The Cold World of Barbara Comyns



When I come across a novelist whose works have been around for decades, books that might have been written with my particular tastes in mind, I feel at least as unsettled as happy. What if I had never discovered them? That possibility (and the certainty that there must be others) is what I call a glimpse into the void. The writer who most recently prompted this existential shudder is Barbara Comyns (1909–92), an Englishwoman who published eleven books between 1947 and 1989. Some are novels, some have the character of memoirs; one, at least, is no good, and all I have read are exceedingly odd.

Sisters by a River is Comyns’s earliest book, and though generous souls call it a novel, it is really a collection of fictionalized autobiographical sketches. It had been rejected by more than one publisher, eventually appearing as a serial in Lilliput magazine under the title, “The Novel Nobody Will Publish.” Someone finally did, though one certainly understands the reluctance. It is awful: cutely naïve beyond bearing and ornamented with misspellings, some apparently added by a fun-loving publisher. It is fortunate that I read this last of the six books I managed to lay my hands on; had I encountered it first, I would not — could not — have pressed on.

Happily, however, I began my immersion in Barbara Comyns with the recently published New York Review Books edition of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which includes an introduction by Emily Gould. The novel suffers from off-putting childlike mannerisms at the start but quickly shapes up into a curious hybrid: a mixture of domestic disaster, social commentary, comedy, and romance. Sophia Fairclough — whose story this is — and her husband, Charles, married young. They are both artists living in London in the 1930s: she working in a commercial studio for the pittance they live on, he painting away, his work unbesmirched by market considerations — or success. They live in a poverty that becomes near-destitution when Sophia loses her position after becoming pregnant and can only cobble together odd modeling jobs. She has the child as a charity case in a hospital, a chamber of horrors in which the feelings and even physical manifestations of patients are treated as breaches of the rules and routines. “I had begun to think it was a disgraceful and wicked thing to do — to have a baby,” reports Sophia — speaking here, as it happens, for Comyns herself. The whole grueling and humiliating experience, so brilliantly described, is, we learn in the introduction, based in every detail on Comyn’s own experience.

The baby, it turns out, is a good one: “I thought he was the best baby I had ever seen. I looked at his little fingers and toes and they all had perfect nails. He even had eye-lashes; nothing had been forgotten.” But life remains tough: There is no money and Charles, who does not care for babies, continues his rarified existence above material concerns; Sophia becomes pregnant again, with unhappy results, and then once again, this time by a lover who tries to cheer her up by pointing out that the baby might be born dead. More misfortune ensues before things take a turn for the better — not always the case when Comyns is dealing the cards — but I shall leave all that for you to investigate.

What I find so really excellent in this novel, in addition to Comyns’s powers of description and the slow fuse of her comedy, is her ability to show the cold world and its indecencies without spelling everything out. Some of the most reprehensible acts are simply placed on the page without comment, the pitiless obliviousness, selfishness, or tyranny of their perpetrators revealed but not defined. Some of this has to do with class, upon whose invisible strings British fiction so often plays. There is a particularly admirable scene in which Sophia, now separated from the unlovely Charles, is reduced to working as a live-in cook for the Redheads, a wealthy country family. She has caught the fancy of Rollo, one of their well-off friends, who asks her to dinner and comes to pick her up at the Redheads’. Sophia is called from her quarters by May, the unmarried daughter of the house who is looking “red and put out” and bewildered by what Rollo, now invited into the drawing room by Mr. Redhead, could possibly want with the help. Sophia continues:

When I put my nose round the door they were drinking sherry. Then Mr Redhead said, “Yes, Mrs Fairclough, what do you want?” So Rollo explained I was having dinner with him, but it took some time for Mr. Redhead to understand. Then he said, “Why go out to dinner? Stay here. I’m sure my daughter would be delighted to have you. She is lonely since Rose married.”

We do not have to be told, though we understand very well, that Sophia is not included in this invitation to dinner — that, in fact it is expected, without thought, that she will be cooking it.

Comyns is a virtuoso at portraying bad behavior, understated as above, and in more extravagant varieties as may be seen in The Vet’s Daughter, also reissued by NYRB Classics with an introduction by Kathryn Davis. It is a ruthless little number that reminds me, in its feral view of nice people and its dark sense of humor, a little of Saki, a little of Patrick Hamilton, and a little of earliest Hilary Mantel (Every Day Is Mother’s Day and Vacant Possession) – all writers who work in that particular icy-cold strain of British letters.

The daughter in question is Alice, a young woman whose father is a veterinarian in a shabby part of London, its dreariness wonderfully described. Cruelty could be said to be this man’s métier. He does business with a vivisectionist and shuns his wife, dying in agony, and replaces her with a floozy who takes over the house once the other woman is dead. Alice is sent on her way, taking up a position as companion to a loony old woman, one in a tribe of ghoulish old ladies who tenant Comyns’s work. At some point an element of magic realism enters the plot, which I shall not specify but isn’t as obnoxious (to me) as it usually is. We’ll leave it there, except to say that Comyns has had to slip on her executioner’s cap — always at the ready — to bring this black little bijou to an end.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has the distinction, not that it is a particularly rare one, of having been banned in Ireland in the mid-1950s. No one really knows why, though some sources claim the novel was said to “wallow in repulsiveness.” It begins in a little English village on a river that has just flooded, leaving dead animals floating everywhere. At its center is the Willoweed family, made up of a greedy, ill-tempered grandmother with an ear trumpet; her widower son, a selfish, lazy man; his two daughters; a dreamy little son; and a few servants. Soon after the flood, people begin to go mad and kill themselves, and the reader begins to feel that it’s best not to develop too much attachment to the more sympathetic characters.

The fact is, you never know what you’re going to run into in a Barbara Comyns novel, except you soon understand that defying expectations and handing you real shockers are among her frequent maneuvers. Take, for instance, her sixth novel, The Skin Chairs: Its disturbing title still doesn’t prepare you for the six chairs upholstered in human skin, five of them black, one white, harvested from the Boer War by a horrible old general. Like most of the novels I’ve read by Comyns, this one includes scenes of loneliness and cruelty, as well as a frightful old woman (naturally), people dying, and a to-hell-with-it approach to plot. Here she slaps on the balm of a happy ending, perhaps to ensure that her readers don’t go off and hang themselves instead of buying her next novel.

Comyns’s last published book, House of Dolls, is the story of a house of elderly prostitutes, or rather, as their landlady explains to a friend — who is amazed that she allows a bunch of “tarts” to practice their trade in her house — they’re “not exactly tarts . . . but they have gentlemen friends who pay them, you know. It’s not very nice, but they say they couldn’t manage the rent otherwise.” Matters do get out of hand — always a problem with a disorderly house — and the tension between respectability and unseemliness, between well-brought-up women down on their uppers and the survival instinct is both funny and poignant.

Except for Sisters by a River, I enjoyed these books immensely. I cannot call them great or say that they rank among Britain’s 100 best novels, but they are written beautifully, with dash and economy, and are truly unique in their eccentric black comedy, whether grotesque or ineffably subtle. They are, in sum, right down my alley.