I’ve come to love Barbara Comyns over the past few years, a true English eccentric with a very particular style. Her novels have a strange, slightly off-kilter feel, frequently blending surreal imagery and touches of dark, deadpan humour with the harsh realities of life. There’s often a sadness to them too, a sense of poignancy or melancholy running through the text. First published in 1967, A Touch of Mistletoe is very much in this vein. Like some of Comyns’ earlier fiction, it feels semi-autobiographical in nature, rich in episodes and scenes that seem inspired by real-life experiences.
The novel is narrated by Victoria Green, who we follow from adolescence in the 1920s to middle age in the late ‘50s. In some respects, one could describe it as a sort of coming-of-age story as the narrative subtly explores the choices many single women faced in the mid-20th century. More specifically, Comyns gently probes the question of whether it is better to marry for love or financial security and companionship – not an easy decision for a single woman to have to make, especially when money is tight.
Right from the very start, Comyns draws on a couple of her favourite elements; firstly, by introducing two innocent children caught up in the trials of a dysfunctional family, and secondly by conveying their story in a disarming, matter-of-fact voice.
Following the death of their father, Victoria and her younger sister, Blanche, are educated by a string of hopeless governesses while their elder brother, Edward, attends school. The children’s mother is an alcoholic, alternating between sustained bouts of drinking and feverish spells of cleaning, much to the sisters’ confusion.
‘I’m afraid my daughter-in-law is poorly’ or ‘Your mother isn’t quite herself today, poorly, you know’ were words that frequently crossed his [Victoria’s grandfather’s] lips, and when we children heard the word ‘poorly’ applied to anyone who was ill, perhaps an innocent child suffering with measles, we took it for granted that they had been drinking bottles of port or sherry. (pp. 3–4)
By eighteen, Victoria is ready to flee the nest, keen to travel and pursue her interest in art. Following a traumatic spell working as a dog-handler-cum-skivvy for a dreadful woman in Amsterdam, Victoria finds herself in London, staying at a girls’ hostel near Baker Street; joining her there is Blanche, who is also eager for life to begin. The narrative mostly follows Victoria, although there are glimpses into Blanche’s life too. While Victoria inherits enough money from her grandfather to fund her first term at art school, Blanche hopes to pick up work as a mannequin or an artist’s model – cue various close shaves with seedy, unscrupulous men!
In time, the girls move to a bedsit near Mornington Crescent, where they try to survive on as little as possible. It’s a gloomy, bohemian environment, with meals mostly consisting of stale eggs, bread, cheap cheese, and cocoa without milk. Food must be heated over a candle or eaten cold, particularly if there are no spare shillings for the meter. But as ever with Comyns, these scenes of poverty are touchingly evoked.
We did our shopping in Camden Town on Saturday afternoons. Although we were not as poor as we were to become later on, we had to shop very carefully. We used to buy grim little oranges for two a penny, which must have been dyed because the inside the peel was almost the same colour as the outside, and there were broken biscuits that only cost 4d. a pound, and cut-price sweetshops and grocer’s shops that had prices chalked all over the windows. (pp. 99–100)
The fortunes of both girls wax and wane over the years as various choices shape their lives, sometimes for the better, other times for the worse. Victoria goes through a string of jobs at small commercial agencies and animation studios, occasionally illustrating children’s books or other projects on the side to gain a little more income. Naturally, there are relationships too, with Blanche initially marrying a Captain for comfort and financial security while her sister is more interested in finding love. Sadly, Victoria’s first husband, Gene (a fellow artist whom she loves dearly), is plagued by significant mental health issues – a combination of schizophrenia and severe depression that blights the couple’s marriage following the birth of their son, Paul. Shortly after being admitted to hospital for treatment, Gene dies, leaving Victoria to grieve his loss.
Meanwhile, Blanche’s marriage is annulled due to non-consummation, leaving her free to marry again, this time more successfully for love and security. Her second husband, John, is a kind, older man with a good career in the forces – enough for them to start a family together.
More relationships also follow for Victoria – perhaps most notably marriage to Tony, a successful writer who falls prey to the ill effects of drink, particularly when he completes a book. Consequently, Victoria’s world is evocatively portrayed, illustrating the highs and lows of married life with a man addicted to drink.
He [Tony] hated these people when he was sober; but, when he had been drinking, he’d bring a taxi-load home and expect me to give them what he called a ‘dormitory feast’, and after the feast, they would spend the rest of the night on the drawing-room floor until Marcella swept them out in the early morning. They left with books under their arms and silver ashtrays in their pockets and the lavatories were often filthy. I thought they were like the mistletoe that Gene had feared so much and hoped it wasn’t starting to grow on me. (p. 243)
Having grown accustomed to her mother’s drinking as a child, Victoria considers her husband’s condition a sadness or illness that descends on some individuals, just as schizophrenia used to land on Gene. In time, however, the couple’s relationship breaks down, leaving Victoria at risk of being preyed on by boring men, ‘the hopeless kind that goggle at you through thick spectacles and talk about sex or their mothers’ all the time.
The narrative also touches on WW2 with powerful descriptions of the devastation caused by flying bombs, leaving homes and buildings ripped apart, exposing the contents within. Nevertheless, despite the tragedy of the situation, Comyns lightens the tone now and again, casting her eye on the surreal and absurd with those wonderful details she so expertly invokes.
An old woman was fined for feeding ducks on a public pond and a light-hearted girl in the provinces was sent to prison for flashing a torch in boys’ faces. Once I told a man at a party that my grocer occasionally let me have extra butter and he said that I was sinking ships. He was so angry that his eyes became crossed and I hurriedly left. Later I discovered that this man who thought I was sinking ships used to buy black-market petrol from dustmen who siphoned it out from their petrol tanks. Then there were people who loved to queue; they joined any old queue that was going. (p. 260)
As the novel draws to a close, we find the two sisters reunited, reflecting on the cards that life has dealt them. Victoria’s son, Paul, is all grown up, studying art at Camberwell college, newly married with a young baby and promising prospects of his own. Blanche’s children are also ploughing their own furrows while their parents are still together, content with their lives in middle age. Meanwhile, there are new opportunities on the horizon for Victoria as she looks to the future.
In terms of style and subject matter, Mistletoe feels quite similar to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, another novel that explores the choices open to women at this time. Interestingly, both books draw much of their power from the tone of voice Comyns employs – a childlike, matter-of-fact delivery that really adds to their appeal. Despite Mistletoe’s dark themes – poverty, alcoholism, mental illness, and abortion – there’s a lightness of touch in Comyns’ writing, the flashes of deadpan humour fitting beautifully within the context of the story. In summary then, a sensitive portrayal of a life touched by mistletoe – another brilliant novel by one of my favourite women writers.
A Touch of Mistletoe is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.