January 6, 2011

Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Posted in Comyns Barbara at 8:00 am by John Self

A chance encounter with Dorothy, a publishing project (probably via the ever-distracting Twitter) led me to this book. It is beautifully published by them, in a squarish format and waxy cover. Comyns has another title reissued through NYRB Classics, and another available from Virago in the UK where she lived and worked. This piecemeal availability (rather like Patrick Hamilton’s) will have to do, though Comyns deserves better: the book reminds me of other English originals such as Muriel Spark or Penelope Fitzgerald. Like theirs, Comyns’ novel is a curious work which does not explain itself, and teases the reader between comedy and darkness.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954) takes its striking title from Longfellow’s ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood’:

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

Like the poem, the novel concerns itself with recounting the past: “Summer about seventy years ago” is the setting. At the beginning is a flood: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.” The windows belong to Grandmother Willoweed, formidable matriarch of both her family and her Warwickshire village, more or less of the landed gentry but not always ladylike (“What do you think I pay you for, you insubordinate slut?” she rebukes one of her maids). Dependent on her are her son Ebin and his children Emma, Hattie and Dennis.

The realisation that we are in for a surprising journey comes early, when as a result of the flood “the hens, locked in their black shed, became depressed and hungry and one by one they fell from their perches and committed suicide in the dank water below. [...] For a few moments just their red combs were visible above the water, and then they disappeared.” This detail is more significant than it appears. By comically giving human attributes to birds, Comyns also pre-warns us that the people in her book will be no more dignified or impressive than animals for their supposed higher status. Certainly she is not lenient on her human characters. Ebin Willoweed, emasculated by his mother, feels so much “a failure in everything he undertook” that he is depressed by the mere sight of the full river “flowing with such purpose and determination.” With money worries and family fears, “sometimes in the night he thought about the future quite a lot.”

Who, the reader wonders, is the real tyrant here? Grandmother Willoweed, or her creator? When her anti-heroine licks her lips to tell her granddaughter a brutal story, Comyns lets us know (those animal qualities again) that Grandmother Willoweed has literally a forked tongue.

She put her glass down on the sideboard and said, “Doctor Hatt was called away in the middle of my whist drive. His wife was worse – her nose was bleeding.” She filled her glass from the decanter and gave Emma a strange glance.

“Well, people’s noses are always bleeding. You are supposed to put a large key down their back.” [...]

Grandmother Willoweed took a sip of port, and looked with her lizard-like eyes over her glass.

“Well, my dear, a key wouldn’t have been much use in this case; this was a peculiar kind of nosebleed. It went on and on until the bed became filled with blood – at least that is what I heard – it went on and on and the mattress was soaked and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs Hatt died.”

Grandmother Willoweed is teasing her listener just as Comyns does with the reader; the truth or otherwise of what she says is neither here nor there. We are all engaged in this process of storytelling together. What Mrs Hatt suffers is nothing to what is yet to come for other villagers: they will follow the hens and the doctor’s wife to a liquid death.

In a book where everything seems to have double meanings, Grandmother Willoweed is mocked as well as feared. Her refusal to cross any land she doesn’t own means she must attend Mrs Hatt’s funeral by sailing down the river on a barge, looking simultaneously like the guest of honour and figure of fun. Unable to hear the villagers’ jeers from the shore, she “thought [they] were paying her homage, and bowed gravely.” Later, a delivery of small loaves of rye bread to every villager is to be as ominous as the chapatis in The Siege of Krishnapur. “Then the shouting started, that appalling shouting started…”

If all this doesn’t persuade you of the merits of this eccentric, charming, ambiguous little gem, then recognise the mark of honour that Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was banned in Ireland on its publication. Perhaps they were fearful of the suicidal chickens exerting a malign influence on Ireland’s own poultry and domestic fowl.

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32 Comments »

  1. Linda Grant said,

    In my attempts to persuade you of more fiction by women, have you read Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour?

  2. I’m very interested in the Dorothy project and have been keeping an eye on them for a while. I’ll definitely add Comyns book to my TBR pile, as much to check out a Dorothy publication as to read Comyn (anything that was once banned in Ireland is worth reading!)

  3. John Self said,

    Thanks Averill. Dorothy’s other two books are both contemporary titles, which for some reason interest me less than this reissue. But I will be keeping an eye on them anyway.

