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!