Barbara Comyns’ first published work, Sisters By a River, was a light fictionalisation of her chaotic gentry childhood in early twentieth-century Warwickshire. Later novels like Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Mr Fox reflect her insecure, bohemian life as a young married woman in London in the 1930s and 40s. But across all her fiction, her narrative voice remains distinctive. Her style is artless – though never quite as artless as it appears – and full of comic juxtapositions and non sequiturs. Her heroines rattle along in their posh, wide-eyed way, getting by – just about – in a world of worn linoleum and rings around the bath, hungry gas-meters and feckless husbands.
In The Vet’s Daughter, however, her vision darkens considerably: here, as in much women’s fiction and art, the grubby domestic detail becomes grotesque and actively menacing. Bullied by her odious veterinary father, child-like Alice leads a shadowy existence, eating ‘damp bread and jam in the kitchen’ with her creeping, whispering mother. When her mother dies, Alice’s life grows steadily grimmer and odder, and as a sort of hysterical reaction to her powerlessness she develops a surreal talent – the ability to levitate. In her naïveté, she is only mildly baffled by this: ‘Perhaps it was something that often happened to people but was never mentioned, like piles.’ To the more worldly, however, her talent renders her a freak. It frightens away the handsome young man with whom she has fallen in love; and it prompts her father to set her up as a money-making spectacle on Clapham Common – with horrifying results.
The Vet’s Daughter is an inverted fairy tale, with Alice as a luckless Cinderella. It’s also a small Gothic masterpiece – part, perhaps, of a distinctly female Gothic literary tradition, and certainly anticipating the work of another brilliantly idiosyncratic novelist with a taste for surreal south London settings, Angela Carter. I have read it many times, and with every re-read I marvel again at its many qualities – its darkness, its strangeness, its humour, its sadness, its startling images and twists of phrase. It deserves to be much better known than it is.
Barbara Comyns will be reissued in the Virago Modern Classics next year.
The 2011 Mslexia Writer's Diary contains a series of monthly inspirations from current Virago authors who each discuss a Virago Modern Classic.
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