    Linda, I haven’t read Good Behaviour but it has been on my watch-list since reading this blog post last year. In fact just the other week I was in The Works when I saw that they had two Molly Keanes in their 3-for-£5 range so I bought those (The Rising Tide and Devoted Ladies), though I don’t know how they compare with Good Behaviour. I see on googling her that these titles were published almost 40 years before Good Behaviour!

  4. Linda Grant said,

    Good Behaviour is her masterpiece, I’m afraid.

  5. leroyhunter said,

    I read about this on The Second Pass just yesterday John…a nice coincidence. I was pretty interested right away – I looked up the patchwork availability you describe – so consider me sold.

    That is a curious fact about the banning in Ireland. What a wonderful country we were! (and, of course, continue to be).

  6. Lee Monks said,

    I’ll get hold if this, then, and put it in the piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiile for somewhere down the line. The excerpts (lazy comparison alert) do resemble Muriel Spark for some reason: that incessant kind of barely concealed and disquieting glee.

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Self. John Self said: "Eccentric, charming, ambiguous." On my blog today, Barbara Comyns' WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD: http://bit.ly/fIOTO3 [...]

  8. seventydys said,

    Lovely piece on Barbara Comyns. The Muriel Spark & Patrick Hamilton comparisons gives people unfamiliar with her work a good steer. Virago re-issued a number of her novels in the 1980s which is how I discovered them – The Skin Chairs, A Touch of Mistletoe, Sisters By A River – and I liked them all but Who Was Changed remains my favourite.

    I’ve just been rereading Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour – which has a similar flavour to BC – it’s a dark and comic masterpiece; a hugely enjoyable read that’s very underrated. It can be seen as part of the ‘Big House’ genre of Irish novels and, if we were playing a game of literary triangulation (oh, the fun we have!) you could place it between Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September and John Banville’s Birchwood.

  9. Nice find John, and not an author I was at all familiar with.

    Willoweed, it’s a rather fantastical name isn’t it? The sort one might find in 18th Century fiction (Lydia Languish and Captain Absolute, that sort of thing) or in a children’s book. From the tone, I suspect that’s entirely intentional.

    How did you get your copy?

  10. John Self said,

    I visited the Dorothy website, Max (link in review intro), where they direct non-US buyers to Small Press Distribution. (In fact when I ordered my copy, last year, they didn’t have any in stock, and I had to use the supplier of last resort, Amazon Marketplace, but they have plenty now.)

  11. Ah, I had a look there but couldn’t see anything saying what the shipping charges were until you were most of the way through the ordering process. I’ve found in the past that shipping from the US to Europe can be ruinously expensive (often much more than the cost of the items shipped) which rather put me off.

    Our Spoons Came from Woolworths though is a marvellous title (it’s the Virago one) and that is available in the UK. Horribly generic cover of a sort that could be attached to any of a hundred books by authors marketed at women (in a rather patronising way designed to make vastly different books all look like chicklit) but that’s hardly Comyns’ fault.

  12. Have you read any Chris Paling by the way John? I was just looking at his The Repentant Morning but don’t know much about him.

  13. John Self said,

    I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t remember, Max! I know I did have a couple of his books – Newton’s Swing and another – but I can’t recall if I ever read them. He’s been one of those under-the-radar authors for most of his career (I believe he is or was a BBC radio producer in his day job) but I’ve read mixed responses to his books (some suggesting he is rightly overlooked) and haven’t been tempted to explore any further. A Town by the Sea though does have a lovely paperback cover. I’ll be interested to read your thoughts if you ever do succumb.

  14. Guy Savage said,

    I have The Vet’s Daughter by Comyns, so this nudged me to get to it sooner than later.

    BTW Good Behaviour is a wonder (as noted by the other poster).

  15. The reference to Hamilton ended up with my tracking down the publisher London Books, which turns out to have Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City on its list (as well as some fascinating looking 1930s London noir titles that Guy might well like).

    Funny how things spiral out. I look at a Comyn, and will likely buy a Kersh…

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks Guy. And I too have The Vet’s Daughter, in the NYRB edition.

    By the way I am pretty sure it was seventydys, who commented above, whose tweet first brought Dorothy, a publishing project, to my attention. (And I suppose in the ‘Big House’ genre of Irish novels, Farrell’s Troubles would be bringing up the rear…)

  17. Simon T said,

    What a brilliant review – I went back to my own, and realised that I had no idea how to express how great I thought Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was. It’s also one of my favourite titles – so lucky that the contents were unusually good too(!)

    I will definitely get a copy of the new edition, because I love its aesthetic, but might have to go with Amazon marketplace, unless postage is affordable.

