1

‘The Juniper Tree’ by Barbara Comyns *****

The Juniper Tree has been adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy story of the same name of which, author Barbara Comyns writes, ‘is far too macabre for adult reading’.  The novel, which was first published in 1985, was Comyns’ first novel for eighteen years.  It has been deemed ‘very cunningly continued indeed… [it] could hardly be more satisfactorily accomplished’ by the Times Literary Supplement.comyns-1_2048x2048

Before launching into my review, I have chosen to include the original rhyme from the Brothers Grimm story to give one a feel for the darkness of the tale:

“My mother she killed me,
My father he ate me,
My sister, little Marlinchen,
Gathered together my bones,
Tied them in a silken handkerchief,
Laid them beneath the juniper tree,
Kywitt, kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.”

‘The Juniper Tree’ is one of my favourite fairytales, and whilst I enjoy reading retellings of such familiar stories, I find that they can often be quite predictable in places.  Not so here.  Protagonist Bella Winter, single mother to an illegitimate young girl named Marline, is soon woven into the story of German woman Gertrude Forbes.  Bella’s first glimpse of Gertrude is ‘at once fairytale and sinister, and so the pattern is set for their future friendship…  As the snows thaw and different configurations emerge, so Bella, Gertrude and her husband Bernard take on the roles of a macabre, magical story which will conclude on the other side of madness.’

The novel opens with Bella’s lilting voice, and begins to set the recurring contrasts of beauty and darkness which can be found throughout the novel: ‘Quite soon after I left Richmond Station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted.  Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still.  As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving.  She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow.’

When Bella, who is looking for work and a fresh start, finds a position in an antiques shop in Twickenham, she becomes friendly with Gertrude, whom she soon discovers is the woman she viewed in the snow.  In one of the most obvious echoes of the original story, Gertrude begins to call Bella’s daughter Marlinchen.  A while later, after a firm but quite unusual friendship has been formed, ‘Gertrude conceives the child which has long eluded her, and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace and madness.’

This menace, and sense that something is not quite right, is captured perfectly.  Just before Gertrude gives birth, the following occurs: ‘We had our last picnic under the juniper tree, Gertrude ignoring the food I’d arranged on the table but almost greedily gulping down the last of the juniper berries that grew on the shady side of the tree – the berries so blue and poisonous-looking, and smelling strange too.  I’d seen her do this before; but this time she was snatching at the fruit with her long white hands and putting several in her mouth at once, and her lips became stained and her dress all spattered with the needle-leaves.’  Comyns also writes wonderfully about the nature of change, not just in regard to Gertrude’s body in pregnancy, but in the natural world too.

To those who have read any of Comyns’ work in the past, it goes without saying that she writes wonderfully.  An immediate feel is given for the characters, and the story has been vividly transposed to its English setting of the 1980s.  Comyns’ retelling is haunting, particularly as it reaches its climax.  The voice here, whilst manifested through the character of Bella, is distinctively Comyns’ own.

There are twists here which it would be unfair to reveal; this is a novel far better digested with no preconceptions or foreknowledge of Comyns’ adaptations.  The Juniper Tree is a highly accomplished standalone novel, but knowledge of the original fairytale seems necessary in order to better appreciate Comyns’ clever interpretation.  One can pinpoint what might happen at times if familiar with the original, but there are still some surprises along the way.  Dark and beguiling, The Juniper Tree is a masterful novel which I highly recommend.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘Mr Fox’ by Barbara Comyns ****

I love Comyns’ work, and try to pick up her novels whenever I place an online order, difficult as they seem to locate in physical bookshops.  Virago have reissued three of her books – The Vet’s DaughterSisters by a River, and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – in the last few years, and NYRB have just brought out a lovely edition of The Juniper Tree, but I have seen nothing about a republication of her 1987 novel, Mr Fox.  I therefore purchased a copy of it online, and was eager to begin.

