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‘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.