Category Archives: Comyns Barbara

Mini Reviews – Barbara Comyns and E. C. R Lorac

A couple of additional mini reviews of recent reads – this time novels by the wonderfully off-kilter Barbara Comyns and the British crime writer, E. C. R. Lorac. Enjoy!

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns (1987)

I discovered this little gem of a novel a few months ago via Heaven Ali’s excellent review, which you can find here. It’s very much in the style of one of Comyns’ earlier novels, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), a book that made my ‘best of’ list back in 2017.

Like ‘Spoons’, Mr Fox features a rather childlike young woman who relates her story in an unassuming, conversational style. As the novel opens, Caroline Seymore and her three-year-old daughter, Jenny, have just been offered a place to live by their ‘friend’, Mr Fox, who makes his money via various underhand dealings – mostly tarting up dodgy cars plus some black-market activities here and there. (The novel is set at the start of WW2.)

Caroline has been on her own with Jenny for the past three years, trying to make a go of sub-letting rooms in a London house having inherited the lease after her mother’s death. Unfortunately for Caroline, the bailiffs and debt-collectors are rapidly closing in, leaving her virtually no other option but to accept Mr Fox’s offer however awful that may be.

I knew so little about him [Mr Fox] really. Perhaps he was an awful vicious man, or maybe he was cruel and bad-tempered or mean; perhaps he hoarded things like string and candle-ends in boxes under his bed, or he might even get drunk and beat people. Then I remembered all my creditors and thought perhaps I’d better risk all these things. Nothing could be worse than all those summonses and bowler-hatted debt collectors. (pp. 27-28)

Mr Fox is an odd little man; kindly and generous one minute but prone to moody behaviour the next. In particular, he finds Jenny’s constant chattering somewhat annoying, frequently disturbing the household when he wants to enjoy a rest. While Caroline doesn’t share a bed with Mr Fox, she is expected to cook his meals – another aspect her benefactor finds fault with. As a consequence, Caroline often feels sad and homesick, even though she has no other home to speak of. There are times when Caroline longs to escape from Mr Fox, but realistically there is nowhere else where she and Jenny can go.

With the advent of war looming on the horizon, Mr Fox decides they all need to get out of London for a while, so he shuts down his dodgy garage, securing a job in an aircraft factory instead. But life in the isolated town of Straws proves terribly grim for Caroline; it’s a shabby, dismal place where no one seems to have any spark or money.

I became more and more depressed and never bothered to carry my gas mask any more. It wasn’t the war that depressed me so much but life at Straws. It was the most dreary, lonely place in the world, and it made Mr Fox unbearable. He became frightfully bad-tempered and nervy and had completely changed from the dashing kind of crook he used to be; leading an honest life didn’t suit him at all. (p. 76)

As Ali has already written about this slim yet very affecting book, I’m not going to dwell on the plot, only to say that we follow Caroline and Jenny as they try to make their way in an uncertain world – sometimes aided and abetted by Mr Fox, other times not. Instead, I’ll try to highlight a few things I liked about the novel, just to give you a feel for the style.

Like Sophia in Spoons, Caroline is a very engaging narrator, the childlike naivety and innocence adding greatly to her charm. There are times when Caroline’s matter-of-fact tone of voice may seem at odds with the horror of the situations she is describing, but in practice this style of delivery makes her predicament feel all the more horrific. (In an effort to earn her keep with Mr Fox, Caroline spends a terrible week working as a dance hostess in a ghastly club, a role she is ill-equipped for with her innocence and simplicity.)

In spite of the rather bleak subject matter – poverty, homelessness, a desperate reliance on the kindness of others, particularly men – Comyns lightens the tone with some nicely judged humour. There are several moments when Caroline is unintentionally funny, coming out with the most wonderful turns of phrase such as this description of a man who invites her for dinner after they meet in the club.

I came through the main entrance of Rules after getting rather entangled in the swing doors. But there he was, looking like a bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun. (p. 51)

Comyns’ evocation of wartime London is superb, replete with air-raid sirens, explosions and bombed-out houses. There is a truly terrifying scene in which Caroline has to run barefoot while shielding Mr Fox’s dog, desperately trying to find shelter during a chaotic raid. Moreover, what comes through very strongly from the narrative is the fluid nature of civilian life during the war. Caroline and Jenny are almost always on the move, barely able to stay more than a few months in any single place. The transient feel of everything – jobs, houses, possessions, even life itself – is both palpable and striking.

I absolutely loved this little novel by Comyns, which is by turns funny, evocative, honest and poignant. The ending in particular is very affecting, perfectly capturing the opportunistic nature of Mr Fox – a man forever on the make, constantly on the lookout for the next lucrative deal.

Fire in the Thatch by E. C. R. Lorac (1946)

I’d been looking to read E. C. R. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) for a while, particularly following positive reports by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and one or two other readers on Twitter. So, I was delighted to find a copy of one her novels, Fire in the Thatch, in a local charity shop fairly recently, especially as it was in near-perfect condition. Happily, my first experience of this author’s work was a great success, definitely one I’d recommend to others.

In short, Fire in the Thatch is a very entertaining entrant in the British Library Crime Classics series, a traditional Golden-Age novel to brighten a dull weekend. When Little Thatch cottage is destroyed in a fire, killing its new tenant, the reclusive army veteran Nicholas Vaughan, the dogged Chief Inspector Macdonald is drafted in to investigate.

Set in the beautiful countryside of Devon, this is a thoroughly intriguing mystery with interesting, distinctive characters (many of whom are shadowy), and a deep-rooted sense of place. Lorac demonstrates a real appreciation of the farming community’s passion for the landscape and traditional customs. These aspects of the novel are beautifully portrayed. The writing is excellent too, very engaging and precise.

Hayley at Desperate Reader has posted a lovely review of this, as has Guy, so I shall direct you to their posts. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping an eye out for more books by Lorac, particularly those featuring Macdonald, the rather engaging detective at the heart of Thatch – Lorac’s compelling portrayal of this determined character is one of the book’s many delights.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.