Comyns’ penultimate novel, Mr Fox is set during the Second World War, and moves from London to some small, imagined towns and villages nearby.  At the outset of the novel, which is narrated in its entirety by Caroline Seymore, Mr Fox, a ‘spiv’, offers her and her young daughter, Jenny, assistance.  The pair were deserted by Jenny’s father, Oliver, whilst Caroline was still pregnant, as he felt that running off to Spain to fight against Franco was more important than providing for his family.  Mr Fox promises the Seymores ‘a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors and a shared – ie. dubious – future.’  Mr Fox is ‘always full of new ideas about making money and was often very prosperous, but sometimes almost penniless.’  He takes on many schemes to make dishonest 7191026money, and is unable to keep any savings in the bank, due to the temptation of spending them.

The novel opens in the following manner, which wonderfully sets the tone for the whole: ‘The other people in the house where I lived didn’t like me.  I expect it was because I was living with a man I wasn’t married to.  We just had “Mr Fox and Mrs Caroline Seymore” written on the door that led to our flat.  There was a Miss Seymore living there, too, but she didn’t have her name on the door because she was only three years old.’  Adhering to social conventions is something which does not greatly bother Caroline; the welfare of herself and her daughter during wartime is her primary concern.  Of her marriage to Oliver, Caroline writes: ‘I don’t think it’s a frightfully good thing to do to marry poets.  My mother was very much against it, but she was rather a dreary kind of woman and I didn’t want to grow dreary too, so I left her and married Oliver, who was delightful and sparkling, and it was only afterwards I discovered he was shallow and spoilt and really rather affected, and his poetry was affected, too.’

Their existence with Mr Fox is often rather tumultuous.  Early on in the narrative, Caroline admits: ‘We often did things that made him [Mr Fox] displeased with us, but we had nowhere else to go, so we had to go on living with him.’  Once the air raids begin in earnest, she and Mr Fox decide to move out of London.  They find a ‘shoddy little house’ in the fictional town of Straws, near the factory where Mr Fox is able to get a job.  Caroline writes: ‘It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws.  It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable.  He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all.’  Although she has been removed from the fear of being bombed, she feels increasingly trapped and frightened, with nowhere else to go, and no friends to speak to.  Despite her misfortunes, Caroline does not allow herself to become pessimistic: ‘In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.’

The chatty style which Comyns employs works so well here; Caroline feels like a three-dimensional creation, always candid and often rather funny.  Comyns also gives one a real feel for the period as the threat of war, and later conflict itself, progresses: ‘But it wasn’t the same as the scare the previous year.  The war came nearer and nearer and there was no escaping it, you could almost see it coming like a great dust-storm.’  In Mr Fox, Comyns tells of a quite ordinary woman’s experiences during wartime, crafting rather a straightforward and sincere voice in which to do so.  Mr Fox is an immersive novel, and an unfairly neglected one too.  I’m crossing my fingers that a publisher will reprint it soon, so that it can be discovered by a whole new clutch of readers.

4

Virago: Ten Books from the Wishlist

Virago are currently celebrating their fortieth birthday, and along with a week-long celebration of their novels, I thought that it would be a good idea to select ten of the books on their wonderful Modern Classics list which I haven’t yet got to.  I did make a conscious effort for several years to choose books from this list, in order to try and get through it and discover some wonderful literature.  However, it has expanded considerably in recent years, along with my TBR list, and I have not got as far with the project as I would have liked.  I am hopeful that, by making this list, I will be able to seek out these particular Viragos and read them in the near future.

 

1396471. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse (#11)
A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.

2. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)
Joanna Godden is a ‘damn fine women’, big and blue-eyed with a brown freckled face and a weakness for fancy clothes. On the death bed of her father all her neighbours expect her to marry, for someone (some man) must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind: she decides to run it herself. Her strength as a woman and a lover, as a sister and a farmer are all broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat Joanna: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive country heroines in literature.
3. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns (#224) 2702636
Her father dies and the 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.”
4. In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)
Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles – intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
233532245. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#299)
In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.
6. Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis (#416)
Published to coincide with a biography of Violet Trefusis, this romantic comedy set in the Twenties shows young aristocrat, Elizabeth Caracole being finished in Florence with the family of a Papal count – the dentist. All five brothers fall for her, but their sister, Vica, has plans of her own.
7. Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (#47) 1188052
This extraordinary novel, first published in 1931, recounts the love story of the American girl Bridget and the young Frenchman Nicolas whom she marries. Bridget goes to live with his wealthy, close-knit family in their Breton village and finds there a group — mother, father, sisters, and brother-in-law — who love each other to the exclusion of the outside world.  But it is a love that festers, for the family is tainted with an inherited bone disease, a plague which, Bridget slowly discovers, can also infect the soul. Then Luc — young, handsome, healthy — arrives and Bridget is faced with a choice: confronting the Old World with the courage of the New she makes the bravest choice of all…  In subtle, rich and varied prose Kay Boyle echoes Henry James in a novel at once lyrical, delicate and shocking.
8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (#104)
Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.
13430229. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence (#304)
The Fire-Dwellers is an extraordinary novel about a woman who has four children, a hard-working but uncommunicative husband, a spinster sister, and an abiding conviction that life has more to offer her than the tedious routine of her days.  Margaret Laurence has given us another unforgettable heroine – human, compelling, full of poetry, irony and humour. In the telling of her life, Stacey rediscovers for us all the richness of the commonplace, the pain and beauty in being alive, and the secret music that dances in everyone’s soul.
10. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (#124)
Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire Elementary school in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues – ranging from the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny to the earnest communist Freda and kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of that special world: nits in the hair, abusive parents, inspectors’ visits, eternal registers, malnutrition, staff quarrels and staff love affairs. To all of this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, with the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and with her own love affair. For Madge is a splendid heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted, she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.

 

Are you a fan of Virago?  Have you read any of these books?  Which books from the Modern Classics list do you have on your TBR pile to read, and which are you wishing for?

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Virago Week: ‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns ****

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’.

9781844088379The 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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns ****

9781844088386

The Vet’s Daughter, which has been turned into both a play and a musical, has just been reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels, Sisters by a River and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The novel was first published in 1959, and as well as featuring an introduction written by Comyns herself, this new edition contains an introduction by Jane Gardam, who sets the scene of both the author and her work very nicely indeed. Gardam calls this, Comyns’ fourth work, her ‘most startling novel… the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative… [It] is not about “enchantment”, it is about evil, the evil that can exist in the most humdrum people’.

The opening line alone is intriguing: ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else’. Our narrator, Alice Rowlands, lives in ‘a vet’s house with a lamp outside… It was my home and it smelt of animals’. Her father’s tyrannical cruelty is present from the first page. When describing her mother, Alice says, ‘She looked at me with her sad eyes… Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her’. In fact, many of the similes throughout are related to animals – for example, ‘holding up her little hands like kitten’s paws’, and ‘her lifeless hair… was more like a donkey’s tail’. An unsettling sense of foreboding is built up almost immediately, and much of this too has some relation to the animals which fill the house and surgery: ‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth’, and ‘The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.

Alice is seventeen years old, and her present life in ‘the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses’ in London is interspersed with memories of her mother’s upbringing on a secluded farm in Wales. Alice’s dreams, which far surpass her sad reality, consist of the following: ‘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’. Alice and her mother are both terrified of her father – her mother tells her daughter that ‘He was a great and clever young man, but I was always afraid of him’ – and his presence fills the novel even when he is away from home: ‘We heard Father leave the house and it became a peaceful evening, except that we had a mongoose in the kitchen’. The fact that her father is even mentioned in the book’s title demonstrates the level of control he has over her. To add to their troubles, Alice’s mother becomes ill. Desperate Alice laments somewhat over her fading life, telling us that, ‘I felt a great sorrow for her and knew that she would soon die’, and ‘Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room’. Her father, as is to be expected, exhibits his usual cruelty when faced with the news; he sends a man in to measure his wife for her coffin whilst she is still alive.

Throughout, Alice is an incredibly honest narrator. One gets the sense that we as readers see her world exactly as she does, and that nothing has been altered before it reaches the page. All of the characters throughout feel so real, and Comyns has built them up steadily and believably. Their actions do not feel forced, which demonstrates Comyns’ deftness of touch. Whilst The Vet’s Daughter is a sad novel – well, a novella, really – what sadness there is is interspersed with humour and wit. The balance between the two has been met beautifully. For example, just after Alice’s mother’s death, Comyns describes the way in which ‘Already the parrot had been banished to the downstairs lavatory, and in its boredom had eaten huge holes in the floor’.

