The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter was first published in 1959 but I read a Virago reprint. It’s the third book that I’ve read by Comyns and I think that it is the one that I’ve liked least, although it seems to have been seen as something of a wonder when it first came out. It was apparently received with excitement, widely reviewed, praised by Graham Greene, reprinted, made into a play, serialised by the BBC and adapted as a musical.

It didn’t really appeal to me because I found it to be too dark and quite depressing. The story is told by Alice, the vet’s daughter, she lives with her parents in a poor part of London and her father is abusive, especially towards his wife. It’s a bit of a puzzle as to why he’s a vet as he has no love for animals, the vivisectionist arrives weekly to collect the unwanted puppies! Alice is just a drudge, having to clean out all the animal cages and run the house. Things just get worse as Alice’s mother suffers a lingering death, getting no sympathy from her husband.

He wastes no time in moving the local barmaid/tart into the house when his wife dies and so begins another round of misery for Alice as she has to clean up after the tart and her father’s moods are no better, he’s still a raging drunk who enjoys beating up his daughter.

There’s a brief respite for Alice when she moves away to the countryside to be a companion to an old lady, the mother of her father’s assistant. But that ends in tragedy too. Comyns has a thing about floating, I seem to remember that in Sisters by a River there was one of them who often seemed to float upstairs, or so she thought anyway. Something similar happens in this book too, but it has dire consequences. I found it to be an odd book. It happens to have been ‘born’ the same year that I was born and back then it may have been seen as quite fantastical which might account for it being so well received, but for me it just seemed a bit of a downer.

I read this one for the Classics Club Women’s Classic Literature Event 2016

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

sisters by a river

I’m still catching up with writing about some 2015 books, this one was the last book I read last year.

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1947 but I read a Virago reprint. If you’ve read about the Mitford sisters and their upbringing then this one will seem very familiar to you. But that is no bad thing, it’s just very autobiographical apparently and Comyns and the Mitfords had a lot of things in common, such as lots of sisters, a large property but lack of cash and parents who were nutty or I suppose I should say eccentric given the class structure. It’s definitely another case of – if that family had been poor and working class then they would have been taken into care. Having said that, I really enjoyed this book.

The tale is told by one of five sisters, her spelling is less than perfect which is a wee bit annoying at the beginning, but I got used to it. One child is not mentioned beyond the fact that they would hate to appear in the book, so they don’t, presumably that one was a boy. The setting is the banks of the River Avon and a large house called Bell Court which eventually contains five sisters.

After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies any more. …

Mammy had always looked and been rather vague, she had a kind of gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps, now she grew vaguer still and talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentances half finished or with a wave of her hand she would add an ‘and so forth’. She was taken to several specialists but they could do nothing, one good thing being deaf stopped her having more babies, she was only twenty seven and might have had masses more, somehow being deaf put a stop to them.

Every cloud has a silver lining I suppose!

This is a witty and amusing read, although towards the end it takes a more tragic turn.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns was first published in 1950 and it’s very much autobiographical. The setting is 1930s London which has always been a grim place if you don’t have money.

The tale is told by Sophia who is about to get married to a young artist called Charles who is fairly feckless. His whole family seems to be against the marriage, apart from his father who is happy to go against his ex-wife’s feelings any time he’s given the chance.

Sophia is very immature for a 21 year old and Charles is completely self obsessed meaning that Sophia has all the worry of finding money for them to live on, but she is a really likeable character and the wonder is that she managed to put up with her husband for as long as she did.

What is it they say? – when poverty comes in the door love flies out the window – something like that anyway, and when you don’t even have money for milk or baby clothes then the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

In some ways this is a sad read with Sophia pushed to the limit with a husband who isn’t even interested in his child but on the other hand Sophia manages to be so stoical in awful circumstances and being quite matter of fact in the face of tragedy, she has a knack of getting on with all sorts of people, in the end I was really happy that she fell on her feet.

Maggie O’Farrell comments on the back page: I defy anyone to read the opening pages and not be drawn in, as I was… Sophia is a heroine in every sense – and one you will never forget.’