Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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.  

34 thoughts on “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Comyns was much darker than some of her contemporaries, not quite the genteel English world personified by the likes of Barbara Pym. I couldn’t help but think of Shirley Jackson as I was reading this, so I’ll be interested to see how you find it as part of your subscription!

      Reply
  1. jenniferbeworr

    Wow, a particularly gripping review. So interesting about its being macabre and coming out of what the war left in its ravages as far as the psyche goes. Brava, X

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! Maybe that’s too literal a reading of it on my part, but given the story is set in 1911, it’s hard not to see the horrors in that context…

      Reply
  2. Simon T

    My favourite of her books! And a lovely review – I can definitely see the I Capture the Castle / We Have Always Lived in the Castle links. I already have two copies of this, but the new Daunt Books edition is so beautiful that it is tempting to get another…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s my favourite too, although I’ve yet to read The Vet’s Daughter, which I know many others consider to be her best. (I’ve had a couple of false starts with that novel, but that might have been down to poor timing on my part – it’s hard to tell.)

      I think you should treat yourself to a copy of the Daunt edition, not least because it’s so beautifully produced! (I also have an old green Virago copy of this, but I’m thrilled that Daunt have reissued it as so many more readers will likely ‘discover’ Comyns as a result!)

      Reply
  3. gertloveday

    I have only read one book by Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter. It had what seems to be her characteristic of humour and heartbreak with a dark edge. From your account this sounds book absolutely brilliant and even wilder. A must read for me.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I need to go back to The Vet’s Daughter as it’s the one Comyns I’ve stumbled over in the past. That blend of off-kilter humour, heartbreak and darkness you’ve described in your comment is absolutely spot on. She has a very peculiar view of the world, quite childlike in some respects – and yet the horrors she unearths with that trademark matter-of-fact delivery can be very unsettling. I think you’d like this a lot.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Lovely! I hope you enjoy it. Some of her books and fallen out of print until fairly recently, so it’s great to see her enjoying a bit of a revival.

          Reply
          1. gertloveday

            I wish someone would do a biography of her. She had a very interesting life, lived with a black-marketeer, sold antiques , bred poodles, renovated pianos among other things. Interested Jacqui?

            Reply
  4. Radz Pandit

    Sounds marvellous Jacqui! There’s always something odd about Comyns’ world that is so fascinating. I plan to read a Comyns novel this month, but can’t decide between this one and Mr. Fox.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Two excellent books. It’s lovely to see Comyns enjoying something of a revival what with the Daunt reissues and the two from Turnpike.

      Reply
  5. Jane

    I haven’t read anything by Barbara Comyns, but do like the sound of an odd world. In this strange year I’ve found that there’s a lot of comfort in strange eccentricities!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I suspect many of us have found comfort in strange habits and eccentricities over the past year when so much of what we had previously considered to be ‘normal’ was limited or inaccessible. I think you’d like Barbara Comyns, Jane; she’s well worth considering.

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    Oh dear, I think I’d struggle to get past that beginning with all the dead animals, but because it’s Comyns I’d plough on. The missing link between I Capture the Castle and We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a tempting proposition too – I adore both those novels!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is a rather unsettling opening, but not quite as disturbing as the one in The Vet’s Daughter, which I’ve struggled with in the past. Oddly enough, that’s the only Comyns I haven’t been able to read so far, mostly because the descriptions of cruelty were just too much for me at the time. Maybe I would feel differently now, returning to it with a better understanding of this writer’s world?

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    I love this book, that macabre tone and the eccentric family are just classic Comyns. It’s definitely one of my top three. That Daunt books edition is absolutely stunning.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, definitely my favourite so far. As you say, it’s classic Comyns, complete with all her signature elements. A truly wonderful read!

      Reply
  8. Liz Dexter

    Oh she was so dark, I think I’d better give my collection away as I don’t think I can face them any more. Yet I read them all with gusto when younger!!

    Reply
  9. buriedinprint

    I love the idea of your bridge comparison…but it does seem to beg for mention of a Castle in the middle title! BC is one of my official must-read-everything authors and I find her so strange and inspiring…what a mind.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – it’s funny that the other two books feature castles, the bastion of the English upper classes, even though the Jackson is set in America. Like you, I think I would put Comyns in my ‘read everything’ category were it not for the fact that two of her novels are notoriously hard to find!

      Reply
  10. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I loved reading your review, Jacqui, because you remind me of my read of this which was my first encounter with Comyns (and possibly my only one so far). It’s so wonderful dark and strange, and I don’t think I had expected that – but once you read that opening, you’re most definitely hooked! And what a beautiful new edition!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, how lovely! That opening is unforgettable, isn’t it? The image of the ducks swimming through the living-room windows, quacking away at the novelty of the experience. What on oddly compelling world BC creates here – and yet, for all it’s strangeness, there is something very recognisable about it. A truly imaginative writer with a distinctive outlook on life!

      Reply
  11. Julé Cunningham

    Such an interesting write-up and take on the book! I can see I’m definitely going to have to add a bit of Barbara Comyns to my life. I want to know how those children cope with the adults in their lives for one thing…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I find Comyns’ children endlessly fascinating; they are so perceptive and wise beyond their years. A little like the children in Penelope Fitzgerald’s novels, albeit with a slightly more disturbing edge…

      Reply
  12. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  13. Pingback: Barbara Comyns – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead | Gert Loveday's Fun with Books

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