I was absolutely thrilled to get my hands on a brand new edition of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, after having spent more than a decade trying to find an affordable secondhand copy. Thankfully, the wonderful Daunt Books have reissued the novel, and I am most grateful.
I so enjoy Barbara Comyns’ work; it is wonderfully strange, and sometimes a little horrifying, but it is always compelling, and surprising. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, which was first published in 1954, fits all of this criteria. The novel is set in a small Warwickshire village and, set over a short span of time, the story encompasses many strange things. After the river floods excessively in early summer, the villagers begin to change, exhibiting odd and frightening behaviours; these range from a ‘mad miller’ who drowns himself, to the village barber, who cuts his own throat in full view. These nasty and unforeseen ends are attributed to a peculiar illness, which spreads like wildfire through the village.
Overseeing this pandemic are Emma and Hattie Willoweed, part of a sprawling family living in the home of their formidable grandmother. The characters are curious, and unpredicable. The girls’ father, Ebin, veers between mild interest and indifference, and their younger brother, Dennis, provides some much-needed comedy. Once the flood occurs, Comyns describes the mild horror which comes when Ebin fixates on taking Hattie out after her lunch to find drowned bodies; he reasons that she is ‘always game for anything.’
I found the Willoweed children particularly endearing. When Hattie and Dennis are left to their own devices in their father’s room whilst he is supposed to be schooling them, for instance, they rip up a copy of Macaulay’s History of England, and proceed to turn its pages into many paper hats and boats. At the same time, eldest sister Emma has been tasked with mending a great deal of ripped sheets: ‘She had mended several with the aid of a small and ancient sewing machine; but to her horror, the patches were coming off already because the machine was only capable of a rather charming chain stitch and she had forgotten to secure the ends of the thread.’
Grandmother Willoweed is an enigma. She is starkly judgemental, particularly with regard to the staff she employs in her household; she is often found shouting ‘slut!’ after her maids, for no reason one can discern. The groundskeeper, Old Ives, has an unhealthy rivalry with her: ‘Ives was a year older than Grandmother Willoweed, but considered that he had the better chance of survival: he thought she would die from overeating.’ In response to the birthday gift of food which he proffers her, Grandmother aptly responds: ‘”Ah, Ives, I’m afraid, when it’s your birthday, I shall be bringing clovers for your grave.”‘
She is an extremely keen gossip, although Comyns explains that this comes with problems of her own making: ‘Her audience was rather limited because for many years she had not left her own house and garden. She had an objection to walking or passing over ground that did not belong to her…’ Grandmother also has a fearful reputation, which precedes her: ‘Most of the village children had never seen her and she had become a terrifying figure in their minds. They thought she could hear everything they said wit her ear trumpet, and that instead of a tongue she had two curling snakes in her ugly mouth. When the children grew up and some of them became maids in Willoweed House they were always disappointed to discover she wasn’t so strange as they expected…’.
From the outset, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead mesmerises. Comyns begins the novel: ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.’ In this manner, Comyns sets the scene of the flood quite wonderfully. She goes on: ‘Ebin Willoweed rowed his daughters round the submerged garden. He rowed with gentle ineffectual strokes because he was a slothful man, but a strong vein of inquisitiveness kept him from being entirely indolent. He rowed away under a blazing sun; the light was very bright and the water brilliant.’ Comyns is an excellent writer, and she creates some gorgeous, lingering imagery within the novel. She writes a scene, for instance, in which Emma and Norah, one of the family’s maids, ‘went down to the garden together to pick peas for supper, and to dream their dreams in the summer dusk.’
There is not a great deal of cheer to be found here, as I am sure one can discern from my review, but I expected as much from Comyns’ work. There is a real morbidity to be found within the novel, in fact, especially that displayed between Ebin and Grandmother; the pair are nothing short of bloodthirsty at times. When the miller drowns himself in the river, for example, Grandmother insists that she is taken to see his body ‘dragged out of the water’. When Ebin ‘heard what all the commotion was about, he was not at all averse to seeing the drowned miller himself, and offered to take his mother.’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is a deceptively easy read, which becomes more and more unsettling as it progresses. There is a palpable tension, and nothing is shied away from.
Whilst I must admit that it did feel strange to read a book about a pandemic whilst in the midst of one, I absolutely adored this odd and beguiling novel, and cannot recommend it highly enough. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is darkly amusing – deliciously so – and I was pulled in from the outset. This is a novel to really savour, from an author whose work I find so much to admire within. As with her other novels, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead feels at once highly modern and wonderfully old-fashioned. It held me in its grip from start to finish, and I am sure that the same effect will be felt by its every reader.