Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence by Avril Horner - review by Norma Clarke

Norma Clarke

Her Family & Other Animals

Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence


Manchester University Press 372pp £30

Barbara Comyns (1907–92) was a true original. The word ‘unique’ was often applied to her writing, along with ‘bizarre’, ‘comic’ and ‘macabre’. Her characteristic tone of faux-naïf innocence was established in her first novel, Sisters by a River (1947), which, as the Chicago Tribune observed in 2015, mixed ‘dispassion, levity and veiled ferocity’. Her friend and fellow novelist Ursula Holden put it this way: ‘Barbara Comyns deftly balances savagery with innocence, depravity with Gothic interludes.’ That balance of savagery and innocence is the underlying theme of Avril Horner’s compelling biography of an extraordinary woman.

Sisters by a River was avowedly autobiographical. Comyns began it as an exercise in recalling scenes from her childhood for the benefit of her offspring. Virago reissued the novel in 2013 (complete with the misspellings that appeared in the original) and Barbara Trapido wrote an introduction. Trapido described family life in the book as a ‘minefield of lunacy and violence’, with adults ‘as arbitrary and dangerous as tigers’. Father is volcanically ill-tempered, Mother resents the children, Granny is pushed out of a window (she is saved only by the width of her hips), a child is hurled down the stairs and there are rats in the porridge. Governesses come and go, none of them ‘disiplarians’, until Miss Vann, who had ‘always been in the best famlies’, arrives and takes over from ‘the dead vicar’s daughters who used to arrive on bycicles’. After this, the children’s bottoms get smacked on a regular basis. The five girls and a boy, all close in age, are forbidden to play with the village children and so run wild in the grounds of their own house and the river. The narrator muses: ‘its [sic] a wonderful thing to happen to you when you are a child, to have a river running past your door … We used to fall in but were never completely drowned, the village children often were though.’

This life came to an end when Comyns’s father died, ‘right in the middle of Springcleaning’, according to Sisters by a River. Comyns was eighteen at the time and her father, a Birmingham brewer, had made little provision for his daughters. They were poorly educated (especially in the managing of money). There were debts. Their mother, who had gone suddenly deaf after the birth of her sixth child, was a remote figure given to complaining that she had never wanted any of them. Needing to earn a living and having no training except in looking after dogs, Comyns applied to be a kennel maid in Amsterdam. Dogs and other animals were always important to her, as were gardens and plants. The stay in Amsterdam didn’t work out, but the randomness of the decision to move there set a pattern. Comyns seems not to have had ambitions to be a writer, although she was a voracious reader. She was drawn to surrealism, loved paintings and was resolved to become an artist. A short spell as an art student followed her return from Amsterdam. Alas for art, she met, quickly married and became pregnant by a man with similar aspirations, John Pemberton, whose notions of bohemian existence did not include providing financial support for his wife and child.

In the hardscrabble decade that followed, Comyns took on a variety of jobs and schemes for making a living. She worked as a dog breeder, a commercial artist, an antiques dealer, a piano restorer, a house renovator and a landlady. There were lovers, another baby, an abortion, a breakdown, an attempt at suicide, and many, many house moves. It’s exhausting to follow her around the country and dismaying to contemplate how narrow her choices were. Inevitably, her social position was determined by the men in her life, and her scope limited by being, in effect, a single mother with children. Arthur Price, at one time her landlord, then her lover and the inspiration for her novel Mr Fox, was a car dealer who invested in property, a ‘rough diamond’ who carried a gun when he went to the showrooms in Warren Street (he would also carry wads of cash on his person). Horner is alert to the advantages of Price’s warm and easy attitude to life. In the absence of the useless Pemberton, he was a father figure to Comyns’s son, Julian. Meanwhile, Comyns’s daughter, Caroline, didn’t know that her father was Rupert Lee, a married man whose mistress Diana Brinton was a generous patron to Comyns during these difficult years. As Brinton told her bluntly much later, ‘there was nobody else who seemed to care a damn what became of you or was willing to put themselves out in any way.’ Brinton was wealthy, and when eventually she married Lee, she took seriously the fact that Caroline was his daughter. 

For Comyns, improvisation, managing and making do defined the years that followed, even after a second marriage to Richard Comyns Carr, who was employed by MI6. They were friends with Kim Philby and Graham Greene (a stalwart supporter, as her husband was, of Comyns’s writing). When Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean defected to the Soviet Union in 1951, they all fell under suspicion. Philby was a spy, but was Richard? He was transferred from the department of MI6 responsible for the Soviet Union to one dealing with less sensitive information; he never earned much and was not promoted. In the years that followed, after the couple moved to Spain (because it was cheaper and sunnier) and he was trying his hand at freelance journalism, writing articles on economics and politics, they were apparently kept under light surveillance.

It was a happy marriage and it sustained her as a writer. She easily lost confidence. When her second novel, Our Spoons came from Woolworth’s, sold poorly in spite of good reviews she wrote in her diary: ‘My books will never be much good I know partly because I’m lazy and badly educated.’ Her husband was neither of those things and he provided the emotional security she needed to launch on fictions that captured the way ‘dreadful things seem to never stop happening all the time’. Always attracted to the surreal, she experimented with gothic tropes in The Vet’s Daughter, a dark tale about human cruelty in which the protagonist, Alice, has the uncanny ability to levitate. ‘Nothing could be worse than home,’ Alice thinks, mostly because of her bullying father, but the novel shows that there is worse. Levitation is a metaphor for coping with pain and fear – floating above it. Comyns had money worries all her life and she needed her books to sell and that, too, put pressure on her sense of herself as a writer.

Horner is heroically non-­judgmental, a calm and measured guide through some rackety, tempestuous years, awkward human desires and mistakes. She celebrates decency and generosity and understands how friends and family fall out and fall back in again. Comyns the novelist has been recovered, lost and recovered again, but this is the first fully researched, scholarly biography. It’s a gripping read (What will she do next? Where will the next house, apartment, garden be?) and is properly illuminating about the novels. In an understated way, Horner tells you what life was like for women in the middle of the 20th century – a mix of autonomy and ‘female surrender’. At times, she lets Comyns do the job herself, choosing small, revelatory extracts from her writings. She quotes, for instance, from a 1959 letter written by Comyns to Richard about taking her agent to lunch at a Soho restaurant. Comyns wanted to treat him for placing her fourth novel, The Vet’s Daughter, and the next, Out of the Red, into the Blue, with Heinemann. She booked by phone, asking for a quiet table as they’d be discussing business. ‘This seemed to delight the manager who kept dancing attendance, really thinking we were lovers,’ Comyns reported. ‘We were put away in a corner by ourselves. I was the only woman in the place, otherwise nothing but greedy business men.’ There’s a wealth of meaning in that image of being the only woman in the restaurant and not being there for sexual purposes. 

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