"Delicate, tough, quick-moving, it’s a haunting book… an amazing achievement." - Financial Times
"Gertrude and Bernard Forbes seem to live on enchanted ground. Their fairytale marriage touches all who meet them, none more so than Bella, the poor, scarred mother of an illegitimate child. Beneath the juniper tree in their delightful garden, a long summer forges a perfect triangle of friendship. Then Gertrude conceives the child which has so long eluded her - and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace, and madness."
"This haunting contemporary fable, first published in England, is in part a retelling of the Grimm folk tale that involves a stepmother who murders her stepson and serves his body for dinner. Comyns has fashioned this macabre material into a strangely involving modern Gothic romance. (It's a bit strong for Holt and Whitney fans.) The protagonist, Bella Winter, is a beautiful but physically and mentally scarred young woman who marries a wealthy, rather cold widower. He is obsessed by the memory of his first wife, overly attentive to their small son, and neglectful of Bella. As their marriage deteriorates, she experiences a mental breakdown, and blames herself for his son's accidental death. Comyns's characters are fascinating, and remind the reader of the wicked impulses in us all." - Joyce Smothers
Barbara Comyns, Mr Fox, Mandarin, 1993.[1987.]
"Mr Fox is a spiv -- a dealer in second-hand cars and black-market food, a man skilled in bending the law. When Caroline Seymour and her young daughter Jenny are deserted at the beginning of World War II, he offers them a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors, and a shared - if dubious - future..."
Barbara Comyns, The House of Dolls, St Martins Press, 1990. [1989.]
"If not exactly tarts, the four ladies who live in Amy's Doll's house have built up a modest but successful "little business" entertaining their elderly gentlemen friends. But Amy is far from happy about the situation."
"The eponymous house belongs to Amy Doll, a young, unassertive widow, striving to educate her reluctant teenage daughter and dependent on the rent payments of an odd complement of women who lease the upstairs rooms in her London residence. While Amy attempts to set limits within her own space in the basement, she realizes that "her house was being used as a brothel for elderly gentlemen." The doyennes of the upstairs are two aging harridans who spar endlessly with each other. Both are divorcees, short on money, long in languorous, bibulous reminiscences about better times and better men. They entertain some doddering admirers, which brings the house to the attention of an enterprising policeman, allowing Comyns to introduce a wholesome love interest for Amy. How all the women, especially the ladies who are to be evicted upon Amy's marriage, have their fates worked out--rather too patly--is the burden of this fragile, occasionally amusing novel from the author of The Juniper Tree." - Publishers Weekly
"Well past their prime, the four ladies who live at Mulberry Grove remember better days of parties and servants, when rent was something to be collected. Or that's what they pretend. Nowadays, they remember the rent only too well. Once a servant herself, Amy Doll is reluctant `madam' to her genteel lodgers of higher class and lower morals, all too aware that the `little business' of their makeshift brothel is not without its occupational hazards..."
Barbara Comyns, Birds in Tiny Cages, Heinemann, 1964.
Barbara Comyns, Out of the Red, Into the Blue, Heinemann, 1960.
"Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.
Comyns was born in 1909 in a big house on the Avon, fourth of the six children of a drunk father and an indifferent mother. The family managed to be aristocratic and poor at once, but like many aristocrats they became increasingly poor as the 20th century wore on. Third-rate governesses came and went sporadically, none making much of an impact. Sheltered thus from any received ideas about literature, Comyns wrote and illustrated stories constantly.
Her father died when Comyns was in her late teens; the big crumbling house was sold to pay his massive debts. She went to art school in London where, for the first time, she discovered public libraries. “[I] read until I was almost drunk on books, but my own writing became imitative and self-conscious. In the end, with great strength of mind, I destroyed all the stories and half-written novels I’d written over the years,” Comyns wrote near the end of her life.
Her first novel, Sisters by a River, a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood, wasn’t written until ten years later. She conceived of it mostly as an amusement for her own children. She was at that point living outside London, working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.
