The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns  

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels, perhaps most notably in Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). First published in 1989, The House of Dolls shares the same offbeat sensibility as Comyns’ earlier work, blending darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. As in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, there are several emotions on display here, ranging from optimism and hope to endurance and stoicism to despondency and poignancy. It’s a wonderfully funny book, one of my favourites by this supremely talented writer!

The novel is set in a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing-room. As Amy explains to her friend Doris…

‘…I thought it would make a nice sitting-room for my ladies; but you should see what they have done with it. It looks real wicked somehow, and they’ve added to the mirrors and there’s a sort of bar, all done up with bamboo, where they serve drinks, at a profit, of course; only, there’s always one who drinks behind the others’ backs and that causes trouble. It’s all very worrying; but there it is. There’s little I can do to alter things: they’re too strong for me, especially that Berti.’ (p. 5)

Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. The two women are forever arguing – mostly over petty jealousies, frequently fuelled by drink. Completing the quartet are Augustina (commonly known as the Señora), easily the most sensible of the group, and Ivy, a timid middle-aged woman who finds herself roped into her housemates’ enterprise, much to her discomfort.

Berti and Evelyn have a small number of clients and sometimes look for new ones in the local coffee bars and pubs. One of the things Comyns does so well here is to lace her descriptions of the ladies’ activities with a seam of mordant humour, giving the novel a slightly surreal or unhinged tone that really adds to its appeal.

Berti poured herself the first drink of the evening, an unusually small one. She was expecting a new client that evening, a middle-aged Greek she had met in the underground. He had just buried his wife, he said, and was feeling lonely. She felt nervous; he was so dark and his melancholy eyes were like dates. He told her his wife had died in the street. A street accident? Murdered? He did not say. (p. 66)

Meanwhile, Ivy – who hates her job in the haberdashery and wool shop – is longing for someone to take care of her. Preferably her boyfriend, Hugh – a respectable dentist from Putney – who knows nothing of the ladies’ prostitution racket. As soon as his divorce comes through, Hugh plans to marry Ivy and move to Canada to set up a new practice, much to his fiancée’s relief.

To be released from Mulberry Grove, Berti, Evelyn and the chiropodist and, above all, from the widower who came on Wednesdays. Never to see them again. No more women clamouring for knitting wool, no more listening to the manageress talking about her home knitting machine and her fallen arches. She would be thousands of miles away, married to her wonderful Hugh and her disagreeable past behind her. (p. 60)

While her tenants entertain their gentleman callers upstairs, Amy tries to shield her fourteen-year-old daughter, Hetty, from the debauchery of the lounge, turning up the radio to drown out any noise. It’s a difficult age for Hetty, who has little in common with the other girls at her school, preferring animals and comics to boyfriends and bands. In search of friendship and solace, Hetty skips school a couple of days a week, spending her time instead with a gentle, childlike man named Glover, making mosaics out of broken china and glass. Thankfully, there is nothing inappropriate or sexual about this relationship; rather, the pair work together peacefully in the garden of a derelict house, creating beautiful pictures from these shattered remnants – a lovely contrast to the unsavoury goings-on at Hetty’s home.

Comyns also adds a lovely storyline for Amy into the mix – a blossoming romance with a policeman named Harry, who enjoys gardening and DIY. When Harry first calls at the house, Amy is mistakenly convinced that he is spying on her, trying to gather evidence on the ‘brothel’ upstairs. In time though, Harry becomes a trusted friend and partner, helping Amy to stand firm against the ladies and their bawdy evening parties.

As the lounge collective begins to break up, with Ivy and the Señora leaving Kensington, Berti and Evelyn must find another place to live – especially as Amy intends to marry Harry. At first, the old ladies’ prospects look bleak. With their meagre allowances and little hope of continuing the usual services, Berti and Evelyn have barely any money to speak of – a situation not helped by their disastrous forays into the world of work. While Evelyn gets drunk during a babysitting assignment, Berti falls foul when she takes a job as a cook, lasting a couple of days in the face of a demanding employer. But then, just when the situation seems desperate, Berti’s luck turns, opening new opportunities for the two elderly dames.

The House of Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. Tonally and thematically, I’m reminded of some of Muriel Spark’s novels (Memento Mori, perhaps) and the early works of William Trevor. There’s something sad and unhinged about it, in the mould of Trevor’s The Boarding-House and The Love Department.

I’ll finish with a final quote that captures something of the novel’s tone and the nature of the two ladies, Berti and Evelyn. They have developed a new hobby – looking up funerals in the newspapers and gate-crashing the most promising ones, passing themselves off as distant relatives of the deceased. As their new landlady observes…

‘…They have an air of breeding; but there is something distinctly odd about them, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. […] They have charming voices. It’s just their oddness that makes me a little nervous. Oh, yes, and they’d been to a funeral at the cemetery and I heard the one with blue hair whisper to the other, “Handy for funerals, isn’t it?” Perhaps they’re body-snatchers.’ (p. 145)

The House of Dolls is published by Turnpike Books (another for #ReadIndies). My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy – and to Ali, who happened to gift me a copy at almost exactly the same time!

