Comyns Core

Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence by Avril Horner. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press. 372 pages. $40.

The cover of Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence

AVRIL HORNER BEGINS A Savage Innocence, the first biography of the English novelist Barbara Comyns, with the story of her parents’ non-courtship. Once upon a time, a mustachioed man named Albert Bayley was visiting a cottage his parents rented out to a widow named Annie Fenn. Playing in the garden was Annie’s daughter Eva. Albert watched the ten-year-old girl skip around and before leaving informed Annie that once her daughter could cook, he would marry her. At the wedding, ten years later, Eva was already five months pregnant. According to Bayley family lore, Annie permitted the marriage because Albert offered to forgive her debt. Annie’s family, descended from hobnobbing horse breeders who claimed that a haunted Irish castle was their ancestral home, disapproved of the marriage because the groom and his relations were “in trade.” There was bad blood. Years later, when Annie had moved in with the Bayleys and their brood, her son-in-law tried to push her out a window. Granny was saved, as Horner notes, “only by the width of her hips.”

This origin story has all the makings of a Barbara Comyns novel: the importance of propositions, economic and otherwise, in women’s lives, and of property ownership in English society; dependence and dependents; and life as a series of moments in which one looks around and settles on whomever or whatever is nearby. Comyns’s stories are domestic tragicomedies, concerned with material circumstances as much as with the people living under them. Motherhood has a way of happening to her heroines whether they like it or not; Comyns was a product of not liking it. By the time her mother was the same age her father had been when he saw her skipping in the garden, she had delivered the last of her six children and gone deaf, in part due to her pregnancies. When Eva wanted to communicate with her children, she would use sign language. When she didn’t, she declared, “I won’t look at your hands. I hate you all.” She loved to paint and considered herself a thwarted bohemian.

Comyns was the fourth child, born in 1907. She grew up in shabby respectability at Bell Court, a fifteenth-century manor house on the Avon River that was always full of animals: dogs and cats, several birds, a monkey for Eva and a peacock for Albert. Also, if Comyns’s near-memoir Sisters by a River is to be believed, pet rabbits that the girls liked to “ride” until they were “squashed.” The five sisters were minimally educated and grew up feral in comparison to their milquetoast brother Dennis, who would become a manager at a manufacturer of protective paints for yachts. Governesses were always coming and going; young Barbara kicked one down a flight of stairs. She was “spirited,” Horner writes.

Comyns was eighteen when Albert died of a brain hemorrhage, forcing Eva and her daughters to live temporarily in a rented cottage. Eva just wanted the girls to marry, but Comyns thought “hard about how her main interests—painting, reading, keeping dogs, messing about on the river and observing people—could be put to good use.” She answered an ad seeking a kennel maid in Amsterdam. In A Touch of Mistletoe, the narrator Vicky Green does the same, and reflects, “It was better to be a stray dog than a stray human because they are not so noticeable.” Like Vicky, Comyns returned home with a septic finger and a story about a good Samaritan who had picked her up off the streets, penniless, and sent her back to England. The gentleman wrote to Eva: “That I met your dear daughter here seems to have been the Will of Providence. My intention was to take another street where I could impossibly have met her but I felt something which forced me to go to the left instead of going straight on.”

There is a similar sense of destiny in Horner’s patient account of Comyns’s life. She likes to describe Comyns as a “risk-taker” and “survivor,” and borrows a quote from her novel Mr. Fox for an epigraph: “In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.” Horner assures us straightaway that Comyns will eventually become “a successful author,” and proceeds with composure to summarize the horrors that will come first—an abortion, a suicide attempt, heartbreak and disillusionment, and years of poverty. When Comyns started writing in earnest in her mid-thirties, she craved recognition, which would come sporadically. Graham Greene championed her work when he was directing the fiction list at Eyre & Spottiswoode in the mid-1940s and long afterward, recommending her around as “a crazy but interesting novelist.” Her admirers were devoted, but much of her career was spent scrimping in Spain with her second husband, the former spy Richard Comyns Carr, while trying to replicate the success of her 1959 novel, The Vet’s Daughter, which was adapted for the radio and stage. She died in 1992 having happily witnessed a revival of her work when Virago reissued several novels in the ’80s. She was retroactively hailed as a predecessor to Angela Carter and a more wackily attuned Barbara than Ms. Pym. There have been bursts of posthumous appreciation every few years since 2000 as publishers like New York Review Books, Dorothy Project, and Daunt Books have reissued her novels.

