Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence, by Avril Horner

1212 1

Reviewed by Harriet

In the back of my mind I was always sure that wonderful things were waiting for me, but I’d got to get through a lot of horrors first.

This quotation is from Barbara Comyn’s 1940 novel Mr Fox, but it could equally well be applied to most of her wonderfully strange, quirky, disturbing, entertaining novels. I first discovered them in about 2010, entirely owing to stuckinabook, the excellent long-running blog of Shiny’s co-founder and editor-at-large Simon Thomas. Simon should probably have been the person to write this review of Avril Horner’s just published biography of Comyns, as I think he’s read all her books and I’ve only read about half, but I jumped at it because I wanted to know more about this fascinating, talented woman.

Born in Warwickshire in 1907, the fourth of six children, Barbara’s first choice of an occupation was art, and she was forty before her first novel, Sisters by a River, came out in 1947. This much I already knew, so the opportunity to look at her life in detail was irresistible. Her biographer describes her as ‘a woman of many parts, including commercial artist, keeper of chickens, dog breeder, antique dealer, piano restorer, imaginative house renovator, cook-housekeeper, landlord’, who spent the first half of her life thinking of herself as an artist who did a bit of writing and the second half as a writer who painted for pleasure. Many of those many parts find their way into the novels, but it’s important to resist the temptation to see them all as autobiographical, though some – Sisters by a River, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Mr Fox, and Out of the Red into the Blue – rely quite heavily on the facts of her own life. Fortunately Avril Horner was given access to her letters, very large numbers of which had been kept by her son and a granddaughter, both of whom were happy to answer questions which enabled her, as she puts it, ‘negotiate the difficult tightrope between fact and fiction’.  As a result, Barbara’s voice comes alive throughout the book and supplements what readers have gathered about her from the novels.

Imperfectly educated by a series of governesses, allowed to run wild in the countryside, with an alcoholic father and a mother who became congenitally deaf, Barbara and her siblings had an unusual childhood, which she described many years later in her first novel. As Horner writes, these experiences ‘did not provide a psychologically secure world’, but clearly fostered the resourcefulness that carried her through a life that was chequered, to say the least. In her early twenties, the family money having vanished after her father’s death, she moved to London to study art. A year later she met and very soon married a fellow artist, John Pemberton, and  was living in a bedsit in Hampstead, in conditions very similar to those described in her second novel. A baby son appeared, John lost interest, the marriage fell apart. Barbara took a lover, an older, married man, and soon gave birth to a daughter. When that relationship too fell apart, she took up with Arthur Price, the charming racketeer who is immortalised in Mr Fox. By now it was wartime, and the next few years were chaotic, involving numerous house moves – a constant feature in Barbara’s life – and various attempts to earn money including a week’s work as a nightclub hostess, and as a restorer of old pianos. But it was during this period that she starting writing what would become Sisters by a River.

At the end of the war Barbara met and married Richard Comyns Carr, who worked for MI6 and had a rather suspiciously close friendship with Kim Philby. The couple moved to Ibiza and later to Spain, apparently always monitored by the secret services. There was still plenty of anxiety about finances, but Richard gave Barbara confidence in her writing, and after several rejections, a publisher finally stepped forward and Sisters was published in 1947. The reviews were mixed, but she launched straight into her next novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which came out in 1950. Again the reviews were mixed, but Barbara was now an established writer, though her career was a bewildering mixture of peaks and troughs: she was supported by Graham Greene, lost and found publishers, became an early Virago star in the 1980s, and lived out her widowhood and her final years in the English countryside. By now, largely owing to the Virago reissues, her novels had a host of admirers and a couple were serialised on the radio. The Vet’s Daughter, her wonderful 1959 novel, was optioned for several (unmade) films, and made into a musical, ‘The Clapham Wonder’, in 1978. Barbara was a success, but strangely she still remains somehow on the outskirts in relation to her female contemporaries: Horner describes her as ‘a rather marginal figure’ who ‘has not received the attention due to her’, though readers who love her, of whom there are many, can’t get enough of her. The novels almost always fall into the category of black comedy: there are horrific death and endless disasters, but there’s also a wonderful humour that prevents them from being upsetting. And above all, there’s the unique perspective of her narrators, who observe the often strange world around them with what Graham Greene called  an ‘innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrences’.

I enjoyed this book more than I can say. Avril Horner’s research is impeccable, and there are many useful footnotes. She succeeds superbly with the difficult task faced by any biographer of a writer: the juggling act of talking about the life and discussing the novels without falling into the trap of seeing everything as autobiographical, while recognising elements in the life that may have fed into them. And then there are the photos, mostly of Barbara herself who, apart from anything else, was an extremely beautiful woman. Highly recommended.

Shiny New Books Logo

Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny, and has reviewed two of Comyns’ novels on Shiny, [here and here].

Avril Horner, Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence (Manchester University Press, 2024). 978-1526173744, 424pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)

1 comment

  1. What a colourful life! I’ve only read one of her books so far, but I’m really looking forward to this biography!

Do tell us what you think - thank you.