Wednesday 28 July 2010

The Vet's Daughter

And still they keep on coming - those women novelists (I promise I'll read a man one day...). I had never heard of Barbara Comyns, a bohemian type who mixed with the (appalling) likes of Dylan Thomas and Augustus John, lived a rackety life, ended up married to a pal of Kim Philby's, spent many years in Spain, and along the way managed to write a string of novels which are highly regarded by, shall we say, a select few. I've just finished reading the one regarded as her best (it was even turned into a musical by Sandy Wilson - a mind-boggling thought) - The Vet's Daughter (Virago Modern Classics, with a new introduction that no one bothered to proofread). It is an extraordinary work, very individual in style and quirky in outlook - Comyns has been described as 'Beryl Bainbridge on acid' - and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it. The first paragraph gives a good idea of the book's world and Comyns's style:
'A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that was what he seemed to need me to say, and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would most likely have worn knee-caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet's house with a lamp outside. I said 'You must excuse me' and left this poor man among the privet hedges.'
And that is the last we see of the man with the ginger moustache until he makes a mysterious reappearance at the very end of the story. In the meanwhile we are taken into the house of her father the vet, a drunken brute who has subdued his wife and daughter by violence and terror. Life becomes increasingly intolerable for the vet's daughter, until the opportunity for escape emerges and is taken - but then things take several unexpected turns, building up to a very strange and enigmatic climax, by which time it almost seems the tale has strayed into (aargh) 'magical realism'...
Barbara Comyns came recommended by the owner of this fine bookshop, and as it happens I was in his shop again yesterday with my Derbyshire cousin. I had only finished The Vet's Daughter on the train up and we talked about it briefly before I fell to browsing those well-stocked shelves. He characterised the book as 'English Gothic', and I think that's dead right - it's a rare example of 20th-century English Gothic, perhaps a kind of secular and very English equivalent of Flannery O'Connor. It represents a cast of imagination and a freedom of resource that seldom turn up in English fiction - even among women novelists.


  1. That sounds rather good, I like unexplained oddities.

  2. My favourite Barbara Comyns novel is "Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead", probably the best treatment of an outbreak of ergot poisoning in English fiction. Virago published many of her books in their Modern Classics series, so they can often be found secondhand.

  3. Oh, and while we're on the subject of English women novelists, have you read Sylvia Townsend Warner? If not, do so.

  4. I think that you are right there - Barbara Comyns' voice is very unique to her - I have never come across another writer like it with the possible exception of Angela Carter who I guess takes the same kind of strategies in a different direction and has a different tone. It is certainly extremely unusual in english literature. I think it is pretty good myself and like one of your other commenters hugely recommend Who was changed and who was dead. If on the other hand you fancy some Comyns that is lighter on the surrealism then I would recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths which is also published by Virago

    Great to discover your blog


  5. Thanks everybody - I can see myself reading more Comyns, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, perhaps the most recommended-to-me writer I've not yet read...