The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. Her early work had involved magical or mystical aspects, such as a strange plague and levitation. For The Juniper Tree Barbara Comyns retold the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable. She retells it with a feminist slant.
The Juniper Tree
Bella is young, rather messed up, scarred and good at letting other people make decisions for her. When the story begins she is drifting after the end of a relationship with a mean young man who was driving when she received the injuries that resulted in her scars. She has a little money in the bank.
For a time this money seemed a curse to me, yet I wouldn’t share it with Stephen. It was the insurance money paid for my damaged face. … For some reason Stephen thought we should share it, although he was responsible for the damage. (18)
Bella seems very susceptible to this kind of treatment by people and not to be very decisive herself. She has a daughter by a man whose name she can’t remember. The child, Marline also called Tommy, is mixed race and very attractive. Bella and her daughter are taken up by a couple called Gertrude and Bernard Forbes. They are a well off couple who long for a child
Bella finds a job running a second hand shop and enjoys herself for the first time, but she becomes more and more absorbed into the Forbes’ life especially after Gertrude becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Gertrude dies having given birth to a son. Now Bella is roped in more and more to the housekeeping chores and childcare and eventually Bernard marries her. You probably can guess what is coming.
Bernard takes up another young girl and Bella realises that she has left behind a life that she really loved. Then the little boy is killed accidentally, in a storage chest for some apples. Bdelieving she was responsible Bella tries to hide the death from Bernard. She has a breakdown.
Magpies do appear in this story, together with some details from the Grimm tale, such as the juniper tree, a red slipper and stolen jewellery. But there is no bloody revenge, only some soul searching, including an emerging understanding that because Bella was susceptible Bernard persuaded her to do things against her better judgement. Bella, though malleable, is also a trooper and she learns to trust her own judgement and ends up happily married to someone else.
The most destructive person in Barbara Comyns’s version is Bella’s mother who treats her very badly when she is a child, although they are later reconciled. It turns out that she too has been badly treated by a man.
The writing style is very even. The sentences follow one from another, regardless of the many mishaps in Bella’s life. Sometimes there are little warning bells hidden inside this evenness.
… I told him the truth that I was quiet because I felt so happy, and he [Bernard] said, “How extraordinary, people so seldom admit they are happy. Gertrude did and look what happened to her. Take care, dear Bella. Happiness is a very fragile thing, but no one deserves it more than you.” (103)
It was published in the 80s but it felt more like the 60s. Although there is a trademark Comyns surreal feel to everything.
The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp
You can find the Grimm’s version of the story in Grimm Tales for young and old by Philip Pullman, published by Penguin Books in 2012. 420pp
Books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword:
Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (April 2018)
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (March 2019)