Barbara Comyns

Born at Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, in 1909. Died in 1992. Apart from her novel writing, she was also a painter, and exhibited at the London Group.

(At the moment, I give the titles, year of publication, publisher, ISBN where I have it, and the blurb that appears on the edition that I have.


* Sisters by a River (1947, Eyre " Spottiswood; 1985, Virago Press, with an introduction by Ursula Holden [ISBN: 0 86068 475 X])
"`Mary was the eldist of the family, Mammy was only eighteen when she had her, and was awfully frit of her, but Daddy thought she was lovely and called her his little Microbe...'

"The river is the Avon, and on its banks the five sisters are born. The river is frozen, the river is flooded, the sun shines on the water and moving lights are reflected on the walls of the house. It is Good Friday and the maids hang a hot cross bun from the kitchen ceiling. An earwig crawls into the sweep's ear and stays there for ten years. Moths are resurrected from the dead and bats become entangled in young girls' hair. Lessons are done in the greenish light under the ash-tree and always there is the sound of water swirling through the weir. A feeling of decay comes to the house, at first in a sudden puff down a dark passage and the damp smell of cellars, then the ivy grows unchecked over the windows and angry shouts split the summer air, sour milk is in the ladder and the father takes out his gun. The children see a dreadful snoring figure in a white nightshirt, then lot numbers appear on the furniture and the family is dispersed... (Written by Barbara Comyns for the 1947 edition).

"[...] Sisters by a River, the first and most eccentric of [Barbara Comyns'] eight wonderful novels, was first published in 1947. Told through the eyes (and spelling) of a young girl, vivid, funny, and quite unique, it evokes Barbara Comyns'own extraordinary childhood."

(One of my favourite passages: "When Beatrix and I were about four, we did a frightful thing, we tried to ride the tame rabbits with the most drastic results, we had seen pictures of children riding rabbits and thought we could do the same, bur we couldn't and for years people said `these are the children who squashed the rabbits.'")

* Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950, Eyre " Spottiswood; 1983, Virago Press, with an introduction by Ursula Holden [ISBN: 0 86068 353 2])
"`Eventually we bought a mattress and were able to tuck the clothes in and the sheets were washed and didn't smell and we became proper married people.'

"Sophia is twenty-one years old, she carries a newt around in her pocket, and marries - haste - a young artist called Charles. Swept into bohemian London of the thirties, Sophia is ill-equipped to cope: poverty, babies (however much loved) - and her husband - conspire to torment her. Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with the dismal, ageing art critic, Peregrine, and learns to repent her marriage - and affair - at leisure. Repentance brings an abrupt end to a life of unpaid bills, unsold pictures, and unwashed crockery, plus the hope of joys in store: this novel has a very happy ending...

"[...] this, [Barbara Comyns' second novel], takes a tragi-comic look at artistic life in London before the Second World War through the child-like eyes of the endearing, ebullient Sophia."
* Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954, The Bodley Head; 1987, Virago Press, with an introduction by Ursula Holden [ISBN: 0 86068 677 9])
"`The grandmother cried, "Don't go yet, tell me more. What about my rose beds?" Her son seized the trumpet... and shouted down its black depths, "Dead animals floating everywhere. Your roses are completely covered."'

"At the beginning of June the river floods, ducks swim through the drawing-room windows, and Ebin Willoweed rows his daughters round the submerged garden. The grandmother dresses in magenta for her seventy-first-birthday whist drive and looks forward to the first prize of pate de foie gras. Later Ives the gardener leads a morose procession up river, dragging her to a funeral in a black-draped punt. The miller goes mad and drowns himself and a cottage is set alight. Villagers keep dying, and at the house on the river plates are thrown across the luncheon table and a tortoise through a window. The newspaper asks `Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?' Originally published in 1954, this strange novel with its macabre humour, speaks with Barbara Comyns' unique and magical voice."

(The novel was banned in Ireland, and generally received less acclaim than her first two novels, being held to `wallow in repulsiveness'. I doubt that many would share that view now - though the sort of person who bans books is difficult to predict. At any rate, it's very funny, and brilliantly written. Barbara Comyns got the idea from reading about an outbreak of ergot poisoning in France in 1951.)
* The Vet's Daughter (1959, William Heinemann; 1981, Virago Press, with a new introduction by the author [ISBN: 0 86068 163 7])
"`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 daughter of a bullying veterinary surgeon, Alice Rowlands' world is Edwardian South London at its most oppressive. In her own vivid uneducated words, she here relates the story of her girlhood and the growth of her fatal occult powers. Longing for romance and excitement, Alice is trapped in a life which is dreary, restrictive, and lonely - made bearable only by the kindness of her dull suitor, Blinkers, and briefly, hopelessly, and rapturously by Nicholas, a handsome young sailor. Through the eyes of Alice we watch strange events unfold - events which lead her, triumphantly dressed as a bride, to Clapham Common and her moment of final ecstasy..."
* The Skin Chairs (1962, William Heinemann; 1986, Virago Press, with an introduction by Ursula Holden [ISBN: 0 86068 480 6])
"`"Could I see the chairs, please?"... "Chairs, chairs. What does the child mean?"... "Oh, she means the chairs in your hall, the ones your husband had covered with skin. I m afraid she is a morbid little thing." She giggled and bounced about on her rickety chair'

