There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within.
His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted, claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall round her like the petals from a dying flower. (p. 34)
The novel opens with a flood. Ducks are swimming through the drawing-room windows of the Willoweeds’ house, quacking their approval at this strange new experience. Dead peacocks are bobbing in the garden; a bevy of swans can be seen by the tennis court, ‘their long necks excavating under the dark, muddy water’; a passing pig squeals, its little legs frantically peddling away in the water. Comyns wastes little time in establishing the novel’s macabre tone – the air of tragedy is clearly detectable, right from the very start.
As the day went on the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below, leaving only the cocks alive. The sorrowful sitting hens, all broody, were in another dark, evil-smelling shed and they died too. They sat on their eggs in a black broody dream until they were covered in water. They squawked a little; but that was all. For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared. (p. 7)
Rather fittingly for a Comyns novel, The Willoweeds are an unconventional family, ruled over by a tyrannical grandmother whose views on others are typically harsh and uncompromising. She is permanently in a rage over something or other – often incidents involving her ineffectual son, Ebin, or the household maids, Eustice and Norah, whom she refers to rather cruelly as ‘insubordinate sluts’. Also living alongside Grandmother Willoweed and Ebin are the grandchildren, Emma, Dennis and Hattie. Ebin’s wife, Jenny, is no longer alive, having died giving birth to Hattie some ten years earlier, thereby leaving Emma – the eldest of the three children – in the role of surrogate mother.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the adults are strange and idiosyncratic, especially in their behaviour towards others. Much of the novel’s sly humour stems from Grandmother Willoweed, a woman who seems to delight in making Ebin’s life a misery with her stark outbursts and childish desire for attention. No longer working as a gossip columnist following a scandal at his newspaper, Ebin spends much of his time doing nothing or making half-hearted efforts at educating his children. In short, the atmosphere in the Willoweed household is far from ideal.
Mrs Willoweed, on the other hand, has a formidable reputation in the village, her strong standing bolstered by her ownership of various properties in the vicinity. While her tenants know that Mrs W must be allowed to triumph over all comers, other players at the whist drive may not be quite as understanding…
When all guests were seated and had begun playing, Emma slipped away. She remembered whist drives when her grandmother had failed to win the first prize and there had been piercing screams and roars of anger. This time the first prize consisted of several pots of pâté de fois gras, and she knew her grandmother was looking forward to eating them at night in bed. The tenant farmers’ wives were well trained; but some of the guests were not to be depended on. (p. 37)
The flood hails the beginning of a series of strange occurrences, all of which contribute to the novel’s rather surreal atmosphere. All of a sudden, the miller goes mad and drowns himself in the river; the local butcher starts bellowing like a bull before cutting his throat with a knife. The baker’s wife is next to succumb, running down the street in her torn and tattered nightdress, screaming while onlookers take shelter in their homes. A dog dies of convulsions; a man lies screaming in his bed, fearful of the monsters that seem to be devouring him. Several more cases of the illness are diagnosed. Where on earth will it all end? It’s difficult to tell…
Further investigation identifies the bakery as the likely source of the contamination. The baker’s assistant has been experimenting with a new recipe, a dark yet delicious form of rye bread that has proved popular in the village. Unsurprisingly, the villagers take their revenge on the unsuspecting perpetrator in a scene somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s darkest fiction. So much so that I’m beginning to wonder whether Who Was Changed… might be something of a missing link – the bridge between Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a classic novel featuring a charmingly eccentric family, and Shirley Jackson’s beguiling gothic masterpiece We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It’s an interesting thought…
Either way, there is something very endearing about this novel, in spite of its rather morbid storyline. The children are particularly captivating, surrounded as they are by all these strange occurrences and symbolism. Comyns’ use of imagery is particularly memorable in this one, from Grandmother Willoweed with her trusty ear trumpet and snake-like tongue to the old maids of Roary Court with their ravenous billy goat, eating its fill on the ivy.
The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. He had a mania for eating ivy, and, when he had finished all the ivy within his reach at Roary Court, the old ladies had put a stepladder at his disposal. It looked rather unusual to see this great black-and-white goat perched on a ladder, gorging away on the ivy that was wrapped all round their house. (pp. 34–35)
Sexual transgressions are also rife within the village, not least within the Willoweed family itself. With her woolly hair and dark-coloured skin, young Hattie was clearly born out of wedlock, although where Jenny Willoweed managed to find a black man in rural Warwickshire remains something of a mystery. (Rather refreshingly, Hattie’s skin colour never seems to be an issue; instead, it is accepted and rarely commented on, other than Ebin’s musings on the nature of Jenny’s lover.)
As this strange yet rather wonderful novel draws to a close, one can clearly see the significance of the title. It is hard not to view this story as an allegory for the ravages of war, an atrocity that would leave its mark in the years that were to follow. This is another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers, a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality.
Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.