It must seem a little silly, but I’ve counted Barbara Comyns amongst my favourite writers since I read 3/4 of her Sisters by a River several summers ago. Since then, I’ve steadily collected her works, but I’ve never finished that initial read and never pulled another one of her books off the shelves.
But surely you know how it is, the feeling you have immediately and completely connected with a storyteller, that something has burst into being between the two of you, reader and writer?
So when Claire mentioned that she was reading The Vet’s Daughter, as a read-a-long with Stuck in a Book and Novel Insights, it seemed the perfect reason to take hold and make some time for Barbara Comyns. (Many thanks for the encouragement!)
Admittedly, alongside my enthusiasm, I was also a little nervous. What if I had jumped the proverbial gun and added her to my MRE list on a reading whim. (This could throw the seemingly solid status of all of my MRE authors into chaos: imagine the soul-searching!)
What if, setting aside my impressive but incomplete reaction to Sisters by a River, my first serious start-to-finish read of Barbara Comyns’ work had me considering the policy whereby an author is removed from my MRE pages.
Fortunately, my reading of The Vet’s Daughter only reinforces my initial sense that Barbara Comyns’ books must be read. Well, must be read by me — and clearly she has lots of other fans too, like Claire and Simon and Polly above — although I can see where the element of the Bizarre would give pause to many readers. On my MRE list, she falls between Anita Brookner and Margaret Drabble, but I can imagine that most readers of these two writers’ works would be a bit thrown by Barbara Comyns’ intensity.
When I think of the kinds of books that Virago has reprinted, I tend to think, first, of stories like Margaret Oliphant’s and Charlotte Young’s, like E.M. Delafield’s and Molly Keane’s, and then of Elizabeth Taylor’s and Rosamund Lehmann’s; I only think of tales like Angela Carter’s Shadow Dance and Barbara Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter afterwards, partly because they are more modern (publication-wise) and partly because they’re, er, a bit kooky.
Judging from the title alone, you might think The Vet’s Daughter is gentle Herriot-ish tale of lambs and calves, but a reader who seeks a story of care and comfort will be very disappointed; the story of Alice’s life is a disconsolate one, an existence punctuated by abuses and threats.
The story is soaked in solitariness but whereas with an Anita Brookner, that sometimes takes the form of a quiet meal with hot, buttered toast and tea, soft music playing in the background for companionship, a peaceful kind of loneliness, The Vet’s Daughter is a fingers-across-the-proverbial-chalkboard tale of relentless isolation and torment.
I say ‘relentless’ because Alice is constantly worrying, always forced to return to a sad and unfilling life, consistently anxious about upsetting a fragile balance, always trying to please people who have an untoward degree of power that they exercise over her (whether her father, an abusive housekeeper or an exploitative acquaintance).
Sometimes she recounts horrifying events, which punctuate her sorrowful state. Sometimes she describes a pervasive sadness. Maybe she has rescued an imperilled wood lice and is struck by the sight of a dried leaf tossed on a wintry wind, uncomfortably sharp, whipping down a still street: “It’s minutes like this that seem to last so long.”
Nonetheless, Alice does have moments of happiness that exist alongside this troubled state. There are glimpses, moments of pleasure, whether shared with her young friend Lucy, or a sense of alliance with Mrs. Churchill, the housekeeper, who tries to ease Alice’s situation as much as she can, even joking about Mr. Rowland’s dictatorial nature — “We mustn’t let old Moustaches know you’re going all ragged underneath or he’ll make us return that fine coat. Silly old fool! A nice coat’s more important to a girl than woollen knickers, any day” — to give Alice a sense of partisanship.
And there is The Other Thing, about which I’ll say nothing. It’s the Bizarre Bit, the bit that makes this story a little harder to recommend. Well, in and of itself, it might not have been so bizarre but even it comes to be twisted in the grip of exploitative individuals who have only their own selfish needs in mind. So what might be been a little unsettling becomes something else entirely.
And perhaps, given Alice’s environment, it can be no surprise that her life holds no true comfort. As such, the story itself contains many images of destruction and devastation. They are parcelled out tidily, not dwelt upon, but they are disconcerting all the same.
What of the poor parrot? “He had never been the same since he had lived in the lavatory, and now he had started pulling out his own feathers and bald patches had come, revealing pale and scaly skin.” (This is, technically, my second Reading Parrot of this Reading Year.)
And what of the house? “There were two doors to this kitchen, and later I learnt the other two led to two terrible rooms that were completely black and burnt. The remains of charred furniture still stood in them forlornly against the blackened walls. There was a twisted frame of an iron bedstead like some tortured skeleton, and at the glass-less windows the ragged remains of brittle black curtains crumbled.”
But, most of all, of course, what of Alice? That is the heart of a reader’s connection with The Vet’s Daughter — and Alice suffers so, which makes the reader’s connection an uncomfortable one, as witness to her anguish — but I think the stronger connection, for me, is that with Barbara Comyns’ writing. It’s an unsettling tale told unflinchingly. And it certainly cements her niche on my MRE list.
How about you: have you read Barbara Comyns, or have you thought about reading her? Have you read about any parrots lately?