Tag Archives: Jane Gardam

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Many years ago I read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and earlier this year I read and reviewed Who was Changed and Who was Dead. The Vet’s Daughter  is another novel I have reread. And I am enjoying rediscovering what Graham Greene called the ‘offbeat talent’ of Barbara Comyns. I was also nudged into rereading The Vet’s Daughter when I found it on a list of the scariest books by women, which I found through Twitter (I think). 

The scariness of this novel lies in the evil behaviours of many of the characters. The vet, father of the narrator, is the worst. But there is also the wannabe rapist Cuthbert, encouraged in his assault by Alice’s father’s girlfriend. There are the Gowleys, who keep house for a depressed older woman and treat her with routine cruelty. And there are the many people who would exploit Alice’s naivety and helplessness. 

It’s a strange and macabre novel, well worth the rereading.

The Vet’s Daughter 

The novel is set in Edwardian times, when the motorcar and horse carriages coexisted. The vet, his wife and daughter live in Clapham, South London. The vet is disappointed in his wife, and regards his daughter as worse than an inconvenience. The animals in his care are not well looked after either, the parrot consigned to the toilet, and every week a taxidermist arrives to remove unwanted animals. The vet’s casual neglect provides a backdrop of menace. Here is the second paragraph of the book.

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog my father would have destroyed her. (1)

The much-quoted opening paragraph introduces the reader to a random conversation that Alice has with a man on the street, who tells her his wife belongs to the Plymouth Brethren. It establishes her naivety and her gentleness. In this paragraph I notice how things are paired with no obvious connection: home/ animals’ smell; brown hall/mother; and so on. The text, ending with the brutal statement about her father, establishes the lurking danger. As it happens, the crooked teeth are explained later. Their crookedness resulted from the vet’s violence.

Alice’s mother is feeble, ill and dying. She cannot stand up to her husband and recalls to Alice her idyllic childhood in Wales. After her death Alice’s father loses no time in bringing into the house the strumpet from the Trumpet. Alice describes Rosa as having clown make-up and rolling her eyes when she speaks. Rosa puts on a refined accent which slips under any pressure. She encourages a friend called Cuthbert in his attentions to Alice, and engineers the situation in which the girl is almost raped.

Alice is rescued from the hell that is her home by her father’s locum, who arranges for her to be the companion to his severely depressed and suicidal mother who lives on an island in the Solent. With Mrs Peebles life is better for a while. Alice meets Nicholas, who leads her on and then ignores her, behaviour which distresses and puzzles her. When Mrs Peebles is found drowned Alice must return home. 

Alice has discovered that she has a special ability, and when it is revealed to her father he plans with others to exploit her powers for financial gain. Alice has her own form of resistance, but it does not end well. The final scene is horrific.

Alice’s character is naïve, artless and this makes the cruelty to her all the worse. Her narration of events emphasises her lack of worldliness. She observes odd things, gives wrong attention to some things and none others. She is lyrical in happiness and wretched in misery and has little of the first and much of the second. Here is an early paragraph in which she sums up her typical day and her passivity.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage, escaping gas and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time. (4)

She is shown kindness by several people in the novel, but the abusive neglect of her father makes him one of the most monstrous characters in fiction.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. This was her fourth novel. 

You can find my review of Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns here

Two blogs encouraged me to reread this book: Heavenali and Simon Lavery on Tredynas Days.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, first published in 1959. I used the Virago edition, with an introduction by Jane Gardam. 159pp

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The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam

127 wooden hat coverElisabeth Feathers is the protagonist of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat, one of the trilogy that also includes Old Filth and Last Friends. What are we to make of Elisabeth Feathers in old age? Her life, it is suggested was all of a piece, or made up of several interrelated pieces throughout, the differentiating factors is not age but her relationships with other people. We note that she is known by many different diminutives, different identities for different people: Elisabeth Mackintosh, Elisabeth Feathers, Betty, Lizzie, Lizzie-Izz.

In her perceptive essay, How to end it all, Hermione Lee asks a number of questions writing about death in biography in Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing. One of them is pertinent here:

Do you, in the tone you choose, and also in matters of structure and interpretation, try to give the death meaning and derive from it some sense of a resolution of the life? (p200)

The question is relevant to Elisabeth Feathers who dies as she plants out tulips. We should beware of seeing people’s lives as somehow encapsulated by the manner of their death.