"Her father dies and 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'. First published in 1962, this quirky novel describing the adult world with a young girl's eye, resounds with Barbara Comyns' original voice."
* Birds in Tiny Cages (1964)
(I don t have a copy of this, and haven't read it yet. Something to look forward to....)
* A Touch of Mistletoe (1967, William Heinemann; 1989, Virago Press, with an introduction by Patricia Craig [ISBN: 0 86068 230 7])
"`Then I knew he had the same fearful loneliness that I had and told him he could stay "Only if you keep your socks on. I'll be safe if you keep your socks on"... I can't think why I had such faith in them'

"This is the story of Blanche and Vicky who as children read Ethel M. Dell and Elinor Glynn up a tree. Following the death of their grandfather - in whose enormous Warwickshire house they live - their mother relinquishes drink (to which she had take n in a big way) for the joys of frantic housework. Naturally the girls long to escape. Blanche trains as a mannequin at a dubious institution in London, and Vicky flees to Holland and a purgatorial life as an au pair to a lot of dogs. But this is only the beginning, and other adventures await them, including the poverty and cabbage smells of one-room living, the charcoaled fingers of art school, drunkenness and cheap restaurants of Soho bohemia, and varying degrees of excitement with several husbands and lovers. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe shows Barbara Comyns' original voice at its best, mixing a characteristic simplicity with a quiet by cunning wit."
* The Juniper Tree (1985, Methuen; 1993, Mandarin [ISBN: 0 7493 1516 4])
"Gertrude and Bernard Forbes seem to live on enchanted ground. Their fairytale marriage touches all who meet them, none more so than Bella, the poor, scarred mother of an illegitimate child. Beneath the juniper tree in their delightful garden, a long summer forges a perfect triangle of friendship. Then Gertrude conceives the child which has so long eluded her -- and the spell breaks into foreboding, menace, and madness."
* Mr Fox (1987, Methuen; 1993, Mandarin [ISBN: 0 7493 1515 6])
"Mr Fox is a spiv -- a dealer in second-hand cars and black-market food, a man skilled in bending the law. When Caroline Seymour and her young daughter Jenny are deserted at the beginning of World War II, he offers them a roof over their heads, advice on evading creditors, and a shared - if dubious - future..."
* The House of Dolls (1989, Methuen; 1993, Mandarin [ISBN: 0 7493 0139 2])
"Well past their prime, the four ladies who live at Mulberry Grove remember better days of parties and servants, when rent was something to be collected. Or that's what they pretend. Nowadays, they remember the rent only too well. Once a servant herself, Amy Doll is reluctant `madam' to her genteel lodgers of higher class and lower morals, all too aware that the `little business' of their makeshift brothel is not without its occupational hazards..."


* Out of the Red, Into the Blue (I don't have this; thanks to Nigel Clark for supplying the following blurb)
"To transport oneself and family from a gloomy northern city to a sunny Mediterranean island is the daydream of thousands. But few do it - and fewer still tell the truth about it afterwards, for such daydreams when realised have their nightmare passages. Barbara Comyns did it: escaped with her husband Raymond and her daughter Caroline and an assortment of cats and dogs, away from a Kensington hotel with cheese-coloured walls, away from the unpaid bills and the 'flu and the fog - into a new set of problems: Spanish plumbing and Spanish police, small-island life, the troubles of a `foreign colony'.

"Life in Curiaco is cheap and primitive. No householder is starved for long either of domestic catastrophes or local melodrama. With gentle astonishment and a kind of melancholy gaiety Barbara Comyns describes the delights and disasters of their difficult paradise, the improbable situations that mounted at times to peaks of delirious unreality. Half sad, half funny, Barbara Comyns has, as Graham Greene has remarked, `an off-beat humour' of her own. Out of the Red, Into the Blue cannot be compared with any other book. It creates a category for itself and radiates the special sort of enjoyment that only genuine originality can provide."

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