The magnificent unreality of Barbara Comyns

  • Themes: Culture

Her readership is devoted but small, and not all her novels are in print, but, once read, Barbara Comyns is never forgotten.

Publicity shot for the novel Sisters by a River, published in 1947.
Publicity shot for the novel Sisters by a River, published in 1947. Credit: Estate of Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns couldn’t spell, but she could cast spells. ‘I believe you are a witch, really’, her second husband told her. Her first novel, Sisters by a River, was published with its misspellings intact, probably a ploy to market the book as a direct descendant of nine-year-old Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters. In fact, trained as an artist, Comyns was pushing 40 when she began to write, and over 70 by the time she found a wide readership. Over a long life (1907-92) she published 11 books, of which the best, in their wildly sophisticated naïve style, their irruptions of macabre fantasy, and their sexual and social daring, have a claim to be among the most original of their time.

All of her novels have an air of fairytale, and most are told in a first-person voice of mysterious flatness spliced with skew-whiff lyricism. Her prose has a gawky beauty, unpolished, like raw gemstones, and she had a gift for opening lines: (‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.’ ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.’). Although she disliked the comparison, her style is akin to her contemporary Stevie Smith, burnished by her childlike belief in wonder, but leavened by an entirely adult perception of the world’s capacity for cruelty. Comyns’ books are magical and funny, and, often, about wickedness and rape, with plagues and poisons and suicidal hens. One is about four women in late middle-age who turn to prostitution to make ends meet. Some of her narrators are children, lost in a wonderland of violent grown-uppery. As Avril Horner tells us in this first full-length biography, Comyns remembered all too well her father’s bouts of temper and her mother’s black eyes at the breakfast table.

Comyns is striking enough in realistic mode, as in the wonderfully titled Our Spoons Came From Woolworths (1950), a daring account of marriage, pregnancy and motherhood in the face of pre-NHS nursing care, and of grinding poverty posing as bohemianism. Almost everything she did involved her painter’s eye for the bizarre, and her best novels may yet prove to be those which are streaked with the surreal, transcending the drear and the wicked through a hefty dose of enchantment. At least two of her characters can levitate. In The Skin Chairs (1962) the eponymous pieces of furniture, each named for a great poet, are bound in human skin. In Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954), a book that Ireland banned altogether, a butcher slits ‘his throat right across like a great smile’. A woman recovering from an abortion cannot escape a smell of ‘dead birds’; a child looks at a December twilight and pronounces it ‘rat-coloured’; an elderly general looks like a ‘bulldog crossed with a hot-cross bun’. One Amazon review I found describes her writing as a mix between The Magic Roundabout and Under Milk Wood.

Reflecting the joys and savagery of the world in an eldritch mirror, Barbara Comyns’ novels have been called Gothic (which misses their lightness of touch) and Surrealist (avoiding their curious internal logic). Moving in circles that included Paul Nash and the poet David Gascoyne (mistaken here for an artist), Comyns was certainly among the first British novelists to take Surrealism to the heart of her writing. Through an affair with the painter Rupert Lee, she became involved with the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, and befriended the Surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, who much later wrote The Hearing Trumpet (1974) – a hearing trumpet plays a memorable role in Comyns’s Who Was Changed. But her novels are not the anything-goes world of melted clocks and diving suits. When she began her career, in the 1950s, they were unlike almost anything being written for adults in that drab and rationed decade, save perhaps for Gormenghast. If a kitchen sink does appear, there is likely to be a mongoose on the draining board. Where Gormenghast takes places in its own world, Barbara Comyns sticks to this one, splashing magic onto the mundanities of life like paint on a monochrome photograph, and treating enchantment with worldly good sense, as children do. She insists on her own heightened perception of reality, which, as in Dickens, we dismiss as exaggeration for our comfort.

Barbara Comyns didn’t quite exist, which is to say that, born Barbara Bayley, she became Barbara Pemberton at her first marriage, and Barbara Comyns Carr on her second, having briefly wanted to be known by the pseudonym Clover Weston. Her biographer has the unenviable task of charting these many existences, these numerous adventures in living and loving. After a plush upbringing in Warwickshire she lived in over 30 homes, in England and in Spain, most containing a ceiling she painted blue and decorated with white stars. She seems to have been so captivating as to render her admirers inarticulate with desire. Her feet, wrote her second husband, were like ‘pebbles washed up on the sand’. One friend thought her like ‘one of those wide-eyed wiry little sea-daisies’.