Tumultuous relationships between characters are portrayed with such clarity of the human condition throughout the book, and the story is both powerful and memorable in its tale and its telling. Alice faces more challenges than the average teenager, but her strength of mind and the way in which she always tries to make the best out of a bad situation endear her to the reader. Her honesty shines through, particularly as her story progresses: ‘I wrote a letter to Blinkers. Although it wasn’t very long, it took me two weeks to write because it was the first one I’d ever written – there had been no one to write to before’. The Vet’s Daughter is a beautifully and sympathetically written book, which takes many unexpected twists and turns, and presents the reader with a story which is likely to stay with them for an awfully long time.

Purchase from The Book Depository

1

‘Sisters By a River’ by Barbara Comyns ****

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’.

9781844088379The 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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

One From the Archive: ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns ****

First published in July 2013.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’. 

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, NYRB

The Vet’s Daughter, which has been turned into both a play and a musical, has just been reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels, Sisters by a River and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The novel was first published in 1959, and as well as featuring an introduction written by Comyns herself, this new edition contains an introduction by Jane Gardam, who sets the scene of both the author and her work very nicely indeed. Gardam calls this, Comyns’ fourth work, her ‘most startling novel… the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative… [It] is not about “enchantment”, it is about evil, the evil that can exist in the most humdrum people’.

The opening line alone is intriguing: ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else’. Our narrator, Alice Rowlands, lives in ‘a vet’s house with a lamp outside… It was my home and it smelt of animals’. Her father’s tyrannical cruelty is present from the first page. When describing her mother, Alice says, ‘She looked at me with her sad eyes… Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her’. In fact, many of the similes throughout are related to animals – for example, ‘holding up her little hands like kitten’s paws’, and ‘her lifeless hair… was more like a donkey’s tail’. An unsettling sense of foreboding is built up almost immediately, and much of this too has some relation to the animals which fill the house and surgery: ‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth’, and ‘The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.

Alice is seventeen years old, and her present life in ‘the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses’ in London is interspersed with memories of her mother’s upbringing on a secluded farm in Wales. Alice’s dreams, which far surpass her sad reality, consist of the following: ‘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’. Alice and her mother are both terrified of her father – her mother tells her daughter that ‘He was a great and clever young man, but I was always afraid of him’ – and his presence fills the novel even when he is away from home: ‘We heard Father leave the house and it became a peaceful evening, except that we had a mongoose in the kitchen’. The fact that her father is even mentioned in the book’s title demonstrates the level of control he has over her. To add to their troubles, Alice’s mother becomes ill. Desperate Alice laments somewhat over her fading life, telling us that, ‘I felt a great sorrow for her and knew that she would soon die’, and ‘Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room’. Her father, as is to be expected, exhibits his usual cruelty when faced with the news; he sends a man in to measure his wife for her coffin whilst she is still alive.

Throughout, Alice is an incredibly honest narrator. One gets the sense that we as readers see her world exactly as she does, and that nothing has been altered before it reaches the page. All of the characters throughout feel so real, and Comyns has built them up steadily and believably. Their actions do not feel forced, which demonstrates Comyns’ deftness of touch. Whilst The Vet’s Daughter is a sad novel – well, a novella, really – what sadness there is is interspersed with humour and wit. The balance between the two has been met beautifully. For example, just after Alice’s mother’s death, Comyns describes the way in which ‘Already the parrot had been banished to the downstairs lavatory, and in its boredom had eaten huge holes in the floor’.

Tumultuous relationships between characters are portrayed with such clarity of the human condition throughout the book, and the story is both powerful and memorable in its tale and its telling. Alice faces more challenges than the average teenager, but her strength of mind and the way in which she always tries to make the best out of a bad situation endear her to the reader. Her honesty shines through, particularly as her story progresses: ‘I wrote a letter to Blinkers. Although it wasn’t very long, it took me two weeks to write because it was the first one I’d ever written – there had been no one to write to before’. The Vet’s Daughter is a beautifully and sympathetically written book, which takes many unexpected twists and turns, and presents the reader with a story which is likely to stay with them for an awfully long time.

0

‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’.

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and

 

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

 

cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

0

‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ first novel, was first published in 1947, and was originally serialised in Lilliput magazine. The 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.