32 thoughts on “The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns  

  1. jenniferbeworr

    Jacqui, I continue to be grateful for your introducing me to works that I know I will enjoy in the course of time. All best for your week! Jenny

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is, although I don’t know how you’ll take to it, tbh. It has a similar vein of dark comedy to that found in William Trevor’s early novels, which might not be your thing…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Doesn’t it just! As you know, I love a novel featuring a boarding house, especially if it’s a bit seedy. A joy from start to finish, with some touches of sadness too.

      Reply
  2. fswolfe

    Just read this book! Came upon it fortuitously on the library shelf. Strange, funny, seamlessly written novel that has got me on a Comyns kick. So glad to see you turn your thoughtful, insightful mind to writing about her.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s marvellous! I’m so glad to hear that you enjoyed it, too! I think it’s underrated in the Comyns oeuvre, a darkly comic gem with some though-provoking issues at its heart. It’s lovely to see it back in print, for other readers to discover it too. :)

      Reply
  3. Jane

    Another author I need to add to my list, haberdashery, wool shop and tenants are words that spell a winner! I remember your review of Woolworths and thought that sounded wonderful too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They tick all the boxes on my dance card, too! A very appealing selection of elements to read about in a novel. I’ll be interested to hear how you get on with Comyns, as and when you try her. :)

      Reply
  4. Marcie McCauley

    Oh, yay!!! I had the idea that this one was something of a disappointment in the context of her work, to the point where I had stalled out with reading through her books because I didn’t want to end on a sour note. Now I will resume (well, sometime LOL) and will think of her final book happily.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, that’s kind of the impression I had formed before I read it. But now that I’ve experienced it for myself, I actually think it’s one of my favourites by BC. The two old ‘tarts’ (as they are referred to in the novel) are such fascinating characters – wickedly acidic on the surface, but much softer and more vulnerable underneath. It really is a joy to spend time with them!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    So glad you enjoyed this, I really hoped you would. It is funny and oddly charming, I thought. Comyns is such an original. I hadn’t expected much of this one, perhaps hearing somewhere that it was a lesser work, but I so enjoyed it. The characters of those 4 women are just brilliant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely marvellous! I have to say that it more than exceeded my expectations, to the point where I’m baffled that it had been out of print for so long. Thank goodness for Turnpike’s foresight in reissuing it, otherwise I might never been able to experience it for myself. As you say, it’s very funny and oddly charming with some serious social commentary at its heart. A fabulous book!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      An absolute treat! If you like Comyns’ style, then chances are you’ll enjoy this very much. It’s lovely to see it back in print, although I’m not sure how easy it would be to get hold of in the US?

      Reply
  6. gertloveday

    So far Who was Changed and Who Was Dead has been my favourite Barbara Comyns but this sounds fantastic. The idea of the old ladies entertaining gentlemen friends is wonderful. And she always has and undertone of social comment; they were obviously very hard up for this to be a option. Looking for it as we speak. I am clay in your hands..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Haha! Sorry to have added to your TBR yet again, but it’s such an interesting novel with some wonderful characters at its heart. I love that Comyns chooses to focus on a group of mature ladies here, especially as they’re so different to the genteel, well-behaved women we usually see in fiction. And you make a very interesting point about the undertone of social commentary always being a feature of her work – that’s so spot on!

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui and I must admit I was getting hints of Muriel Spark before you mentioned her – the setting and characters do seem reminiscent of her work, although also seem very familiar to Comyns’ writing (at least, the only one of hers which I’ve read, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead). I was slightly surprised about the period this was set in as I somehow connect Comyns with an earlier era so I shall have to check this one out! I like the idea that there are serious themes underlying, particularly that of older women and how they support themselves – sounds great! :D

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, there’s definitely a Sparkian / early William Trevor-ish feel to the characters and premise, particularly given the boarding house setting. It was BC’s final book, published when she was 82(!), hence the focus on ageing dames and their antics, I guess. All credit to Comyns for producing something so distinctly off-kilter at this late stage in her career!

      Reply
  8. Grier

    Another lovely review of an appealing book to add to my TBR pile! I read The Vet’s Daughter recently and have now read four of Comyns’ slim novels, and will definitely look for this one. (I hope this doesn’t post twice).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks Grier. I’m delighted to hear you like the sound of it! You know, I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite as much as I did – so, quite the surprise. Fingers crossed you’ll like it too!

      Reply
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