Horner hopes to “help that revival” but doesn’t condescend to boosterism. In response to critics who “damned” Comyns’s novels with “faint praise” (the phrase appears three times), Horner writes diplomatically: “Dyed-in-the-wool realists never quite understood Barbara’s fiction. But many readers did.” Comyns is easy to root for anyway. She wrote her first book, Sisters by a River, before World War II to entertain her children, but it wasn’t published until 1947, when Comyns was forty, and only after the magazine Lilliput excerpted it under the heading “The Novel Nobody Will Publish.” Sisters established the childlike yet unsentimental perspective Comyns would become known for, complete with frequent misspellings (“distroy,” “terrable,” “toast and marmalaid”) and a seasoned narrator who pops in intermittently to say things like, “Now I am grown up myself.” The ten novels that followed over the next four decades are a mix of realist fiction and dark, fantastic tales that digest, reimagine, and dramatize events and characters from Comyns’s own life. Her fiction frequently looks backward to draw on the restless episodes of her twenties and thirties, years taken up with making do and getting by. As the novelist Jane Gardam once observed: “I find her movements as hard to track as those of her heroines and in some ways very like them: the adolescent marriages and escapes, the curious jobs, the poverty, the rescues, the bundled-up babies, the messy art school bohemianism, the fecklessness and the bravery.” Horner ventures that Comyns’s novels “are perhaps best regarded as ‘autofiction,’” and reaches for Serge Doubrovsky’s 1977 daisy-chained definition: “Autofiction is like a dream, a dream is not life, a book is not life.”

Barbara Comyns in her twenties. Photo: Yvonne of London. Courtesy of Julian Pemberton.
Barbara Comyns in her twenties. Photo: Yvonne of London. Courtesy of Julian Pemberton.

When Comyns was twenty-two, she moved to London with great expectations of becoming a sculptor. She attended the Heatherly School of Fine Art and lived with her favorite sister, Chloe, in a flat that Dickens, one of her favorite novelists, had once rented. The money the girls had inherited from their father didn’t last long. Scrappiness meant a coming-of-age: Comyns was soon working at an ad agency and writing stories and falling in love with an art student named John Pemberton, whom she had met as a child (“He had such sad, shining brown eyes”). They were married within months. John lived for his painting and Comyns loved him for that until she hated him for it. On her wedding day, she wore a tweed suit and brought along her pet newt in a damp hankie, as Sophia Fairclough does in Comyns’s autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. Before marrying, Comyns destroyed all her writing, which she had decided was “imitative and self-conscious.” Now, “she would focus entirely on art, like her husband,” Horner tells us. In Our Spoons, there is no mention of Sophia having anything to destroy.

Horner’s chapter on the early days of Comyns’s first marriage is called “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman,” but it’s more a portrait of a young woman who couldn’t become an artist because she had married one. The Pembertons had little money; John’s father had cut him off, and Comyns didn’t earn much. She had to settle on being “arty” and working as an artist’s model. John’s uncle Rupert Lee and his partner Diana Brinton ushered the younger couple into the London exhibiting scene, and Comyns discovered Surrealism. She still sculpted and painted occasionally, but the medium most readily available to her was daily life. She had prided herself on her unconventional sensibility since the early days in London when she and Chloe would make dresses out of cheap, colorful scraps. Now she painted her furniture sea green and tucked her hair behind her ears to show off “elaborate” earrings. And in the spirit of Surrealism, she paid close attention to her dreams. One day when she was pregnant with her first child, she fainted. When she came to, she was convinced that she had been visited by the Holy Ghost, who had, per Horner, “perched on a spectral mattress-like object” and told her that she would have a son, and that “he shall be called Diagram.” This idea scandalized Comyns’s in-laws, who already thought she had wrecked John’s bright future with her feminine wiles. Comyns changed her mind about the name before the baby was born, but that child, Julian, remembers his mother continuing to spite her husband’s family. At one point, she briefly became a Catholic, to the horror of her in-laws. But it was more flirtation than conversion: rather than bother with a prayer book, she would take a leather-bound, gilt-paged copy of Alice in Wonderland to Mass. Her marriage didn’t last either; after three years, both husband and wife were seeing other people.

Reading Comyns’s short, eventful novels, one learns to expect bad news anytime things are placid; either someone will die, become unexpectedly pregnant, fall out of love, or lose their job. Her characters seem to know it too: “Then another horror happened,” one reflects. It can seem like upper lips soften only to check that they can still stiffen. News comes as a matter of fact, ringing with understatement. (This is true even when things get supernatural. Here’s the narrator of The Vet’s Daughter realizing that she is levitating: “In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor.”) When it comes along in the novels, WWII is almost a relief—the Blitz is consistent with the worldview that the sky could fall at any time. Critic Sadie Stein addresses the almost extra-literary quality of Comyns’s prose in her introduction to the reissue of The Juniper Tree: “There is something deeply haphazard about her powers of attention. Holding her to normal standards of literary propriety can be a thankless exercise.” A character you just met might die by the end of the paragraph, but good luck also comes unexpectedly. In A Touch of Mistletoe, the sisters based on Barbara and Chloe are walking one day in Hampstead Heath. They have been living off oranges and crackers and need real food badly. “Fortitude!” Vicky Green keeps repeating to herself, barely able to keep it up. “Damn fortitude,” her sister says. “The only thing I want is roast beef with roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding.” Just then, two boys arrive in their father’s car and chat the girls up, asking them to lunch. “We felt as if we had rubbed a magic ring and a couple of genii had appeared.”

