Barbara Comyns: A Savage Innocence 
by Avril Horner.
Manchester, 347 pp., £30, March, 978 1 5261 7374 4
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‘But you’ve killed me!’ Barbara Comyns’s daughter, Caroline, recognised her younger self in Fanny, the little girl who dies of scarlet fever in Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. ‘Poor, beautiful little Fanny! her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty.’ On its first publication in 1950, when Caroline was fifteen, Comyns insisted on the insertion of a qualifying sentence at the beginning to the effect that ‘the only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters Ten, Eleven and Twelve and the poverty.’ In fact it was mostly true, a stark recollection of her first marriage, of the mixture of grit and glamour in the artistic bohemia of interwar London, and the most vivid account since Gissing’s New Grub Street of the everyday humiliations and terrors of urban poverty. The marriage falls apart under the strain and Sophia takes a lover, Peregrine, who is married to a ‘horrible old woman’ with a face ‘rather like a determined oyster’. Fanny is his child. The real Caroline didn’t die, but neither did she know that she was the child of Rupert Lee, the real Peregrine. Her fictional death was perhaps intended as a protective measure because neither her supposed father, John Pemberton, nor her real father was of much use to her. In the novel Peregrine, on being told of Sophia’s pregnancy, ‘put on a very sad face, then put his face in his hands, but he cheered quite soon and said, “Perhaps it will be born dead.”’

Comyns was writing with hindsight about herself as a naive young woman who knew nothing about birth control. ‘I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said “I won’t have any babies” very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come. I thought that was what was meant by birth control.’ But Sophia soon discovers ‘that idea was quite wrong’ and resents the fact. ‘Why should all these babies pick on me?’ she wonders. After her son – Sandro in the novel, Julian in real life – was born Comyns terminated her next pregnancy. Abortion was still illegal and expensive. She and John begged the money from friends and, when there were complications, Comyns couldn’t go to hospital ‘because we would have all gone to prison if I had’. She, like Sophia, got better but ‘my mind didn’t recover at all.’

Unwanted children feature prominently in Comyns’s work, as do children who are neglected, abused, endowed with supernatural powers, disruptive, imaginative and periodically violent. ‘See stars, Mummy,’ Sandro says before hitting Sophia over the head with an iron bar. It is this intertwining of fact and fiction, realism and surrealism, that gives Comyns’s work its power. Six of her nine novels are first-person narratives, the voice always childlike in its directness. In her lifetime this prompted comparisons with Stevie Smith, which Comyns did not care for, and indeed she had little in common with Smith, the suburban celibate whose authorial self is firmly if oddly poised, while Comyns’s always seems at the mercy of events. For the reader of her novels it doesn’t matter how reliable a witness she was to her own life, but for the biographer the facts are important. Avril Horner has much to untangle, not least because Comyns, who saw herself primarily as an artist, came to writing late, not publishing until she was almost forty, when the experiences on which her early fiction was based had been overlayed by later impressions. Horner has also to deal tactfully with a life well within living memory: Comyns was born in 1907 and died in 1992. Her family have given Horner generous access to the ‘carefully kept boxes and boxes of letters’ they still retain.

Her childhood in rural Warwickshire gave Comyns the material for her first book, the series of sketches grouped together as Sisters by a River. It was essential to much of what followed in both life and work, though she was lucky to get out of it alive. She herself was the original of the peculiar children and the childlike voices that recur in her later writing. Her father, Albert Bayley, a prosperous brewer and keen amateur photographer, enjoyed taking pictures of his growing family. In one of them, Comyns’s mother, Margaret, stands behind her children, lined up in descending order of height, their hands on one another’s shoulders from Margaret, bending slightly to reach Molly, who bends one knee to reach Dennis, and from there down an even descent through Nan, Barbara and Kathleen, who holds a doll. It is a picture of harmony and continuity, like the Elizabethan church monuments in which mothers and fathers kneel with their children behind them. There was to be one more child, another girl, Chloë. In their pinafores and hair ribbons, with Dennis in knickerbockers, all shy smiles against a background of lawn and shrubbery, it is the stuff of the long Edwardian summer, and equally illusory.

