50 Books…


15. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – Barbara Comyns

The early stream of books to include in my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About has slowed to a gradual flow, and that was sort of deliberate. I suppose I didn’t want to overwhelm people. This site mentions a lot of books – as you might expect on a literary blog – and also suggest a great deal as being worth reading. I suppose I want to say “Even if you ignore everything else I mention, pay attention to this list.” Of course, you’re perfectly welcome to ignore the list too, but I’d like you to pay special attention to them if you so wish(!) They’re all there for a reason – because they’re touching or hilarious or brilliantly written or just very indicative of my taste, and I know that you’re unlikely to hear about them unless I mention them.

So, after that little preamble, step forward no. 15 on the list – Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. Those of you who are more knowledgeable than I will have spotted that the title is from The Fire of Drift-Wood by Longfellow.

We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead;

The only other Comyns I’ve read was Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, so she certainly has a way with titles. I bought Who Was Changed… a few years ago, partly because I’d quite enjoyed Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, partly because the mix of a Virago paperback and an interesting cover piqued my interest. Had I turned to the first sentence, I daresay I’d have read the novel much sooner: ‘The ducks swan through the drawing-room windows.’ How can you not want to read on?

The novel opens with a flood, and things get stranger and stranger. If I were to choose one word to describe this novel it would be “surreal” – but surreal in a very grounded manner. Exactly like the cover illustration, actually; part of ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta: Dinner on the Hotel Lawn’ by Stanley Spencer. Throughout the events (which I don’t want to spoil for you) Comyns weaves a very real, earthy, witty portrait of a village – especially the Willoweed family. A cantankerous old lady who won’t step on land she doesn’t own, Grandmother Willoweed, rules over her docile son, Ebin, and his young children Emma, Hattie and Dennis. Grandmother W is a truly brilliant creation – without the slightest feeling for anybody around her, she is still amusing rather than demonic. For some reason this novel was banned in Ireland upon publication in 1954 – perhaps for the occasional unblenching descriptions, but these are easily skipped if you, like me, can be a bit squeamish.

Though quite a slim novel – my copy is 146 pages of large type – Comyns writes a book which lingers in the mind, one that is vivid and funny and absurd and a must read for anyone interested in off-the-wall literature with human nature at its heart.

And it’s cheap on Amazon.co.uk…

(please do go and read a rather better review on John Self’s Asylum blog here.)

22 thoughts on “50 Books…

  • October 22, 2007 at 12:35 am
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    > A cantankerous old lady who won’t step on land she doesn’t own, Grandmother Willoweed, rules over her docile son, Ebin, and… >

    She didn’t happen to see something “narsty” in the woodshed, did she?

    Thanks for the smile! I realize this character is probably much more serious than Ada Doom but I couldn’t help it – it _did_ bring up that memory.

  • October 22, 2007 at 8:08 am
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    I’ve read Our Spoons and loved it — also another of hers that I’ve forgotten the title of. It wasn’t this one, though and I shall have to get hold of this, I can see. I’m on a great Virago fest at the moment anyway.

  • October 22, 2007 at 10:41 am
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    I’ve been lurking around your blog for some time but have only felt a comment coming on when I read this post. I am an unrepentant Barbara Comyns fan but have yet to meet any other. I have all her books apart from one (Birds in Tiny Cages) which I have been unable to track down anywhere including constant prowling around Abe or Alibris.

    I love the surreal quality of her writing which I believe was inherent in her personality and upbringing. her life is almost as bizarre as her novels.

    The Virago Stanley Spencer covers match her style perfectly. What a pity they felt they had to change them. The later Virago covers are not only bland, they are wrong.

    • March 7, 2012 at 12:10 am
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      Sally – another Barbara Comyns fan here. I finally tracked down (and own) a copy of Birds in Tiny Cages … it is not her best work and was something of an anti-climax after so much seeking.

  • October 22, 2007 at 11:36 am
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    simon I enjoyed this account of Comyns and will have another go. In answer to your previous post Elaine or random j is coming to stay in the new year and I have known all of you about 2 years now. I have followed your career as you know. Hospital today still no progress with abscess. Lord must have a purpose.daphne

  • October 22, 2007 at 11:40 am
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    Nancy, I hadn’t thought of that! But yes, the description is similar.. though the characters are rather further apart. Grandmother Willoweed is much cannier.

  • March 9, 2008 at 4:57 pm
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    I just logged on to this website, or blog, or whatever it’s called.
    I love Barbara Comyn’s work -the book Harriet is thinking of might be ‘The Vet’s Daughter?’

  • July 1, 2009 at 2:59 pm
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    So glad to find your blog and a post about one of my favorite writers, Barbara Comyns. Hooray! Now I'm going to look through the other books you're recommending.

  • July 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm
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    I bought this book last weekend from Amazon based on the customer review. I thought it was a strange coincidence that it appeared on your Top 50 list so clicked in to see what you thought of it. And surprise, surprise….it was you who wrote the Amazon review, wasn't it? You're influencing reading habits in more ways than this blog :)

  • January 28, 2010 at 7:35 pm
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    Hi – I have been enjoying discovering your blog which is such a joy on a cold Thursday night…. Barbara Comyns is one of my favourite writers and I think her work is outstanding and outrageously neglected. Who was changed was actually the first one that I read and that got me hooked. I look forward t reading more of your posts! Hannah

  • January 28, 2010 at 11:29 pm
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    Hi Hannah, thanks for your message – there seem to be a few Barbara Comyns fans in the woodwork! I've now read this one, Sisters By A River, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, The House of Dolls, and The Juniper Tree. Now I'm ekeing them out, otherwise I'll run out!