Comyns’s luck also oscillated dramatically. Horner calls her life “extraordinary,” but extra ordinary would do just as well: Comyns lived exuberantly on limited means. She wrote about mundane things in a high key. She wanted to be an artist but had to pay rent. That dodgy quip, “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” suits the way she lived: always moving flats and changing occupations (“commercial artist, keeper of chickens, dog breeder, antique dealer, piano restorer, imaginative house renovator, cook-housekeeper,” and even, eventually, “landlord”) frequently saved from ruin by people giving or lending her money at just the right time. It was usually Diana Brinton who came to the rescue, even though (and while) Comyns had an affair and a daughter, Caroline, with Diana’s husband Rupert. Diana was an “empathetic and complex” heiress who could never get a grip on her grudges. When she died, she left a grand house in Spain to Caroline.

During the war, Comyns found herself living with a redheaded man named Arthur Price who loved sports cars and was always coming up with surprisingly successful moneymaking schemes. Comyns helped Price, flipping pianos and breeding poodles, and started taking notes; she later based her character Mr. Fox on him. Her second husband, Richard, was an entirely different animal: a quietly distinguished man who couldn’t drive and carried around a “swizzle stick”—a device used to take the bubbles out of champagne, lest they cause him indigestion. They married in 1945, nine days after her divorce from Pemberton was finalized. On their honeymoon, Comyns started drafting The Vet’s Daughter, which would become her fourth novel. It was through Richard that Comyns first got in touch with Graham Greene and published Sisters. She could work on more than one book at a time and liked to revise her ideas in her sleep: if she dreamed about a novel in progress, it would “often result in altering whole chapters the following day.” In the late ’50s, when Richard was let go from MI6 because of his association with Soviet double agent Kim Philby, the couple moved to Ibiza, and later Barcelona, hoping their money would last longer in Spain, even as Richard persisted in wearing good English suits. He reported on Spanish news for London papers while Comyns wrote, interrupted periodically to type his sometimes “very long, dull grey articles.” The locals called Richard “Mr. Thin the Mystery Man.”

Horner delivers just the kind of details one would want from a biography of the woman who wrote of a newborn: “He even had eye-lashes; nothing had been forgotten.” Yet her telling lacks the alchemy of how the changes of address and changes of men and the horrors and the strokes of luck amount in Comyns’s novels to something more peculiar than the dailiness of their parts. This is not a count against the biographer but a coup for the novelist. When writing about Comyns’s fiction, one must note what Horner describes as “the disjunction between the potential tragedy” of the stories and the distant way she tells them: with a “jaunty frankness.” This mismatch is the means and mystery of her style, which can seem to hide nothing but reveal little, which sounds like a bad thing, but is more complicated than that. For Comyns, whether a heroine is naive or stoic depends on how her story ends. Comyns doesn’t linger along the way on how her narrators are buffeted by the lives she’s handed down to them; they grin, they bear it. “I was full of hope, as usual,” Sophia Fairclough says. Comyns builds character the way a childish guardian might want their charge to understand what it was like to walk to school uphill both ways in the snow. Still, there is often a sense that she is writing toward fears and trespasses her narrators remain unable to face, and in so doing must skirt above or below or around what is as yet unknown. Emily Gould has pointed out that when the daughter in The Vet’s Daughter starts levitating from bed, it comes after she is raped.

Comyns’s life is a study of making do, and her writing of doing more with less. Her chapters open and close with circumstance and no pomp: “Then the morning came and it was light”; “I never went there again.” Between the breaks and before the light, anything might arise. In the novels that manage to end happily, these endings are sudden: “This is the end of my book, but not the end of my story, which will go on until I die; but now we have come to such a happy part of my life there is very little to say about it.” The unanswerable question in these cases is always: Was it worth it? Is the happiness equal to the horrors? It feels right to leave off on a high note for Comyns, one unconcerned with the book sales or bulging savings accounts we know are coming for her in the actual end, not that she ever stopped worrying about money. (There’s more than one way to thwart a bohemian.) The year is 1968. Every morning over breakfast, Comyns told Richard her dreams. He would take out a notebook and transcribe them. One day, he presented them all to her in a folder. For a time and without even knowing it, Comyns had that rare thing, a male amanuensis.

Lizzy Harding is Bookforum’s associate editor.