I’ve read The Vet’s Daughter three times, in three different Virago editions, and I’ve loved it every time.
The first time, some years ago, it was a free copy with a magazine. It might seem unlikely today, and I don’t know what happened to that particular copy, but it really did happen, I remember it quite clearly. A free Virago Modern Classic with I forget which magazine!
The second time was when I spotted the original green Virago Modern Classic edition in Any Amount of Books in Charing Cross Road. I had to bring it home, and I had to read it again to make sure that it was as wonderful as I remembered. It was!
And the third time was last week. A brand new Virago Modern Classic had come my way, and although I thought that no edition could be as lovely as the original green, and that there could be no better match of author and cover painting artist than Barbara Comyns and Stanley Spencer, the new edition won me over. It was lighter and brighter, the cover art reflected the story, and if a new edition can draw more readers to a wonderful book I’m all for it.
And it is a wonderful book.
A drama with a pinch of realism, a dash of the surreal, a splash of gothic, and something else, something that I can’t put a name to, that gives Barbara Comyns’ writing, and this book, a special quality that is entirely its own.
Alice is the vet’s daughter, living in south London at the beginning of the twentieth century, with her domineering, controlling father, and her cowed, sickly mother, in a house that is full of less that happy reminders of her father’s profession.
‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth. The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.
The vet is a monster, but he is a very human monster. An utterly selfish man, oblivious to the feelings and concerns of other, who feels that life had let him down and so he is owed the best of everything, and everything that he wants. He treats his daughter as a servant, he sells pets he has promised to put to sleep to a vivisectionist, he refuses to see his wife as she is lying in her bed upstairs, dying …
Barbara Comyns tells all of this so well, at times painting pictures with every sentence, and balancing the commonplace and the highly improbable so well that I was completely captivated by a story that was somehow dark and colourful at exactly the same time.
The stories that the vet’s wife told her daughter, stories of her childhood in the Welsh countryside, were wonderfully naturalistic, and a lovely contrast to the story that was happening around her.
Alice was strangely passive, hoping for another life, waiting for someone to rescue her.
‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once, perhaps’.
When her mother died her father didn’t even wait a decent interval before he moved his mistress, a brash barmaid, ready to seize whatever chances life might throw her, into his home. And when Alice realised what the couple had planned for her it was too much to bear.
Rescue came: her father’s locum took her to the country. Alice thought it would be romantic, but she found herself in a dilapidated farmhouse, looking after his maudlin mother, and trying to manage two insolent servants with eyes to the main chance.
It was a different kind of strange, but it was just as wonderful as what had gone before.
It was in the country that Alice discovered that she had an extraordinary gift:
“In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me – and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought “I mustn’t break the gas glove”. I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.”
Enentually, inevitably, life in the country fell apart, and Alice had to go home to her father. She had nowhere else to go. Her father discovered Alice’s gift, and he saw it as a route to the fame and fortune that he believed was his due. That pushed Alice to her destiny, in an extraordinary finale on Clapham Common.
The story is strangely, magically, wonderful, but it is the inventiveness of the writing that really elevates this book. The details, the images, the turns of phrase, the characters …
But I really can’t explain any more.
I can just say that Barbara Comyns was a genius, an English eccentric in the very best sense, and that anyone who appreciates the wonders that words can hold really should try her books.
They have a distinctive taste – and I know that distinctive tastes aren’t for everyone – but they really should be tried, at least once in a lifetime.
(For the sake of balance I should mention that Barbara Comyns is a little inconsistent, but with this book, or with ‘Sisters by a River’ and ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths,’ which have both been reissued too, demonstrate just what she can do wonderfully well.)
I love the new Virago covers, even though we don’t have them here. (Cooking Light magazine, which is one of my favorites, publishes an annual book with the year’s recipes. I was collecting them for a while, and one year the annual book was a free gift from — of all places — the company that handled our retirement plan. Score!!!
The new covers are very striking, and hopefully will help books to fly off shelves. Nothing so good with magazines these days, but I have had a few useful knitting books with craft magazines.
I’ve only read one Comyns, “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” which was like nothing I’d read before and I did love it. This sounds amazing too – I must read more Comyns! (And as for a free Virago with a magazine – what a treat!)
I haven’t read ‘Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead’ but it sounds as if your response was the same as mine to the first Comyns. The free Virago, a you may have guessed, was some years ago and I’ve seen nothing like that since.
3 times in three different editions – I like that. I’ve never read Comyns, she’s not my usual contemporary fare, but I’d like to try her, so I shall look out for one of those you mention.
Annabel, I think you’d love her! There are certain similarities with Magnus Mills, in terms of the surreal being told matter-of-fact.
I have to agree with Simon, Annabel. I hadn’t thought of Magnus Mills, and I’d say that Barbara Comyns painted in brighter colours, but it’s a valid comparison.
OK – you’ve sold me between you. I’ll seek her out pronto! Thank you.
Fantastic review, Jane, of such a good novelist. I’m delighted they’re bringing some of Comyns’s books back into print, and love these new covers (although I agree that Stanley Spencer was an inspired choice which can’t be bettered.) They shouldn’t have given away the levitation on the cover, though.
I wish they would bring back The Skin Chairs and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, as they deserve to be back in print too. I’ve saved a couple of hers to read, as I can’t bear the idea of running out.
I love the new editions and I agree with you about the leviatation – though I prefer that to the farmyard cover that bore no relation to the story. I have yet to readThe Skin Chairs and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, partly because I’m spacing the unread titles out and partly because I can’t fit them into my century.