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