Barbara Comyns’s strange little book The Vet’s Daughter (1959) is narrated by Alice Rowlands, a seventeen-year-old girl who temporarily escapes the desperate circumstances of her home life when she takes a position as companion to an old woman, the mother of one her father’s colleagues. This woman, a Mrs. Peebles, is so sunk into depression or anxiety or ennui or something that she earns Alice’s description of her as “so sadly vague and harmless.”
Mrs. Peebles has survived a house fire, the death of her husband, and even a suicide attempt. A man delivering bread to the house discovered her “limply hanging in the green barn among the apples, and he had the presence of mind to cut her down with a pair of sheers and untie the dreadful rope around her neck.” This passage puts me in mind of the suicide Mr. Valpy, whose death in Virginia Woolf’s autobiographical fragment “A Sketch of the Past” gets fused in the mind of the young Virginia with the image of an apple tree in the garden. More pertinently, it offers a fine sense of Comyns’s calm way with horrible things. Some of that measured quality attaches to the narrator too, though equally characteristic is the gallows sprightliness evident in the sentence that comes right after the description of that macabre discovery: “Sometimes, when I looked at her there appeared to be a sinister brown stain round her neck, and I couldn’t help wondering if her eyes had always been so prominent.” This is funny, but not arch or knowing; mostly it’s discomfiting. Alice’s sentiments here seem almost naïve, but she is neither guileless nor foolish, even though she is almost always at the mercy of others.
Of all the unsettling, even startling things that happen to Alice in The Vet’s Daughter, why is it that the detail I remember most is so benign? Alice’s time with Mrs. Peebles comes to an abrupt end when the old woman—distraught that the couple who have kept house for her, a nasty pair straight out of a Roald Dahl story, have absconded with the silverware—is found drowned, presumably having finally succeeded in killing herself.
A kind policeman questions Alice and, as she has nowhere else to go, takes her in for the night. His house—unlike all the other filthy, dilapidated houses in the book—is “red-bricked and very clean.” (I picture it like the policeman’s house in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, all bachelor ship-shape.) And there’s an unexpected grace note: “Homing pigeons that had failed to return were in a box beside the fire, waiting to be claimed.”
Maybe the reason this image stays with me so strongly is that it’s one of the few homey, domestic, and even hopeful moments in the book. True, these birds are failures, homing pigeons that never made it home. In their dispossession they are rather like Alice. But they seem to have ended up well. Imprisoned, perhaps, or packaged at least, yes, but well looked after, all cozy beside the fire. And surely someone will want them: they are waiting to be claimed, after all. It’s unclear anyone wants Alice, for anything other than abusive or mercenary reasons, except perhaps Mrs. Peebles’s son Henry, Alice’s father’s colleague, the man who arranged for her to look after his mother and who cares a great deal for her even though she can’t bring herself to return the feeling. (In the end, he proves unable or unwilling to save Alice.) The pigeons in their box remind us of so many unhappy animals in the book, especially those in Alice’s father’s care—a term we can only use ironically, since he sells the ones he doesn’t like to a vivisectionist. That’s to say nothing of the ones he has used to furnish his house: a rug from a Great Dane’s skin, a monkey’s skull that sits on the mantelpiece, “a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it” to prop open the door to his study. The house is full of piteous and frantic mewling and screeching and barking—as well as, before long, the tortured cries of Alice’s mother, who dies from a painful, undiagnosed illness.
Whatever their fate, then, the pigeons don’t suffer as these other animals do. Maybe I held on to the image’s intimation of a happier future—the moment someone finally claims the birds—as a corrective to my uneasy suspicion that Alice has had something to do with Mrs. Peeples’s death. And I don’t just mean that in the childish sense of the omnipotence of thoughts: Mrs. Peeples disappears on an afternoon when Alice has fled the house, unable to take the woman’s presence any more (“She became repulsive to me, like some old brown flower”) and the girl feels guilty for having felt that way. I mean it more literally: in the possibility that Alice has done her companion in.
That suspicion might be a way to understand the strange paragraphs—suddenly and unusually narrated in present tense—that describe Alice’s search for Mrs. Peeples. Here’s the first one:
Clank, clank my feet on the stairs; clank, clank on the landing. All the doors are open. One of Mrs. Peeples’s black shoes is caught in the ironwork and abandoned. Through the open doors are rooms with open windows, and it is like a zoo with the animals let loose and escaped. No one is there. “Mrs. Peeples, where are you?” Where are you? Not upstairs or below, or in the garden where you never went. Where are you? For a long time I look for her, even in the green shed, but she isn’t there hanging from the roof with the rope cutting into her brown neck.
The garden where you never went. It’s as if Alice knows she is already dead. The odd syntax of the final sentence, which paints the picture of the death it claims to disavow, doesn’t make the scene any less creepy. And why is Alice saying to herself (“Where are you?”) what she has already said out loud? In the end, I don’t think Alice has really killed Mrs. Peeples. Instead it’s as though she’s in a fugue state here, which is a pretty good description of the whole atmosphere of this strange little novel.
