Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter

The cover of my Virago Modern Classics edition

This is not a review of Barbara Comyns’ fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, published in 1959 (she died in 1992). I’ve written about two of her others in previous posts (links at the end), so have I think already established the nature of her highly idiosyncratic approach to narrative voice, plot and character dynamics. All tend to be at the same time naive, deceptively simple, yet also dark, tending towards a kind of surreal gothic , and skewed in their world view. Odd things are narrated as if they were everyday; the banal is often rendered extraordinary.

All I need to do to give an idea of The Vet’s Daughter, then, is to quote from its opening page.

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 is 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 kneecaps. 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.

This man possibly reappears in the penultimate page for no explicable reason, just as the encounter with the teenage vet’s daughter here simply serves to show the apparent randomness and lack of agency in her life.

Why bother to tell us about those privet hedges? Or that the ‘poor man’ is to be pitied because of his wife’s religious persuasion? How bizarre that she should liken his condition to that of a horse with kneecaps (do they wear such things? If so, why does he resemble on thus attired, rather than just a regular, naked-legged horse? Is it because they live a life of toil and drudgery? Maybe she’s projecting on to him something of her own miserable existence with her tyrannical, sadistic father. Maybe, like Stephen King, she’s establishing a suburban setting of ordered tranquillity and banality – the hedges, the railway bridge, the lamp – in order that the domestic horrors to come are all the more upsetting.

That ‘heavy rainbow’ simile is good. There is no magical crock of gold at its end, of course. Quite the opposite, as the next paragraph begins to show.

That her life is oppressive begins to become clearer there:

I entered the house. It was my home and smelt of animals, although there was no lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. 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.

Although this narrating voice seems like that of a naive child, then, there’s a highly sophisticated literary sensibility at work here. That use of ‘although’, seemingly irrelevant, implies that either there is carpet – which would absorb and retain animal smells – or bare floorboards – which suggests parsimony in the head of the house. Or else the disconnectedness of the clause reflects that in her consciousness, all sense of normality and rational connection having been shattered or diminished by her father’s despotic control.

The hall’s brownness connotes a dismal, squalid colourlessness and lack of joy and love – a state that rapidly becomes frighteningly evident. The sadness of her mother’s eyes, her speechlessness, slight build, the slope of her shoulders: all demonstrate heartbreaking vulnerability in this hall of misery.

We soon learn, too, that her teeth have been knocked askew by her abusive, violent husband. He’s a monster of fairytale-ogre proportions. This is also hinted at in that closing sentence: he’s a vivisectionist’s supplier, quick to have sickly animals ‘destroyed’ – a category in which he includes his long-suffering wife and daughter.

I’m not  sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. Its bleak picture of a psychopathic husband and father, portrayed by a voice so gentle and unassuming, makes for almost unbearable reading at times.

I wrote about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths HERE last year

Sisters by a River HERE

Tilling and sowing: the Très Riches Heures in October

It’s the first day of the month, and I intended writing about the last book I read: another Barbara Comyns novel – Sisters by a River. I wrote about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in a post in January. But I find I don’t have much to say about it right now. Might come back to it shortly, if I feel inspiration.

So as I did for April and May, I’m turning to the beautifully illuminated pages of the calendar in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, painted mostly by the Limbourg brothers in the early 1400s, although this page might be by a later artist who completed the work after the Limbourgs and their patron died (probably of the plague) in 1416.

A book of hours was a book of private prayers and devotions based on the church liturgical pattern. The kalendarium in medieval texts was originally a checklist of saints’ festivals for each month. Over time the tradition evolved so that illustrated versions included, by the 15C, scenes of the occupations associated with each month.

The Limbourgs painted landscapes from different scenes for most months – places owned by their noble patron, or which he’d visited, as here.

October in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry

via Wikimedia Commons

In the background of the October sowing and tilling scene is the Louvre Palace, owned at that time by the Duc’s elder brother the king of France. Originally built in the 12C as a fortress, the Louvre was converted into the main royal residence late in the 16C. When Louis XIV made Versailles his main palace in 1782, the Louvre became largely a repository for the royal collection of artworks. This in turn was taken over as a public museum after the Revolution.

Its name perhaps derives from its origins as a wolf-hunting den (Latin ‘lupus’, wolf), according to Wikipedia, but this seems unlikely to me. OED cites a dance named in English from the French palace, but says the origin is obscure, and possibly derived from Latin and Icelandic terms for chimney.

Between the three towers on the palace’s outer wall are two bretèches (anglicised as ‘brattice’). These are small machicolated balconies. Machicolated? This means an opening between the projecting supports or corbels of a fortification’s wall through which missiles, boiling water or cooking oil, etc., could be dropped on to attackers beneath the walls. The word probably derives from OF ‘mâcher’, ‘crush’ + ‘col’, ‘neck’ (OED online).

On the terrace outside the palace walls can be seen people walking and chatting (presumably not peasants, and therefore they don’t have to labour in the fields). Several dogs prance and pose. At the bottom of riparian steps women appear to be doing their laundry in the water of the Seine, which flows in front of the palace. A boatman is embarking or arriving at a mooring.

It’s in the foreground that the main ‘labour of the month’ scene is depicted. A red-clad peasant whips on a horse pulling a harrow, weighted down with a rock to make the prongs dig deeper into the soil and thus bury the sown seeds. Nearer to us another lugubrious looking peasant sows seed by hand from a pouch. Behind him greedy crows and magpies gobble up what he’s sown.

The artist shows a nice eye for detail: we can see the footprints left in the freshly-turned earth by the sower.

The field behind has already been sown. It’s guarded by a scarecrow in the guise of a bowman, and a network of strings threaded with white feathers or rags.

Overhead there’s the usual solar chariot crossing the gorgeous blue of the arch of the starry heavens. There are the usual astrological and lunar cycle symbols around the outer arches.

Barbara Comyns, ‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’

Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.

Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

The Virago Modern Classics cover of my edition

Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.

In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:

At first, because I wasn’t used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute.

It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).

The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):

Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).

The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.

The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.

Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:

I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.

Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.

These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’

It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:

Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.

She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’

I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.