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Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

So there’s this odd family, the Willoweeds, who live in a village some time around 1900. Things happen and after that some of them are changed and some of them are dead.

Many readers have enjoyed this short novel since it was published in 1954. I have seen it called idiosyncratic, biblical, quirky, dark, surreal, strange, macabre. Is it a fairy tale? Or an allegory? It’s certainly engaging.

The story of Who was Changed and Who was Dead

The focus of the short novel is the Willoweed family who live in a big house in a village near a river. Grandmother Willoweed dominates the village, although she has taken an oath not to set foot on land that is not hers. This creates a problem when she must attend a funeral, but it is solved by putting her in a boat. The title implies that the reader will see how this family are affected by events.

Here is how the novel opens.

Time: Summer about seventy years ago

Place: Warwickshire

Chapter I

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. (1)

So from the start, the world is awry. The time is also awry, for the book was published in 1954, which would put the action in the late 1880s according to the heading. But the novel also takes place in 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George V. Time and place are awry. So is the Willoweed family.

The grandmother has a forked tongue and a nasty, selfish personality. Her son Ebin is disappointed and disappointing, having been sacked from his post as a journalist, cheated on by his wife who then died giving birth to her third child. Ebin is cowed by his mother, and unkind to his children. He ignores Emma, the oldest, takes every opportunity to belittle Dennis, and makes a favourite of Hattie, who is not his daughter. The household also includes a pair of sisters, long-suffering maids and Old Ivor, who owns the ducks and looks after the gardens and is determined to outlive Grandmother.

Following the flood, which causes chaos, kills livestock and changes the appearance of everything, more troubles assail the village. Villagers begin dying, experiencing painful and maniacal episodes before death, symptoms of ergot poisoning, associated with rye flour. In the village various people are afflicted, including the baker’s lascivious wife. One of the maids becomes pregnant, but is able to pass off a miscarriage as an episode of the same illness that afflicts the villagers. At Willoweed House little Dennis succumbs.

After so many goings on, so many funerals, so many escape attempts, so much affliction and falling in love, conversion and boredom, it is rather disappointing that the novel concludes with Emma adopting a conventional and happy life in Kensington. The young doctor who attends the family falls for her and they get married, despite the opposition of the old woman.

Reading Who was Changed and Who was Dead

One of the delights of reading Who was Changed and Who was Deadis the descriptive and imaginative power of Barbara Comyns’s writing. Here are some of the guests at Grandmother’s annual birthday whist drive.

Grandmother Willoweed always declared the clergyman took opium, perhaps because he rather resembled a Chinaman. His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like petals from a dying flower. The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. (23)

The hostess receives her guests.

Grandmother Willoweed wore a magenta gown trimmed with black lace, and on her head three purple plumes attached to a piece of dusty velvet. The magenta gown was split in several places; but she considered it was the general effect that mattered. (24)

And the story moves on at a good pace. There is no lingering over events, not the butcher’s suicide, the appearance of Doctor Hatt’s splendid new yellow car, the many funerals nor the illnesses in the village.

I experience the events of Who was Changed and Who was Deadas a child might, to whom nothing is strange or remarkable; things happen or don’t and the world just goes on turning. Events succeed events, some are linked and some are not. Some are changed and some are dead.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon in Bidford-on-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(1959).

Here is the link to the review on HeavenAli’s blog that led me to read this novel.

And here’s another enthusiastic review, this one by Simon on Vulpes Libris.

Who was changed and who was deadby Barbara Comyns, published in 1954. I read the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1987, with an introduction by Ursula Holden. 146pp

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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