  • February 13, 2010 at 5:07 pm
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    "Who was Dead…" was the first of her books for me as well – I found a copy of the Virago edition in a college bookshop's "sale books" bin, and was struck by the title, the cover art and the first paragraph. It, and "Mr. Fox" have remained my favorites, but I have enjoyed them all.

    In the years since, I've managed to acquire the UK first editions of all of her work save the ridiculously scarce "Birds in Tiny Cages" and "Our Spoons…" (I have the US edition, published by Holt), including a lovely copy of "Sisters by a River", found in an antiquarian bookshop in London while on vacation, and my prize, a copy of the Virago "The Vet's Daughter", signed by Ms. Comyns on the inside flap.

    The original jacket art for "Who Was Dead" (K.F. Rowland) and "The Vet's Daughter" (Charles Stewart) are as striking as the later Virago covers – both are, each in their own way, reminiscent of Edward Gorey's style, with Rowland's illustration very haunting, indeed.

    She will always be an obscure writer, but for those who have the literary curiosity to seek her books out will be well rewarded!

  • February 13, 2010 at 8:59 pm
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    Thanks so much for your comment, Mark, I love hearing from Barbara Comyns fans – she does seem to inspire great enthusiasm in those of us who have found her! I'd love to see the original jacket work for Comyns' novels – do you know of anywhere I can see images?

    I've not read Mr. Fox yet, but it was actually one of the first ones I bought.

  • March 6, 2010 at 11:47 pm
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    Barbara Comyns is my very favourite writer; I dip in and out of her books all the time when I want cheering up. I can't explain what it is, but I would rather have had her life and experiences than to have been a millionaire I've got all of her books except 'Out of the red into the blue,' and 'Birds in tiny cages' which I was pipped at the post to, at the very last second on Ebay….it went for £60! (my husband was gonna' treat me too – boo hoo!
    I agree that the traditional Virago book covers suit the surreal style of Barbara Comyns writing; they should never have been changed!
    So glad I stumbled upon your blog some time ago (I put you on my favourites.) But I've never had the guts to post a comment. Your reviews have led me to some really good reads…..Thank you.

  • March 7, 2010 at 8:53 am
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    Thank you for your comment, Jeano – I think I've had more people say that Comyns is their favourite author than any other author! She is wonderful, and I've rationing the ones I've got left to read… It was such a pleasure for me to see BC's house a few weeks ago.

  • January 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm
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    It's worth noting that a handsome new edition of this book (which I've just read myself) has recently been published by Dorothy, a publishing project. Perhaps lacking the cachet of those Virago Modern Classics of old, but a lovely little thing nonetheless.

  • January 6, 2011 at 12:23 pm
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    John – thanks for reminding me! Must get hold of it… I liked the cover illustration they chose.

  • January 8, 2011 at 11:39 am
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    Have been reading comments with interest as I've managed to get all except two of BC's books online (except 'Out of the red into the blue,' and 'Birds in tiny cages' ). I could have had one of these at £50 but at the mo am not prepared to pay that! I have just finished the Juniper Tree and sort of feel that I enjoyed that the most but then… hmmm…. I've still got Mr Fox to read as I have been reading them in the order they have been written. I am no great literary authority but enjoy a well-written good read and find her books very difficult to put down. I have an added interest; in fact this is how I first heard of BC when a friend, on hearing we had just moved to Bidford, said I must read her books. Then I find Barbara Comyns lived at the end of our road and we can look out of our window at her house!
    What shall I do when I have read all I can get hold of?!

  • January 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm
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    Anthea – thanks so much for your comment – if you look for Comyns in the drop-down authors menu in the left-hand column, you'll find I've written about a few others. I've still got some on my shelves to read, thank goodness! Birds in Tiny Cages I managed to get out of the Somerset Library system, believe it or not – it was great to be able to read it, but I must confess it was probably the worst Comyns I've read.

    How fun that you live in Bidford! I gave a talk on Comyns to the Bidford History Society a while ago, as one of my best friends lives there. Well, she lives in Paris now, but her family are there – maybe you know Wendy and Mark Shaddick, who live opposite the church? It was wonderful to see the outside of Comyns' house – I'd love to look round it…

  • March 15, 2011 at 1:53 pm
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    Barbara Comyns is such an astounding, risk taking writer.
    I was utterly seduced by "Our Teaspoons" which I need to re-read.
    So glad she has a little fan club out there.
    So interesed that you met Bee at the book talk in Oxford.
    I suppose like is attracted to like.
    I am stuck away in Manhattan…….

  • March 15, 2011 at 5:14 pm
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    Elizabeth – thanks for stopping by! Barbara Comyns gets so many people coming by and saying how much they love her, long after the review, which hardly any other authors featured on my blog do. I adore her, she's now one of my favourite writers, and her popularity has definitely grown through various blogs. Do check out my other reviews of her novels, if you're interested, by clicking on her on the drop-down author menu in the left-hand column.
    Simon

  • April 6, 2011 at 10:03 am
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    I too am a Comyns fan – a few months ago I approached various publishing houses to see if they would reprint her books, to no avail.
    She certainly deserves it.
    She has a lightness of touch – if I can apply that to writing – which I find delightful. I 'save' her books, not wanting to read them all at once, but rationing them! I started to read her, from the library, many years ago, but now would love to own all her books.

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