    Have you read other Comyns novels? I think it’s a shame that Our Spoons is the one in print in the UK, as I think it’s far from her best. In fact, I read it first, and wasn’t going to bother reading more Comyns, until I picked Who Was Changed off my shelves years after I bought it. Now Comyns is one of my favourite authors. I recommend The Vet’s Daughter is your next port of call.

    She also wrote three late novels, 20 or 30 years after her previous heyday, and they are of a very different nature. Still good, but much less surreal.

    Thanks again for this great review.

  18. seventydys said,

    It was probably me as I’m given to going on about Barbara Comyns.

    Dorothy is the project of an interesting American writer called Danielle Dutton. She also designed your – very lovely – edition of Who Was Changed. There’s an interview with her here at BOMB magazine here: http://bombsite.com/issues/1000/articles/4754

  19. Simon T said,

    Just checked the distributor you suggest… $19 shipping, for a $16 book, means I’m going to be heading to Amazon marketplace…

  20. Steph said,

    I’ve seen this title reviewed on a few blogs now and you can count me in as one of those people who would LOVE to read it if I ever find a copy! Kooky, eccentric fiction with a dark thread running through it is exactly my bread and butter!

  21. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments, folks (and your kind words, Simon). It looks as though the book being out of stock was a blessing in disguise for me, with that cost of postage! Or you could try The Book Depository who currently have it in stock, at £11.61 with free postage.

    I think I will take your advice, Simon, on my next Comyns. I don’t like the cover of Our Spoons anyway! (So much less appealing than those older Virago Modern Classics.)

    Seventydys, I see too that Dorothy has on its board both Martin Riker (who’s with the valuable Dalkey Archive Press) and Devin Johnston, whose collection of essays, Creaturely, was another recent purchase influenced by you.

    Steph, I’m unsure where you are in the world, but I hope you can get hold of this book – try the link above for starters.

  22. I’ve ordered a second hand copy John. From the quality level it sounds like it’s not going to be one I’ll keep (yellowing pages apparently) so once I’ve read it I’ll probably pass it on to someone else who’s interested.

    I’ll link here once I’ve read it myself and written up my own thoughts. I also picked up a Kersh and an Alexander Baron. My pocket grows thinner as my shelves grow fatter…

  23. And seeing your link to the Book Depository (I really should have checked there) I’ve cancelled my second hand order and shall get it there instead. Thanks John.

  24. JRSM said,

    Comyns is wonderful. She was intensely irritated by the manner of publication of her first book, though: having been only semi-educated at home, since she was a girl and her parents didn’t see the point of sending her to school, her spelling was atrocious. Since the book was told from a child’s viewpoint, the publishers left all the selling mistakes in, to give it extra verisimillitude, but Comyns felt deeply humiliated.

    ‘The Skin Chairs’ is worth finding second-hand: the title comes from a set of chairs upholstered with human skin which an old colonial army official brings back to England, much to the fascination of the small girl who is at the centre of the book.

  25. JRSM said,

    And speaking of Chris Paling, his ‘The Repentent Morning’ is very much a Patrick Hamilton ‘tribute’ novel.

  26. Biblibio said,

    “Lizard-like eyes”? And to think that I thought suicide-committing chickens would be the strangest thing mentioned from the book!

  27. John Self said,

    Well, she does have literally a forked tongue too, Biblibio, so the lizard-like eyes fit right in!

    Thanks for the additional info, JRSM. You could always give us a new edition of The Skin Chairs in Whisky Priest Books;-)

  28. Simon T said,

    I’m just about to start The Skin Chairs, coincidentally enough… and I wish I’d seen your tip about Book Depository before I paid rather more on Amazon marketplace! Oh well. I always forget the BD exists…

  29. [...] from something different. . . . I recently linked to an appreciation of Barbara Comyns. Now, John Self reviews one of her books, an “eccentric, charming, ambiguous little gem.” . . . George Orwell had some experience with [...]

  30. The Barbara Comyns that is totally unobtainable but, in my opinion, very good – is her memoir of 1950s Ibiza – Out of the red and into the blue – I would *love* it if that were reprinted!

  31. John Self said,

    Thanks Hannah – I see what you mean about unobtainable – at least not for a hundred quid or more! Yikes. I am sure one of our enterprising classics lists will pick it up eventually. *starts emailing*

  32. [...] Barbara Comyns – Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead - Asylum review [...]


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