“It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night, Palmer went to the wedding and got snowbound, and when he arrived very late in the morning he had to bury my packing under the walnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born—six times in all and none of us died, Mary said Granny used to give us manna to eat and that’s why we didn’t, but manna is stuff in the bible, perhaps they have it in Fortnum & Mason, but I’ve never seen it, or maybe Jews’ shops.” That is the book’s first sentence and paragraph.
The way Comyns delivers information seems scattershot, but the questions it raises addict the reader. Who is Palmer, who is Mary, and who is this narrator who imagines that you can buy manna in a jar? “One of our butler’s duties was to bury the placenta after each of my mother’s children were born” wouldn’t have anything like the same effect.
Comyn’s voice has childlike qualities; she looks at everything in the world as though seeing it for the first time. In later books, though, her narrators’ naivety is deployed in order to provoke horror; the gap between what the reader knows and the narrator doesn’t serves to make the reader fascinated and fearful. Often the reader is horrified and amused simultaneously: “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong,” the narrator of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths confesses to the reader. At this point in the novel she is pregnant, 21 and married to an artist who has no interest in supporting her or a child. This novel, a lightly fictionalized account of Comyns’ first marriage and early years in London, contains casually grotesque descriptions of the dawn of medicalized childbirth and the grisly death of an infant, in between a lot of whimsical descriptions of pets and furniture.
The are always lots of pets around in Comyns’ stories. She loved animals but wasn’t sentimental about them; in her books they tend to symbolize happiness, luck and hope, which is often dashed. Sisters by a River is full of dead pigs floating down the Avon, drowned kittens and angora rabbits getting their legs chewed off by dogs. The doomed marriage at the outset of Our Spoons is inaugurated by a chorus of birdsong: “I saw all up in the roof there were masses of little birds, all singing and chirping in the most delightful manner, I felt so glad we hadn’t paid extra for the beastly organ and hoped so much we would make a success of our marriage after the birds being so nice about it.” (They didn’t.)
The Vet’s Daughter is Comyns’ least autobiographical, though its heroine retains Comyns’ eye for bizarre and otherworldly detail. Alice Rowlands is the titular daughter; her father abuses both the animals in his care and his wife. The latter quickly dies and is replaced by an evil ersatz-stepmother. Alice can only escape her wretched life by developing magical powers, but when her cruel relatives discover her abilities they try to exploit them for profit. This ends badly for everyone.
The onset of Alice’s powers is at first indistinguishable from the onset of madness; one of the novel’s most vivid scenes combines the quotidian and the supernatural seamlessly as Alice’s gorgeous visions transport her from her grim reality.
“It was Sunday morning, and old people passed me like sad grey waves on their way to church. The streets smelt of roasting meat cooked by mothers; and the pavement was wet, with crushed brown leaves upon it,” Alice reports, then describes standing in her kitchen cooking her terrible father and his consort a meal of boiled beef and being overcome by steam, which resolves itself into fantastical shapes.
“The dumplings swelled up huge and danced in the boiling gravy, and the kitchen was filled with steam. Water poured down the windows like rain inside out. I began to think I could hear water pouring and falling. Then I thought I could see it, and it was as if floods had come, and everywhere there was water very grey and silvery, and I seemed to be floating above it. I came to a mountain made of very dark water but when I reached the top it was a water garden where everything sparkled. Although the water was rushing very fast, it always stayed in the same beautiful shapes, and there were fountains and trees and flowers all shimmering as if made of moving ice. It was so unbelievably beautiful I felt how privileged I was to see it. Then the birds came, enormous birds slowly flying, and they were made of water, too. Sometimes clouds covered them, but they would appear again, very proud and heavy, and each keeping to his appointed route.”
The reader emerges from a book like The Vet’s Daughter refreshed but crippled; contemporary novels, with their over-deliberate virtuosity and self-referential tricks, are unreadable for a time. Ordinary experience, however, is overlaid with a degree of dazzle. Like Alice Rowlands dreaming in her steamy kitchen, we feel how privileged we are to glimpse Comyns’ visions." - Emily Gould