Albert had first noticed Margaret when she was ten and living with her widowed mother, Annie Fenn, in a cottage belonging to the Bayley family. He was calling about the overdue rent and seems to have written a proportion of it off on condition that when Margaret was old enough to cook for him he would come back and marry her. This Hardyesque bargain was made good in 1903, when Albert was 39 and Margaret twenty. It pleased nobody for long. The Fenns despised the Bayleys for being in trade and Albert’s sisters were critical of Margaret but, as Sisters by a River explains, things improved when ‘Daddy tierd [sic] of being surrounded by bickering, posessive [sic] women, so he sent his sisters off to Folkestone where they stayed until they were dead.’ The tone of Comyns’s work was set. Although her spelling improved, she seems always to have struggled with it (Horner suggests that she may have been dyslexic). Her publisher’s decision not to correct the text of Sisters by a River reinforces the quality of ‘savage innocence’ that Horner ascribes to her subject.

The Bayleys’ marriage was turbulent and Margaret had a difficult labour with her last child, after which she became suddenly and permanently deaf. The loss of hearing seems to have compounded a tendency to mental and emotional remoteness. Comyns recalled later that her mother had ‘a kind of gypsoflia [sic] mind, all little bits and pieces held together by whisps’. Her children learned sign language but she was inclined to look away from anything she did not want to see. ‘I won’t look at your hands. I hate you all.’ The Edwardian idyll – Margaret ‘lying in a shaded hammock on one of the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of’ – was backlit by violent scenes. The children’s ‘most usual punishment’ was being locked in the boot room. Comyns didn’t mind this much but one of her sisters, who was claustrophobic, ‘broke the glass panels of the door and threw the glass at Mammie’, after which ‘there was a lot of blood and screaming.’ Comyns’s father once horsewhipped her for making a mess with her egg at breakfast (‘it was so dreadful I couldn’t even cry out’) and after her parents had one of their fights, Margaret jumped out of the window of the bedroom in which she had been locked and appeared downstairs ‘badly broozed’ to continue the row. When Albert ‘saw she was loose again he beat her up and smacked her face … but we didn’t really feel sorry for her, only disgusted with them both’. In a rare moment of co-operation, Margaret and Albert attempted to push Margaret’s mother, who lived with them, out of an upstairs window. Defenestration was prevented only by the width of her hips. Mrs Fenn eventually died. ‘Poor Granny, we couldn’t help being rather relieved she was dead.’

In the margins of the family battleground, pregnant maids are dismissed, a village girl is raped and goes mad, the gardener won’t allow Margaret to do any gardening so she steals the key to the greenhouse and smashes his plant pots and he weeps. Behind it all is the Avon in which animals and sometimes children drown and the Bayley girls enjoy exploding the bloated corpses of sheep. It is also where Barbara finds her occasional moments of peace on early summer mornings when she goes out in a rowing boat and is soothed by the light and the birds and the solitude. Sometimes in summer there is tea on the lawn with guests ‘and everyone would think what a happy lucky family.’

Her brother Dennis, ‘a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it,’ was the only one sent to school. He became a sales manager for International Paint and was despised by his sisters for living such a conventional life. They took their own patchy education from a succession of governesses, some of whom coped better than others. Miss Vann lasted three years until Comyns, ‘before I hardly knew what I’d done,’ kicked her downstairs. ‘She left soon after this.’ So it was that when Albert, who was drinking heavily and going bankrupt, had a stroke and died suddenly in 1925, none of his daughters was equipped to earn a living. None had yet married, and the course of subsequent events shows how little had changed in the position of single middle-class women since Sense and Sensibility. Relatives gave unhelpful advice. Margaret moved to a rented cottage with the younger girls while the older ones had to find work. There were a limited number of unattractive possibilities. Nan trained as a typist and Comyns went to Amsterdam as a kennel maid. She wanted to be a sculptor and when she turned 21 a small legacy from her father enabled her to go, on a scholarship, to Heatherleys art school in London.

Thus began her life among the artists. She met John Pemberton and they became bohemians, frequenting the Café Royal and the Eiffel Tower in Percy Street, painting their walls yellow and talking about Van Gogh. Both families were horrified when they married and Comyns was accompanied at her wedding only by Nan and her own pet newt, kept in a damp handkerchief in her pocket. Horner doesn’t make clear why there was so much disapproval, but as events unfolded they justified the reservations. In the pattern familiar in bohemia, Comyns’s career, always secondary to her husband’s, collapsed completely when they had a baby. John resented any constraint on his independence and, as the relationship deteriorated, Comyns embarked on an affair with his uncle by marriage, Rupert Lee, whose wife, Madge Pemberton, was the woman with a face like a determined oyster. These years of what Comyns later referred to as ‘the poverty’ were bleak and in some ways sordid. Bohemia ran on the same capitalist system as the rest of the world. Lee was a leading figure in the London Group of avant-garde artists, which included Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, but Bloomsbury always had its £500 a year and rooms of its own. Lee, who had parted from Madge, though she would not grant him a divorce, was now in a relationship with the artist Diana Brinton, who was also active in the London Group, and independently wealthy. Even if he had wanted to leave her for Comyns, it would have been financially ruinous, so he didn’t. When Comyns became pregnant with Lee’s child, Brinton paid for her medical care. For the rest of their lives the three of them remained entangled, bound as much by money as by love and bitterly resentful at times about both.

The most important event of the interwar years for the development of Comyns’s ideas was her encounter with Surrealism. The International Surrealist Exhibition, held in London in 1936, was a sensation. Lee and Brinton both had work in it, as did de Chirico, Magritte, Max Ernst and every other key figure in the movement. André Breton, dressed all in green, opened the show. Dylan Thomas circulated with a cup of string asking guests if they liked it weak or strong and Salvador Dalí nearly suffocated while giving a lecture in a diving suit. Practical considerations forced Comyns to give up painting and sculpture but when she turned to writing instead, her work was permeated by Surrealism. The novels inhabit the half-unconscious world of dreams, domestic interiors made strange and out-of-body experiences. It is unlikely that she knew the work of Dorothea Tanning, who later married Ernst, but anyone familiar with Tanning’s blazingly peculiar scenes, populated by female figures, often semi-naked, in houses where gravity is suspended and scale monstrous, will be reminded of them by Comyns’s fiction. In Sisters, Barbara and Beatrix find a stick that they pretend is a horse and sit astride it: ‘We found ourselves slowly raising from the ground, soon we were flying through the sky, we were not at all afraid.’

Sisters by a River was published in 1947 and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths in 1950. Comyns’s work always divided critics and this second novel alienated some who had admired the first. Julian MacLaren-Ross, who praised Sisters as ‘a piece of family history recorded by a precocious child conversant with the novels of Gertrude Stein’, was afraid that the child had now got her hands on some unsuitable material. His hostility in the TLS towards this ‘rather commonplace story’ suggests a squeamishness about the same affectless, descriptive powers being used to describe adultery, sex and abortion. Either the narrator or, as he thought, Comyns herself had not become ‘quite grown up yet; she is still at the age of confusing selfishness with honesty.’ It is a bizarrely personal criticism to make of the author of a work of fiction. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph was more direct about the ambivalence her authorial voice generated. ‘If the naivety is calculated, she is an extremely skilful writer; if not, she is still a very good one.’

