Barbara Comyns continues to be a source of endless fascination for me, a distinctly English writer with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, off-kilter feel to them, blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of day-to-day life. There’s often a sadness too, a sense of melancholy or loneliness running through the texts.
First published in 1959, The Vet’s Daughter is the sixth Comyns I’ve read, and after a couple of false starts it may well turn out to be my favourite. This Virago edition (kindly sent to me by Liz) contains an introduction by the author herself, a sort of potted history of her life up to the time of the novel’s release. There are hints of an eccentric home life in the Comyns household: a fiery, unpredictable father, an invalid mother with a pet monkey; a succession of governesses with few qualifications; and little mixing between the family and the outside world. It’s a background that seems to feed directly into The Vet’s Daughter, a striking coming-of-age novel with a distinctive narrative voice.
The story is narrated by Alice Rowlands, the titular vet’s daughter, who lives in south London with her domineering father, Euan, and her sickly mother. Euan Rowlands is a violent man, essentially bullying Alice and her mother with his sudden outbursts and demands. Alice, on the other hand, is fully alive to the world around her, sensing the danger that her father duly presents. She is an innocent, imaginative girl at heart, qualities that come through in her childlike tone of voice.
I didn’t look after Father as well as Mother used to, and he often hit me because the bacon was burnt or the coffee weak. Once, when I had ironed a shirt badly, he suddenly rushed at me like a charging ball in a thunderstorm, seeming to toss the shirt in some way with his head. I held on to the kitchen sink, too afraid to move. He came right up to me, and I saw the whites of his eyes were all red. (pp. 17-18)
With her mother desperately ill upstairs in bed and no siblings to help out, Alice is little more than a maid – shopping for the household and looking after her mother, particularly at night. There is some support for Alice in the shape of Mrs Churchill, a straight-talking woman who comes over during the day; but when Alice’s mother dies, the future seems increasingly uncertain. Euan disappears for three weeks, leaving a locum vet, Henry Peebles, in charge of the practice. By contrast to Euan, Henry is a kindly chap, the first man to treat Alice with due care and consideration – in Henry (aka ‘Blinkers’), Alice has found a true friend for life.
When Euan reappears, Mrs Churchill is shocked to find him accompanied by Rosa Fisher, a rather brash woman who helps out behind the bar at the local pub. While Euan positions Rosa as the Rowlands’ new housekeeper, even Alice can see what she really represents. In effect, Rosa is Euan’s mistress – a careless, brazen woman who ultimately neglects Alice, endangering her well-being in the most deplorable of ways.
Alice turns to daydreams as a means of escape, vividly imagining a lush, exotic world where creatures roam freely, released from their restrictive constraints. In short, she uses these fantasies as a coping mechanism, blunting some of the sadness and brutality in her life.
Sometimes the life I was living seemed so hopeless and sad I would try to imagine I was in another world. Then all the dreary brown things in the kitchen would turn into great exotic flowers and I’d be in a kind of jungle, and, when the parrot called from his lavatory prison, he wasn’t the parrot, but a great white peacock crying out. (p. 60)
A respite ultimately comes in the form of Blinkers, who takes Alice to live in the Hampshire countryside as a companion to his elderly mother, Mrs Peebles. At first, Alice is enchanted by her new surroundings, taking comfort from the beauty of the natural world, alive with the signs of winter.
In the early morning, when I looked out of my bedroom window, the trees and fields were white with hoar frost and the glass in the window was beautifully patterned with it. I’d never loved the frost before but now it enchanted me. Besides the beauty, there were the sounds: the snap of a stick, the hard rustle of a frozen leaf, the crack of breaking ice–-even the birds’ winter cries seemed to be sharp and intensified. (p. 125)
Nevertheless, Alice’s new environment comes with its own set of challenges. The house is dark and in poor repair; and Mrs Peebles herself is also being preyed upon by bullies – in this instance, Mr and Mr Gowley, a rather dubious pair of housekeepers with their eyes on the family silver. It is here in the countryside that Alice becomes fully aware of her magical gift, an unusual ability only she seems to possess. It would be foolish of me to say too much about this, but it’s not dissimilar to Laura’s secret in Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner’s marvellous novel of a woman’s liberation, which I read in 2018.
Before long, circumstances conspire to dictate another change for Alice, prompting her return to Euan, who is back with the hideous Rosa. When Euan learns about his daughter’s unusual gift, he immediately seeks to exploit it for monetary gain, setting up a denouement with a shocking conclusion. It’s an ending that will prove hard to shake, somewhat reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s work – We Have Always Lived in the Castle immediately springs to mind.
The Vet’s Daughter has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: an enchanting, innocent child caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, often with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-matter-of-fact tone of voice that belies the horrors within. As ever, this author excels in her use of symbolism, skilfully establishing a somewhat surreal tone to the narrative right from the start.
The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it, and I looked through. (p. 3)
Perhaps the most striking elements of the story stem from the violence and cruelty meted out to Alice, particularly at home. The novel has much to say about the tyrannical behaviour of fathers and the exploitation of the more vulnerable members of our society – especially children, the elderly and those who are ill or infirm. While Comyns blends elements of fantasy and magic realism with the stark realities of day-to-day life, she never lets us forgets the horrors of Alice’s existence, complete with its constraints.
This is a wonderful, magical novel with a dark, highly distinctive flavour. Barbara Comyns may not be to every reader’s taste, but she is a true original with a unique view of the world’s cruelties. A highly imaginative writer who deserves to be widely read.