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Posts Tagged ‘Barbara Comyns’

who was changed

Who was Changed and Who was Dead is a novel I have had for some time, and it was probably only because I read The Vet’s Daughter in August that I had even remembered I had it. There must be so many books at the back of the bookcase that I have forgotten about. So, I recently ferreted it out, putting it where I could see it on the bookcase next to my chair.

Comyns doesn’t shy away from dark, possibly unpleasant themes, and yet the execution is so quirky and readable that I can’t say I found it as upsetting as apparently some of the early reviewers did. In her introduction to my Virago edition Ursula Holden – explains how modern readers are perhaps not quite so shocked or squeamish as they once were. I may know some readers who really are a little squeamish, and certainly Barbara Comyns does paint some unpleasant images.

Warwickshire – a little before World War One, and swans swim through the drawing-room windows of Grandmother Willoweed’s house. The river has flooded badly with much of the village submerged, people shelter upstairs. Ebin Willoweed, once a journalist, now lives with his three children in his mother’s house. As the waters rise, he rows his daughters around the submerged garden. The river is a huge influence in the lives of the Willoweed family, and the rest of the village.

“She came to a little wrecked pleasure-steamer, which had become embedded in the mud several summers ago and which no one had bothered to remove. It had been a vulgar, tubby little boat when it used to steam through the water with its handful of holiday-makers, giving shrill whistles at every bend and causing a wash that disturbed the fishermen as they sat peacefully on the banks; but, now it lay sideways in the mud with its gaudy paint all bleached, it was almost beautiful.”

Comyns leaves little to our imaginations – her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. A squealing pig floats away, legs flailing in desperation – the peacocks are all drowned. The flooding of the river heralds far worse to come.

The grandmother rules the house with a fierce tyranny, a tyranny to tries to exert over the whole village – albeit from a distance. She has sworn not to set foot on land which she doesn’t own – she owns a lot of the surrounding farmland. On the rare occasions that the grandmother ventures forth – she is rowed down the river. Locked into a bitter contest with old Ives who works in the garden, over which of them will live longest – the grandmother enjoys the power she has over everyone at Willoweed House.

Ebin’s three children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis – are quite neglected by their father – consumed with this own bitterness – primarily the loss of his career and his resentment toward his mother, they are often left to their own devices. Emma is the eldest – quietly she combs out her long marmalade hair and keeps an eye on her younger siblings. She takes the younger children on picnics, giving them a little of the mothering and happy security she herself hasn’t had.

“After a time Emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos.”

Ebin is critical of Dennis – and fairly dismissive of Emma, who has little time for him – Hattie is his favourite child, although she isn’t his. Hattie is the child fathered by his late wife’s black lover – though neither her colour or her parentage is ever remarked upon.

Sisters; Eunice and Norah are the maids at Willoweed House, struck with a wicker carpet beater by the grandmother if she thinks they aren’t working. Norah has been helping local gardener Fig’s mother – and has developed a romantic interest in Fig in the process. Fig is taking his time to be convinced, at first resenting Norah’s interference, but Norah is persistent in her quiet, gentle way. Meanwhile, her sister Eunice has been seeing a married man, with the inevitable consequences.

In the days following the flood – death starts to stalk the village – when it seems to be hit by a kind of plague. The miller goes mad and drowns himself, the baker’s wife – who had been having an affair with Ebin, – runs screaming through the village – finally falling to the ground on top of the grandmother’s white cat. There are other cases – disturbing cases, Emma stands listening to the cries of a stricken child from inside a village house.

“Emma and Dennis cringed against a hedge. Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies. A man with his shirt all hanging out pushed past Emma, and in the moonlight she could see his face all terrible, with loose lips snarling and saliva pouring down his chin. Shrieks of laughter greeted him when he climbed on the thatched roof and shouted and swore down the chimney. Several men carried lanterns, which they wildly waved about their heads and which made a strange and dancing light. Emma and Dennis crept against the hedge, and although they were pushed and jostled, they clung to each other and were not parted.”

A cottage is set alight by frantic neighbours – a man burned to death – where will the madness/plague strike next?

Who was Changed and Who was dead is a little masterpiece. It is a work of a rare imagination, which could certainly be taken as an allegory of the extraordinary and violent madness which was about the sweep the globe in 1914. As well as death, madness and destruction in this novel there is also tenderness, innocence and love.

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It seems I am a little behind, the 10th of September and I am only just reviewing my final book of August.

The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and 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 of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. 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.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“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 only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. 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 glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. 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. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr.

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My third read for All Virago/all August and so far I am really enjoying reading my lovely green VMC’s and having the chance to get to grips with authors I know less well, or as in the case of Barbara Comyns – not at all. Like the last book I read – Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane – this novel also seems to divide opinion a bit. I can see why. There is much misery and things do seem relentlessly grim for most of the novel. The blurb on the back cover of my VMC edition promises the reader – “a very happy ending.” I was surprised to see that in the blurb, before I began reading it, it did seem to be a very slight spoiler. However, with so much abject misery around, maybe the reader needs to know things will turn out ok at last. Strangely though, despite the grimness and misery – this isn’t really a depressing book, though there were some pretty dark moments I did actually enjoy it.
The story is told by Sophia, as she relates the story of her marriage to a new friend. In this way the reader knows right away that Sophia will be ok at some stage, and is able to believe in the promise of a happy ending.
Sophia tells her story in a very matter of fact manner; her voice is simple, naïve, at times almost childlike. She is an eccentric narrator, sometimes annoying, I found her rather endearing. At just twenty one she and artist Charles Fairclough decide to marry against Charles’s parent’s advice. Although they have some support from a child hating aunt of Charles.

“She even liked my newts, and sometimes when we went to dinner there I took Great Warty in my pocket; he didn’t mind being carried about, and while I ate dinner I gave him a swim in the water jug. On this visit I had no newts in my pocket…but when Charles told her the plans for our secret marriage that had somehow gone astray, she was most sympathetic and helpful.”

Neither of them has much money, but to begin with they are excited and positive about the future. Sophia has a job, but Charles just paints and sells virtually nothing. After their marriage they are terribly poor. Charles is only really interested in his painting, while Sophia tries her best to become a good wife, to cook and clean and keep their home nice, but she has little experience and is a bit out of her depth. Occasional visits from Charles’s terrifying mother offering advice don’t help much.

“She cleared her throat once or twice, and said something about poor people should eat a lot of herrings, as they were most nutritious, also she had heard poor people eat heaps of sheeps’ heads and she went on to ask if I ever cooked them. I said I would rather be dead than cook or eat a sheep’s head; I’d seen them in butchers’ shops with awful eyes and bits of wool sticking to their skulls. After that helpful hints for the poor were forgotten.”

There is a good deal of humour in this sometimes dark little story, some real laugh out loud moments and Sophia’s naivety is often charming as well as a bit irritating. Her marriage to Charles goes from bad to worse after the birth of their son Sandro, Charles has little interest in the child, and Sophia has to give up work. They meet the art critic Peregrine Narrow at a party, and Sophia who sometimes works as an artist’s model goes to sit for him, they become friends and she is soon having an affair. Poor Sophia is soon to bitterly regret both her hasty marriage and her adultery. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a hasty marriage between two people who are not any good for one another. It describes with horrible straightforwardness, the realities of poverty in bohemian London, hunger, unwanted pregnancies, illness and the feeling of being trapped in a dreadful situation from which there appears to be no escape. The ending when it comes is something of a relief for the reader, although there is no great surprise in it. There is certain predictableness in such an ending, but in this case I didn’t really mind. I wanted Sophia to be alright.

 

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