Horner makes no attempt to settle the question either way, but it haunts the biography. The reader never gets past the persona or situates Comyns herself in relation to it. Outside her work she does not always appear an attractive character. After Pemberton left her, she took up with Arthur Price, a small-time criminal and con man, helping him in his second-hand car business. She became ‘a part of that world’ and was amused by chatting in the pub to a couple of his friends ‘who specialised in robbing post offices and had it down to a fine art’. When one of Price’s associates stole an expensive typewriter from an American officer on a bus, Price bought it from him and gave it to Comyns. ‘Delighted to have it, she began writing seriously again.’ At one point she converted briefly to Catholicism. That wore off, but not before it had led to yet another change of school for Julian. The children were fond of Price, except when he hit Caroline. Comyns cast him as a captivating rogue when she made him the title character of a novel set in wartime, Mr Fox. By then, however, she felt the relationship had run its course. Fox dies at the end of the story and about a year later Price himself died, too, a coincidence that ‘rather frightened me’, Comyns remarked.

Her most admired and least autobiographical novel, The Vet’s Daughter, appeared in 1959. Graham Greene, who championed Comyns throughout her career, provided a jacket quote praising her ‘offbeat’ style and the reviews were almost unanimously enthusiastic. Some critics demurred at the narrative being not only in the first person but, it transpires, posthumous, though this isn’t the strangest thing in a strange story. Set in Edwardian Clapham, the titular vet is a man of monstrous temper who bullies his wife to death and then wants to be rid of his daughter, Alice: ‘I hope I shall never see you again … Did you know you couldn’t walk until you were two?’ Trapped in the claustrophobic suburban household, Alice discovers that she can levitate at will. She knows little of the world and is unsure whether this is a socially acceptable accomplishment. Her attempt to use it to impress a young man she’s in love with suggests not. ‘“Christ! Stop it, stop it, I say!” I opened my eyes and turned towards him. Our faces were on a level, only mine was horizontal. His face looked white and dreadful.’ The vet, however, sees the commercial potential and plans to exhibit Alice’s talent on Clapham Common. It doesn’t end well.

By the time​ her first books appeared, Comyns was married to her second husband, Richard Comyns Carr, from whom she adopted her pen name. She met him through Lee and Brinton, and the three remained enmeshed in their torturous triangle. After Caroline’s birth Comyns had become increasingly desperate for Lee to acknowledge the child and leave Brinton, whom she upbraided furiously for not giving him up. Not all her letters at this time are rational. It seems likely, as Horner speculates, that she was suffering from postpartum psychosis. Lee, however, still refused to recognise Caroline and Price scented an opportunity for blackmail. He pushed Comyns to extract some kind of financial compensation, but he was no match for Brinton who, out of a mixture of self-interest and genuine affection for the baby, manipulated Comyns with threats and promises. She paid for her to see her own doctor, Annis Gillie, who not only wrote to confirm that ‘Mrs Barbara Pemberton has been in a mentally unstable condition at intervals, for some months’ but sent Brinton a certificate of insanity with a note: ‘I think that it is so important that you should have it. Keep the document for a real emergency but do feel free to use it then.’ This meant that Brinton had the power to have Comyns forcibly detained at any moment. She never used it but what it reveals of her character, and of the brutal realities behind the bohemian front of sexual and moral freedom, is shocking.

Here, as elsewhere, Horner’s narrative is oddly flat. Her method is biography as chronology, with due weight given to each phase of Comyns’s life. This evens out the momentous pitch and toss of several periods in which as Comyns herself said ‘dreadful things seem to never stop happening all the time.’ The ‘boxes and boxes’ of letters have perhaps been a mixed blessing. Horner sometimes seems reluctant to select from the mass of detail. In 1975 Comyns’s daughter-in-law, Pat, killed herself. Horner notes that ‘the whole family was badly shaken by Pat’s suicide. To take their mind off the tragedy, a few weeks later Barbara and Richard adopted a mild-natured greyhound from the RSPCA.’ The reader is told more about the dog, Petra, than about Pat, whose life and death slip by in less than a paragraph. There are other loose ends. Lee was killed in a car crash in 1959 when Caroline was still unaware that he was her father. When she found out, if ever, isn’t clear.