So who is this Barbara Comyns and where did she come from? The US edition includes a short introduction by Comyns, reprinted from a British reprint from the 1980s. (It is the fate of writers like Comyns always to be reprinted, always to be rediscovered.) Comyns gives us a rather helter-skelter autobiography. We learn of a violent father who went through the family fortune, an invalid mother who suddenly, unaccountably went deaf, a series of unlikely governesses. Her childhood seems to have been both privileged and hardscrabble. Later came art school and two marriages and a whole series of odd jobs, in advertising and in real estate, as an artist’s model and a refurbisher of cars. Throughout she kept writing, though with only middling success, it seems.
It’s heartening anyone published her at all, so odd is her prose (at least based on this book). I remember once in graduate school, having recently discovered Henry Green, another unusual English writer of the mid twentieth century, telling one of my advisors that I wanted to include him in my dissertation. She was generally speaking encouraging of my project (as well as unusually well read for an academic). But talking with her made me nervous and prone to prattle on. I remember saying to her, rather grandiosely, that Green wasn’t like anyone else, it was as if he’d dropped to earth from the moon, to which she tartly responded that no one dropped from the moon, that he wasn’t so unusual as all that, that he had his context like anyone else. I think now that this is true. And reading Comyns I was reminded of a number of other wonderful, more or less minor British writers from about the same time.
There’s something of Jean Rhys in Comyns’s portrayal of the hopelessness felt by young women (though Alice, and perhaps even her deaf friend Lucy, who flits intriguingly along the margins of the novel, is more resourceful than Rhys’s protagonists). I caught echoes of Richard Hughes’s hallucinatory portrayal of childhood in A High Wind in Jamaica (1929) and of Rebecca West’s matter-of-fact inclusion of supernatural elements in her amazing The Fountain Overflows (1957). (It’s probably no accident that these last two titles, like The Vet’s Daughter, are published by NYRB Classics.) Sometimes Comyns reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald, in the obliquity of both her narrative structure and her own biography. (Fitzgerald kept herself and her family afloat by taking all sorts of odd jobs, too.) I even caught an anticipatory hint of early Ian McEwan—The Vet’s Daughter is like a less macabre Cement Garden (1978). And those are just the writers I know: I’ve a hunch, that Comyns might be like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Muriel Spark, though I haven’t actually read them yet.
So Comyns might not be sui generis. But I don’t think I was entirely wrong in thinking (wishing?) that Henry Green, or Barbara Comyns, or any similar writer, the ones that slink through the supposedly dull and genteel world of twentieth century British fiction like feral cats, is an alien, weird figure. However romantic or idealized, that way of thinking might keep us alive to the wonder of such writers. And in literary historical terms it can help us see that realism only ostensibly triumphed in the fiction of the period. In reality, a perverse, fantastic, Gothic strain runs throughout it. I’m thinking, in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, of writers as seemingly different as Elizabeth Bowen, Doris Lessing, and Daphne du Maurier. (Importantly, I suspect, the weirdness that disrupts these novels almost always manifests itself in depictions of children.)
In The Vet’s Daughter the clearest example of this strangeness—the oddest, most unsettling thing in this odd, unsettling book—is Alice’s sudden ability to levitate, or, as she prefers to call it, to float. One night Alice finds herself rising out of her bed and she knows she isn’t dreaming because she hits her head on a sconce that is still cracked in the morning. She is as surprised by this turn of events as we are. But the novel takes it in stride. It quickly becomes clear that we aren’t to take the floating as a hallucination on her part or a metaphor on the novel’s (her way of rising above the unhappy events of her life, say). Alice’s ability is both ordinary (when she cautiously asks Mrs. Peeples if she has ever heard of anything like it the woman says she believes it used to be quite common) and extraordinary (it fills everyone who sees it with horror, even disgust). I like that the novel doesn’t try to explain it away, or use it as a way to redeem or transform Alice’s mostly grim and unhappy life. Indeed, it’s not long before someone—her father, the very man who hatefully said he hoped he would never see her again—tries to profit from Alice’s ability. He arranges a public demonstration, doubtless the first step on a tour that, Alice sees all too clearly, will make her into a freak show exhibit.
In a marvelously ambivalent ending, though, these plans are foiled. Alice’s appearance in the air above Clapham Common causes a riot in which three people, including Alice herself, are killed. The first person narration comes abruptly to an end, her fate given to us through a newspaper report. The bitter irony of the book’s end fits with its way of ruthlessly undermining anything nice or good that happens to Alice: a boy she falls for, who teaches her to skate, throws her over; Henry, Mrs. Peebles’s kind son, doesn’t come when she calls him in her hour of greatest need.
Perhaps surprisingly, given what I’ve said, The Vet’s Daughter isn’t unrelievedly bleak, but it’s hardly easy going. You can see why I needed to hold on to those pigeons, and to think of them as rescued. But the book whetted my interest in Comyns’s other books, even though I’ll need to take a deep breath first.
Writing about this book made me like it more. (Always a good sign.) I read it along with the good folks at Slaves of Golconda. I’m curious to see what they made of it, and hope you will too.