Her early life in London leaves the reader similarly wide-eyed. The family fortune had dwindled and with no hope of a private income, she enrolled happily at the prestigious Heatherley School of Fine Art. In 1931, 23 and beautiful, she married the painter John Pemberton, wearing tweed to the ceremony and carrying her pet newt in a pocket, wrapped in a moistened handkerchief. Money was scarce and Barbara worked as a life model. The couple had a child that Pemberton cared neither about nor for. The boy, whom she had to be dissuaded from christening ‘Diagram’ (they settled, more conventionally, for Julian), was fed with lumps of bread and jam flecked with blue paint. On becoming pregnant again she had an abortion, submitting to the danger and shame that the law of the times necessitated.

By 1934 she had begun an affair with Rupert Lee, a successful artist 20 years her senior, who was unhappily married to her husband’s lesbian aunt. Lee was the father of Barbara’s second child, Caroline. He meanwhile pursued a relationship with the artist Diana Brinton who, privately wealthy from the dividends of the family carpet firm, soon became his common-law wife. For a while, Barbara, her husband, her lover and her lover’s lover rubbed along happily enough, living in Bohemian cross-stitch, discussing Surrealism and the Spanish Civil War. Her sculptures were exhibited alongside work by Vanessa Bell and Walter Sickert. They didn’t sell. Rupert, she wrote, ‘made love to me in the afternoons while John had me at night’.

Horner unravels these tangles with detail, clarity and lack of judgement, but that ‘had me’ is worth a pause. Was Barbara living the life of the artist, having sloughed bourgeois convention? Or was she passed, a naïve and pliant ragdoll, from man to man, each invoking artistic license to shrug off responsibility in the name of freedom? In the pursuit of Bohemianism, someone tends to get hurt. She would wheel her son around to Lee’s studio, the boy apparently ‘happy to be left to play with a few spare wires and bits of old equipment while […] Rupert and Barbara made love’.

Soon Barbara’s marriage to John Pemberton, complicated by the paternity of her second child and the potential for scandal, broke down irreparably. Sinking into depression she became suicidal and wrote long looping letters by the light of the streetlamp so as not to wake her baby daughter. She intended to leave the girl to the care of her father and begin a new life, scrawling on the back of the birth certificate, ‘thank you very much for having me but I have gone now’. Her son was sent to his grandfather in Chipping Campden, so she went and kidnapped the boy from the school gates. After much to-ing and fro-ing, in which she was supported financially and emotionally by Diana Brinton (her lover’s partner – do keep up), she decided to convert a house into flats and live off the rent: ‘I am very well and quite glad not to be dead now.’ She soon began an affair with the building’s leaseholder, a redhead prone to conjunctivitis, for which he wore an eye-patch.

And so it goes on. Across the six-year relationship with the eye-patch (a black marketeer called Arthur Price, his dangerous charms immortalised in her novel Mr Fox), Barbara became a nightclub worker and an artist’s model, bred poodles, renovated houses, worked in advertising and sold pianos and cars to keep the family afloat. Her social circle seems mainly to have been petty criminals. Escaping the Blitz, she was employed in a country house, where the owner’s daughter knitted a jumper out of poodle fur and dyed it yellow with onion skin. Poverty snapped at her heels like the exotic tiger-skin rug, which, jaws open, lay on her son’s bedroom floor.

Covering the calmer life of a second marriage and novel-writing, the later parts of this book can’t live up to the early chapters’ excitement. In 1945 Barbara finally divorced John Pemberton (who was imprisoned for desertion during the Second World War). On the day of the decree absolute, the phone rang three times before lunch, each call a proposal of marriage. She settled for Richard Comyns Carr, who worked in the Foreign Office and in a department of MI6 alongside Kim Philby. ‘He was always drunk’, Barbara said of Philby, much of whose furniture she inherited on his defection, ‘but so nice and such fun.’ Augustus John came for dinner, as did Dylan Thomas, who, also drunk, peed in the bath. Comyns Carr soon lost his job, perhaps because of his association with Philby. Horner wonders whether he continued to work in espionage when, strapped for cash, he and Barbara moved first to Ibiza and then to Barcelona, where they lived for nearly 20 years, under constant surveillance by the secret service.

