Discovering Barbara Comyns…

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

This is the first novel by Comyns that I’ve read. I chose The Vet’s Daughter as one of two ideal starting points recommended by Simon, (the other was Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead).  I can say that it won’t be the last novel by her that I’ll read – well, I did buy a set of three and thus have Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Sisters by a River already waiting.  I had no idea what to expect really, despite seeing a lot of love for this novel around the blogosphere …

The story is told by Alice, the daughter of a vet (obviously, I know). It is set in Edwardian times, and she lives with her parents in South London. The household is ruled with a rod of iron by her father.  Alice and her mother are not abused but are treated as mere drudges for the most part, and her father has little to do with either of them, taking all his meals in the front room surgery.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time.

One thing it appears that Alice’s father can’t cope with is death. People bring animals to him to be put down – he sells them on to a vivisectionist. When Alice’s mother becomes ill, he can’t cope with that either and avoids them even more, disappearing up to the pub, or out with a lady friend. When Alice’s mother dies, she is soon replaced by Rosa, a bawdy bar-maid who treats Alice badly. Poor Alice is confused and lonely, and has to get away. She is friendly with a locum vet, Henry Peebles, indeed she has the beginnings of a romantic infatuation with him. When he suggests she becomes a companion for his frail mother in Hampshire, she jumps at the chance, but Henry’s mother is mad and abused by the housekeeper. Alice’s confusion gets worse, and she discovers that she can channel this into psychic energy by levitating. I’m not giving this away as the clue is on the front cover of this edition of the book.

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground. …
I don’t know how long I remained in the air like that; I should imagine about seven minutes. Then I can remember a feeling of great exhaustion stealing over me, and a longing for my bed. I willed myself down to it and it happened quite gently: one moment there was nothing beneath me but air, and then I felt my still warm mattress. I lay there almost fainting with tiredness before I could creep out and collect the blankets. Then a deep and dreamless sleep enveloped me.

Henry will turn out not to be ‘the one’, and Alice ends up back in Lambeth with her father, and increasingly troubled…

Given that this novel was first published in 1959, I somehow expected the levitation to be a dream but it was all quite real with Alice channelling her hurt and anger into a meditative state.  Back in the late 19th century, the Victorians thrilled in the supernatural; Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists believed it could be explained by the earth’s magnetic field.  Fake mediums got big business from their elaborate ruses at séances.  Additionally, there have always been accounts of supernatural levitation through the centuries – sometimes seen as a transcendental state, other times caused by demonic posession – Alice’s being the former.

There is the nightmare quality of Alice’s life too. This is a very dark novel, owing much to the 19th century’s Gothic and sensation novels, a domestic story full of high drama. I did struggle to understand Alice’s father a bit. He is never physically abusive to her, but she is neglected, treated like an animal and never shown any signs of love until it is too late. Mind you, there’s not much evidence in the book that he’s much of a vet either, let alone being a nasty father.  We must remember that Alice is a young girl though, and it is her version of events that we are reading. That’s not to say it is wrong, but there is a certain naivety in parts and ironically given its darkness, moments of humour too.

The VMC edition has a foreword by Jane Gardam, as well as the author’s introduction which were both fascinating.  I shall definitely be reading more novels by Comyns – another great discovery thanks to the blogosphere. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Vet’s Daughter: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC) by Barbara Comyns, VMC paperback.

13 thoughts on “Discovering Barbara Comyns…

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Lovely review Annabel. I have only read “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” (thanks to Simon’s recommendations) but I too have the VMC 3 book set. Her work seems to be strange and dark yet somehow compelling and memorable. I think maybe best to approach not expecting anything but knowing that anything is possible!

  2. Jenny @ Reading the End says:

    Gosh, this isn’t at all what I thought Barbara Comyn wrote. When I got to the part about levitating, I first thought you were teasing us! :p I thought she was sort of along the Barbara Pym lines, but it sounds like she’s much darker and stranger.

  3. Col says:

    Really enjoyed the review. Have read good things about Comyns elsewhere but have always ended up feeling that while the blogosphere is great for getting me to step out of my comfort zone, Comyns might be a step too far for me!

  4. Alice says:

    I’m excited to see a Barbara Comyns post, I recently heard about her at the Daunt Books Festival and have been dying to read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths since.

    She sounds like a fascinating author, I’ll have to make sure I read this book too.

  5. heavenali says:

    Oh you make this sound great. On a book buying spree recently I spotted a couple of Comyns and didn’t buy them as I am not sure if she Isn’t rather odd, the only one of her books I have read is Our Spoons Came from Woolworths which I did quite like.

  6. Simon T (Stuck-in-a-Book) says:

    I’m so glad you liked Comyns, Annabel! She is such a strange and wonderful author – and this is perhaps one of her stranger books! I think you’d like Mr Fox a lot too. But, as Jenny suspects, she’s a world away from Barbara Pym.

  7. Melwyk says:

    I just read this as well, and had no indication of the plot when I began…the levitation did surprise me as well. I thought this was quite interesting, though odd…my first Comyns!

  8. drharrietd says:

    I adore Comyns (thanks to Simon, I’m sure) and this is my favourite of her novels. But they are all great. So glad it worked for you!

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