Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ first novel, was first published in 1947, and was originally serialised in Lilliput magazine. The (relatively) newly issued Virago edition contains an introduction by Barbara Trapido. She believes that the novel is ‘reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, though darker and edgier’. She also states that in the book, the very notion of adults are ‘as arbitrary and dangerous as tigers’.
The novel is set on the banks of the River Avon, and the entirety is told in rather a childish narrative voice in a stream of consciousness style. It begins in the following way: ‘It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night… he had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born – six times in all, and none of us died…’, which gives the reader a feel for the rest of the book. To further emphasise the way in which the story is seen through the eyes of a young narrator, Barbara, a lot of the words throughout have alternative spellings. On the first page alone, we come across ‘wallnut’, ‘Fortnham & Mason’, ‘interfeer’, and ‘conspiricy’. Rather than irritate the reader, these misspellings are really quite endearing. They serve as a clever literary tool, with which Comyns has built up a wealth sympathy for Barbara and her sisters.
The sisters are really rather different, and Comyns sets out their often conflicting personalities as soon as she introduces them. Mary, the eldest, ‘was the plainest in the family, but she made up for it by being so bossy’; indeed, she controls everything, down to the colour of the clothes her siblings are allowed to wear – ‘beastly brown’ – and none of them are able to read any of the books which she has enjoyed. Barbara goes on to say that, ‘Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it’. Then comes Beatrix, ‘quite unlike the rest of us both in appearance and nature… her hair was straight and didn’t have bits of twig and knots in it like ours’. Kathleen is barely mentioned at first, but when she is twelve, Barbara describes the way in which she begins to take on the mannerisms of an owl. The youngest, Chloe, whom the older girls ‘didn’t like’ very much is described as follows: ‘she was rather large and had a fat mauve face and cried dreadfully’. Having so many children has taken a toll on their mother too: ‘After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more’.
The story has been split into a series of short chapters, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles. These range from ‘Being Born’ and ‘God in the Billiard Room’ to ‘The Aunt With the Square Face’ and ‘As if she had no Ears at All’. Rather than leading on from one another, these chapters are a series of vignettes, and an amalgamation of memories of times long past. Through Barbara’s eyes, we enter a world of governesses, boarding schools, the great outdoors, hand-me-down garments, superstitions, maids, servants and rituals of running away from home. The entirety of the book has been historically grounded with a wealth of details. Examples of this include when the girls’ grandmother ‘was a child Queen Victoria saw her riding in the Row’ and the same grandmother undertaking ‘no housework or cooking, all that was left to some little overworked skivvy, who never had an evening off because she was so scared of Jack the Ripper’.
Sisters by a River does not present a commonplace childhood by any means. The narrator wakes as a child to find her parents trying to push her grandmother out of the window – ‘it really was a mercy her hips were so wide and the window rather narrow’. The cruelty of the girls’ father is included at points: ‘We would suddenly hear an angry trumpeting noise and he would grab as many of us as he could and bang our heads together’, and ‘Once when Beatrix was a baby he got so furious because of her crying he threw her down the stairs’ are stand-out examples. The following elements have also been included: the tyrannical wrath of Mary, hitting daytrippers who have found themselves in trouble in the river with shovels instead of rescuing them or calling for help, and burning books and toys which Chloe was particularly fond of. As well as these bad memories and nightmare-like scenes, cheerful elements have been woven in too – for example, playing in the river, and wading through the yearly floodwaters on homemade stilts.
The childish comparisons throughout are just lovely. Barbara tells us the way in which a governess ‘wore a hat of very corse straw, like a giant biscuit’, and how ‘the furniture was made of some shiny black wood with short bow legs, rather like mine’. Comyns captures family relationships incredibly well, particularly the more fractured and unstable ones. Comyns has presented a marvellous slice of family history, allowing the modern reader a glimpse of a world which has altered considerably. Despite its cruelties, it is a difficult book not to be charmed by, and Comyns deserves a place on the bookshelves of each and every reader.