This tumultuous life led to her novels’ true and empathetic portrayal of souls both damaged and resilient. The books came in dribs and drabs, early reactions divided between irritation and exhilaration. One was killed stone-dead by John Betjeman, whose influential review dismissed the ‘schoolgirl’ style. The Vet’s Daughter, appearing in 1959, received almost unanimous acclaim, but its successors were found wanting in comparison and sales were small. By the end of the 1960s she had all but given up. Returning to London in 1974, she faced an old age of poverty, were it not for the reissues of her novels by the Virago Press (‘such a dear little publisher’, Barbara wrote, ‘and no men’). Distinctly bound in dark green, the collectible paperbacks found a comfortable home in the literary world of the 1980s. Primed by the early novels of Beryl Bainbridge and by the dark magic of Angela Carter, readers were better prepared for Barbara’s oddly innocent grotesquery. A new, last, novel, The Juniper Tree, based on a story by the Brothers Grimm, appeared in 1985. Royalties and reputation softened, just, the blows of old age: widowhood, dementia, Parkinson’s. She died in 1997, and a libation of gin (and tonic) was poured on her grave.

Traversing these comyns-and-goings, Horner settles for a tone so determinedly neutral as to become po-faced, as if unaffected by the curious comedy (and tragedy) of Barbara’s often bonkers life. ‘Richard sent Barbara a brief poem in August’, she writes, with no hint as to the verse’s hysterical awfulness (‘Pearl of twilight, diamonds of silence, amethysts of shadows. / Your mouth against mine, your hair against my eyes. / Dawn will be sometime this week.’) Densely typeset, the book is much longer than the page count implies, and a great deal could have been cut. Every house move, every reprint, every review is charted in minute detail. Not a supporting character appears without a potted biography of their own. A sister sails for India and we are told about the ship’s interior design. There is far, far too much about Barbara’s son, as if in gratitude for his support of Horner’s work. The sources are too visible behind the prose, the narrative clearly woven from paraphrased correspondence, in all its unthrilling minutiae (‘she wrote again at the end of December, thanking Diana for the Christmas presents’). The admiring analysis of the novels is astute, free from overlong synopsis or crude assumptions of autobiography, despite evident parallels between life and work, and rightly refusing to decide just how artful was Comyns’s artlessness.

Much of the overstuffing may be the cost of a labour of love, which the book evidently is, with all the richness and care that implies. Horner’s achievement and contribution is to have started from the ground up, working almost entirely from previously unpublished material. The research is formidable and shines new light on artistic communities in the 1930s, while dignifying Comyns’s life and work with its devotion. If it leaves flair to its subject, it is nevertheless the kind of valuable and needful book that is becoming an increasing rarity: an authoritative biography, packed with new information, generous with quotation, and chronologically told, of a major minor figure. There is no framing device (Barbara Comyns: A Life in Nine Teaspoons) and the story is not tucked into a group biography with lashings of Bloomsbury to help sales. It took seven years to write and three years to find a publisher. Its tone and packaging bespeak literary biography rather than academic monograph, but only a university press seems to have been willing to take it on.

Time will tell if this significant book can secure Comyns’s fluctuating reputation, which despite distinguished admirers (Anthony Burgess, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley) has faltered along in fits and starts. Her readership is now devoted but small, and not all the novels are in print, but, once read, Barbara Comyns is never forgotten, her images indelible, from the servant with one nostril to the rug made of Great Dane, and the parrot who, banished to the downstairs loo, pecks holes in the floorboards. The bird appears in her best novel of all, The Vet’s Daughter, whose narrator, trapped in her veterinarian father’s animal-crammed house, escapes a life of sexual and emotional abuse by flying into the air. She levitates to a height just below the ceiling, worried she will break the gas lamp.

This wild and visionary book, for which the phrase ‘magical realism’ seems glib and inexact, predates by nine years One Hundred Years of Solitude, with its levitating priest and its unhappy young woman who rises into the sky and disappears. Comyns’s levitation is both literary and literal, a metaphor for the scars of abuse and the escape of artistic creation, but also a touch of sorcery on its own terms. The Vet’s Daughter reveals her as the missing link between Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (whose heroine escapes patronising relatives for a rural life of witchery) and the early novels of Angela Carter. I wonder if Roald Dahl read the 1981 reissue before, a few years later, beginning Matilda, in which a girl escapes abusive adults by developing magical powers.

Barbara Comyns could not levitate, but her best novels are airborne, made so by her justifiable fear of returning to earth. The climax of The Vet’s Daughter, half tragedy, half apotheosis, is the death of the levitating narrator, trampled by a baying crowd. Humankind cannot bear very much unreality.


Oliver Soden