Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns

Reviewed by Harriet

It’s exactly ten years since I discovered Barbara Comyns for the first time. Born in 1909, she had an unusual upbringing and a somewhat chequered career, both of which provided material for many of her early novels: Sisters by a River was the first to be published, in 1947, and seven more appeared over the next twenty years, ending with A Touch of Mistletoe (1967), which will be republished by Daunt Books in January.  After that, she went quiet, but when Virago started reprinting her novels in 1980, she had another spurt of creativity.

Mr Fox was published in 1984, though it may have been written earlier. Set during World War Two, it tells the story of Caroline Seymoure, who, having been left by her feckless husband, goes to live with the eponymous Mr Fox. A man with a fine red beard, he had been running a garage when Caroline first met him, buying up crash-damaged cars and patching them up to look like new so that he could sell them for a large profit.

He was always full of new ideas about making money and often very prosperous, but sometimes almost penniless. But just when you thought, ‘Now he really is ruined’, he would have another brainwave and make some more money. I expect he was rather dishonest really.

When Caroline and her three-year-old daughter Jenny find themselves homeless, with only £25 in the bank, she goes to Mr Fox to ask his advice. She’d been friends with him for two years, and used to look after his dog when he had to go to prison for not paying his rates, a frequent occurrence. When she tells him her problem, he takes her for a walk on Hampstead Heath and suggests she and Jenny should come and live with him. Astonished, Caroline takes some time to think, during which she and Jenny have a bizarre adventure, being driven by the friend of a friend to a cottage in the country, which has been described as being very beautiful but proves to be nothing of the sort. Back in London, she goes to see Mr Fox, who has taken it for granted that she was going to agree to his offer and takes her to see the flat he has rented for them to live in. There’s some quite nice furniture in it, which pleases Caroline. She moves in, but the next day the bailiffs come and threaten to take away all the furniture. Luckily Mr Fox manages to get her most precious possessions out before this happens, and she and Jenny settle down to their life with him.

You’ve probably guessed by now that this life is not going to be plain sailing. Mr Fox is often grumpy, moody, and impatient with Jenny, and quite apart from this and his frequent dodgy dealings, war soon breaks out. Caroline wants to earn some money, and manages to get a job as a hostess in a night club, which proves to be a complete disaster and only lasts a week. Then the air raids start and Mr Fox decides to move them all to a grim little house on a half-built estate outside London while he works in a local factory. This is only the first of many moves: no sooner has Caroline succeeded in making her latest home more pleasant – she’s a dab hand with distemper – than circumstances force them to uproot again.

There’s a constant scrabble for money, and she often has to sell her precious possessions to feed them all. A short period buying broken pianos and fixing them up – another of Mr Fox’s brainwaves – works well for a time, though at one point the house is so full of pianos that there’s nowhere to eat or sleep. Caroline is never short of admirers, though she has to keep them away from Mr Fox. Meanwhile the war drags on. Everyone is very excited about D Day, but nothing changes, and in fact things get worse as the Germans start sending over flying bombs:

It was horrible to wake up in the night and hear one coming nearer and making the most dreadful noise as it came; then the noise would suddenly stop and I would think, ‘This is the end’, and put my pillow on my head. There would be the most frightful crash and the doors often burst open; but it wasn’t the end after all.

So this is obviously a most remarkable first hand account of living through WW2: the fear, the losses, the agony of not knowing whether to send your child away, the effort to live a normal life and keep cheerful under such hugely challenging conditions. In the end a tragedy does strike, but Caroline is a survivor and her final words are optimistic ones: ‘I was suddenly filled with hope. I’d always felt the future held wonderful things for me. I’d never quite caught up with it, but quite soon I would. I felt sure I hadn’t long to wait’.

If you’ve already read Barbara Comyns, you won’t need urging to read this. If you haven’t, you are missing a truly unique writer. She writes like no one else I have ever read; here as in her other novels, it’s her narrative voice that is so remarkable. Graham Greene wrote of her ‘strange, offbeat talent’, her ‘innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrences’. It is this, coupled with wit, self-knowingness and a capacity for joy, that makes her writing so exceptional.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Barbara Comyns, Mr Fox (Turnpike Books, 2020). 978-1916254725, 176pp., paperback original.

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