Although Carr was very different from Price – ‘chalk and cheese’, as Horner puts it – he came from the world of the higher bohemia with which Comyns was familiar. The Comyns Carr family had been prominent in the circles around the Pre-Raphaelites and the Aesthetic Movement. Richard’s grandmother designed the sensational beetle-wing costume in which Ellen Terry appeared as Lady Macbeth. Committed Liberals in politics, they had also produced a number of distinguished lawyers. Richard, with his combination of tweed, brogues and a job in the Foreign Office, his taste for gold-tipped cigarettes and a subscription to an anarchist magazine, had not fallen far from the tree. They married in 1945 and spent their honeymoon in Wales in a cottage belonging to the mother of Carr’s friend and colleague Kim Philby. The association with Philby, to whom they became close (‘so nice and such fun’), was the shadowy background to the second half of Comyns’s life. She always maintained that she and her husband had no idea he was a spy. It is quite possible that she herself, with her capacity to believe and not believe many improbable things at once, did not in any significant sense ‘know’. It is also possible she may have known and not minded. But it is hard to disagree with her account of the reasons for Carr’s dismissal from the Foreign Office in 1955: ‘They said that either he must have known and therefore was a traitor, or that he hadn’t spotted it and therefore must have been a fool.’ This is another question that Horner leaves open.

After Carr was fired the couple moved to Ibiza and then to Barcelona. For many years they were watched by MI5 and eventually, under cover of journalism, Carr did some espionage himself for the British, but finances remained precarious and Carr was not strong. Comyns complained that he ‘costs so much to keep warm’. In the 1960s her writing began to fall out of favour and her publisher dropped her. Brinton, now living alone since Lee’s death and in some splendour in Spain, suggested that the Comyns Carrs should come and live with her and that they should all end their days together. In a lifetime of questionable decisions, Comyns’s acceptance of the offer is one of the most baffling. It was, of course, a disaster. The balance of financial power meant that Comyns was always beholden. Brinton expected her to keep house. The staff despised her and her husband and stole from them. There were more tearful scenes and angry letters, with Brinton manipulating Comyns into thinking she was being unreasonable, until eventually they returned to England in 1974.

The return wasn’t easy, but it was much improved by the revival of interest in Comyns’s work. She had always believed, she said, that something wonderful would happen to her after all her troubles. The deus ex machina was Carmen Callil. Callil had established Virago Press to publish – and republish – women’s writing and she immediately saw the point of Comyns. In the 1980s, beside the magic realism of Angela Carter, another Virago author, Comyns’s work seemed prescient. Its combination of raw female sexuality and unexplained violence inhabited the same imaginative space as the paintings of Paula Rego, now having her first solo shows in Britain. Comyns lived to enjoy her renaissance, partying at the Virago offices and drinking at the Groucho Club. She published her last novel, The Juniper Tree, in 1985. ‘How sad it is that we have to die,’ she wrote in 1986, preferring the sort of ending she gave her characters: ‘much better if we just faded away or turned into birds.’

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Vol. 46 No. 10 · 23 May 2024

I was delighted to see Rosemary Hill’s review of my book about Barbara Comyns, but there were one or two inaccuracies (LRB, 9 May). For example, with regard to the identity of the biological father of Comyns’s daughter, Caroline, Hill claims that ‘When she found out, if ever, isn’t clear.’ But I make it quite clear in the book that Caroline was 75 years old when she saw letters confirming that Rupert Lee was her biological father. Referring to my treatment of the complex relationship between Comyns and her lover’s partner, Hill remarks that ‘here, as elsewhere’, my narrative is ‘oddly flat’. She implies, perhaps, that I should have been more judgmental. My biographical approach was to let readers decide for themselves.

Avril Horner
Kingston University, Surrey

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