This is the eleventh in the series of older women in fiction on this blog (click on the category older women in fiction to view the others).

Why marry Old Filth?

Elisabeth is a competent and intelligent woman, experienced in life in the Far East, fluent in Cantonese and one of the Bletchley war-time code-breakers. The novel explores her life from the point at which she decides to marry Edward Feathers, aka Old Filth. For those not familiar with this trilogy, filth is an acronym for Failed in London try Hong Kong. Feathers is a lawyer, soon to become a QC and then a judge. We wonder why Elisabeth is planning to marry him, since neither of them seem especially enthusiastic or in love. Indeed, Elisabeth spends the night before her wedding with Terry Veneering, beginning a relationship, which, like her marriage lasts the rest of her life. It turns out that this is one of the many compromises she makes, which bring her a comfortable and stimulating life.

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

Hong Kong Star Ferry by Greg Willis (2005) via WikiCommons

And in later life?

And here’s a summing up of her later life. She and Filth decide not to retire in Hong Hong, because it will be handed back to the Chinese very soon, but to a renovated cottage in Dorset.

Just as she had rearranged herself into a copy of her dead mother on her marriage, now she began to work on being the wife of a distinguished old man. She took over the church – the vicar was nowhere – and set up committees. She joined a Book Club and found DVDs of glorious old films of their youth. She took up French again and had her finger- and toe-nails done in Salisbury, her hair quite often in London where she became a member of the University Women’s Club. She knew she still looked sexy. She still had disturbing erotic dreams.

She quite enjoyed the new role, and bought very expensive country clothes, and she wore Veneering’s pearls (Edward’s were in the safe) more and more boldly and with less and less guilt. (p216-7)

I like this description of adjustment, of adaptation to the allotted and chosen roles, with its slightly disturbing undertow.

Is her life ‘messed’?

Perhaps Veneering was right when he suggested that they had messed up their lives. In their late middle-age they meet accidentally in a gallery in The Hague, and they share a joke about the figure of the title: the Man in the Wooden Hat.

And he took her hands and said, ‘When did you last laugh like this, Elisabeth? Never – that’s right isn’t it? We’ve messed our lives. Elisabeth, come away with me. You’re bored out of your head. You know it. I know it. And I’m in hell. It’s our last chance. I’ll leave her. It was always only a matter of time.’

But she got up and walked out and down the circular staircase, the water from the canal flashing across the yellow walls. He leaned over the rail above, watching her, and when she was nearly down she stopped and stood still, not looking up.

‘You’re not wearing the pearls.’

She said, ‘Goodbye Terry. I’ll never leave him. I told you.’

‘But I’m still with you. I’ll never leave you. We’ll never forget each other.

On the last step of the staircase she said, ‘Yes I know.’ (p225-6)

She is not unhappy with her choices, her sacrifices. Both she and Terry are better off with the marriages they chose.

Happiness?

She is unhappy about being childless, however. Her friend Amy, a missionary in Hong Kong, has hundreds of babies, is in love and happy. (All the things Elisabeth is not, perhaps). She wanted children, but there were miscarriages and eventually a hysterectomy. Instead she develops an affection for Veneering’s son, and it is his death that provokes her final actions.

I wanted her to be happy, perhaps because she came from a generation that had to rely upon men for their material wellbeing. It is Jane Gardam’s skill to present a flawed and privileged woman, who has also suffered during her life (not just her own childlessness, but the death of her parents in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp), with a great deal of affection. She was a survivor, one that gave a great deal to the two men in her life, and to her friends, and who may not have achieved her intellectual potential, but nevertheless offers a version of integrity. Integrity is something to aim for throughout life, I guess. And in both senses of the word: honesty and integration.

Here’s a link to another blog review by A Common Reader. He suggests that a long-lasting marriage requires secret compartments, a little like the mysterious Ross’s hat. And he sheds light on the title.

Have you read this trilogy? What do you make of Elisabeth Feathers? Is her later life a good model for older women?

 

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews