Comyns Barbara

Barbara Comyns: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

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.