Barbara Comyns (1907-1992)

On 6th July 2013, The Spectator carried an essay by the writer Jane Gardam on visiting the author of “The Vet’s Daughter”:

“When I met Barbara Comyns for tea that day in her cheerful house in Twickenham (the house on Twickenham Green is pictured above) the sun was pouring in through all its bright windows.”

I have before me a reprint of the novel, first published in 1959, with an Introduction by the author which she provided in 1980. It begins:

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi retired managing director of a Midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternatively spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time.”.

The date that Gardam introduced herself to Comyns is unknown, but something gave her the confidence to write:

“It seems reasonable to identify this setting (the Warwickshire countryside) as Barbara Comynss’ own, but the beastliness of the father and the cruelty of the impossible mother are less so, especially as Comyns’s own children do not remember their grandparents as anything of the sort.” – on which general subject, see “When Bad Parents Become Good Grandparents”, by Catherine Pearson writing for HuffPost US.

Gardam wonders if “The Vet’s Daughter” has somewhat faded from view “because the shock of the magical realism of its final chapter has been swamped by the tsunami of fantasy and magic…”.

The teenaged daughter Alice of the title leads a life in Edwardian Battersea of everyday misery. In Chapter 9, she is subjected to a violent sexual assault, and is given refuge overnight at a neighbour’s home, where she describes some form of out of body experience. (Rabeyron and Caussie have written on “Clinical aspects of out of body experiences: trauma, reflexivity and symbolisation”.)

In Chapter 13, Alice is sent to act as companion to an elderly widow. Exploring the house, she reaches the end of the hall:

“Beyond was the skeleton of a large glass less conservatory. It contained no flowers- just empty pots and dried looking grapevines that crawled over everything. There was another door leading into the garden.”.

Ursula Holden wrote in her obituary for Barbara Comyns:

“I first met her in 1980 when she lived in Richmond. I was struck by her wit and her lively interest in the arts and in young people, of whom she was never critical. “I like people to be happy,” she said. She loved gardening, and flowers always bloomed inside and around her home.”.

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