Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns

One of the many lovely things about being at home in Somerset is that most of my books are down here. Although I have several hundred unread books in Oxford, I have many more in Somerset that I don’t get to run my eyes over everyday – and so there are some fun surprises on the shelves here.  Not so much books I’d forgotten about, but certainly books I hadn’t expected to be able to read soon.  Saturday was so sunny and lovely that I wanted to pick up something that perfectly matched my mood.  And what better than to treat myself with a long-awaited Barbara Comyns?

Oh, how did you get into the picture, Sherpa?

I’ve read nearly all of Comyns’ novels now (saving just A Touch of Mistletoe) and I’d thought that the styles divided neatly into two – the seven novels of the 1940s-’60s, and the three which she published in the 1980s after being rediscovered by those bastions of rediscovery, Virago Modern Classics.  Well, if I’d read Mr. Fox blindfolded (…as it were) then I would have placed it in the first group.  Which is a very good thing, in my book – Mr. Fox (1987) is up there with Comyns’ best books, in terms of tone, character, and sheer calm madness.

The setting is World War Two, and the heroine (of sorts) is typically Comyns territory – Caroline Seymore has a young daughter (Jenny) but is quite like a child herself.  As she narrates her life – running from flat to house to flat, avoiding bombs, selling pianos, cleaning for a neurotic vegetarian – she is that wonderfully Comynsian combination of naive and fatalistic and optimistic:

I still had a feeling something wonderful was going to happen, although it was taking a long time.  Perhaps it was just as well to get all the sad part of my life over at one go and have all the good things to look forward to.
I don’t think any sentence could encapsulate the outlook of a Comyns heroine better than that.  As always, we have the surreal told in a matter-of-fact way, and the novel reminded me most of The Skin Chairs.  It is like someone telling their life story in one long breath, slightly muddled, with emphasis falling equally on the significant and insignificant.  It makes reading the novel a bit disorientating, but in a lovely way – you just go along for the ride, and wait to see what will happen.  And it makes it all feel so believable, because surely no novelist could craft something so detailed and yet so arbitrary?

And the Mr. Fox of the title?  He is that wartime speciality, the spiv.  There never seems to be any romance between Caroline and Mr. Fox, but they live together to save money and conduct their curious operations together – whether on the black market or, as mentioned, selling grand pianos.  He is a charming man, and Caroline seems curiously drawn to his ginger beard, but he also has a ferocious temper – and Caroline is often happier when he’s not around.  The pairing is bizarre – a marriage of convenience that isn’t actually a marriage.  It adds to the surreality of the novel, and I can’t really work out why he gets the title to himself, since Mr. Fox seems to be so much more about Caroline.  Or even, indeed, about the Second World War.  With air raids and rationing and evacuees, Comyns uses the recognisable elements of every wartime novel or memoir, but distorts them with her unusual style and choice of focus.  How many times have we seen films or read novels with a scene of anxious villagers gathered in church to hear war declared?  Compare that with the way in which Comyns shows it:

On Sunday I could stay at home because the men from the Council took a holiday; so the Sunday following my visit to Straws I was washing and ironing all the curtains so that they would be fresh for the new house.  I listened to the wireless as I ironed, but I was thinking of other things and was not listening very carefully; then suddenly I heard Mr Chamberlain telling everyone the war had come, it was really here although outside the sun was shining.  It didn’t seem suitable to iron now the war had really come, so I disconnected the iron and stood by the window biting my nails and wondering what to do next.

Mr. Fox, like all her novels, is also very funny.  Mostly that is because of the naive but unshockable voice which is cumulatively built up, but I also loved lines like this:

I hoped they liked warmth, because I had an idea vegetarians thought it unhealthy to be warm or comfortable and usually lived in a howling draught

The novel has such an authenticity that I wonder if Comyns kept it in a drawer for decades.  I wish somebody would hurry up and write a biography of her, because I’d dearly love to know more about her life – if it is a tenth as bizarre and captivating as her novels, then it’d make for a splendid biography.

If you’ve never read any of Barbara Comyns’ work before, I’d still recommend starting with Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead or The Vet’s Daughter (and probably not Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, which is her most well-known and my least favourite), but you wouldn’t be doing badly if Mr. Fox was your first encounter with her.  And if you already know and love Comyns, make sure you find yourself a copy of this one – you’re in for a treat.

16 thoughts on “Mr. Fox by Barbara Comyns

  • March 17, 2014 at 1:10 pm

    I have a heap of Comyns I need to read, including the recent Viragos with modern covers. If only there was more time for books…

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      The age-old lament! At least Comyns' are very short…

  • March 17, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    I was wary of this one, thinking that later meant lesser, but you make it sound wonderful. It may be coming off the shelf very soon …

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      I think you'd like it a lot, Jane. The other two later books (The Juniper Tree and The House of Dolls) *are* somewhat lesser, I think, but this one definitely isn't.

  • March 18, 2014 at 8:25 am

    I like your point about the balance between significant and insignificant — I think that insignificant can be much harder to do well so that it itself becomes significant. I'm reading a very annoying crime fiction book at the moment (Arne Dahl, The Blinded Man) which tries to play smartly with cliches of both everyday life and of crime fiction, and just becomes an annoying mess of triviality without unforced meaning.

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Oh dear, that sounds like one to avoid! Writers who can make the insignificant significant are the holy grail – however they do it.

  • March 18, 2014 at 5:01 pm

    Having bought the three recent reprints, I shall start soon with The Vet's Daughter as recommended then! This one sounds delightful too.

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:24 pm

      Yay! Can't wait to hear what you think, Annabel.

  • March 19, 2014 at 9:57 am

    I've always thought the title was a reference to the fairy tale, but it's very indirect isn't it? And doesn't fit neatly.

    Would you like to read A Touch of Mistletoe? I can lend you a copy – email me your address if you'd like it and I'll send it to you.

    I think someone is working on a biography of Barbara Comyns, but alas I have forgotten her name. So there is hope!

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:25 pm

      That's so kind of you, Helen – I do actually have Mistletoe waiting for me on my shelves, though – I'm just saving it (preferably til Christmas!)

      Laura was writing a biog years ago, but I don't know whether she decided to keep going…

    • March 23, 2014 at 8:46 pm

      Well I hope you enjoy it!

      Hmmm, it wasn't a Laura… Although if you know a Laura who was writing a biography, then I consider it your duty to the rest of us to use all forms of persuasion necessary to induce her to finish it. :)

  • March 19, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    After reading about Barbara Comyns in blogs over the years, I finally got The Vet's Daughter from the library yesterday. As soon as I finish Stoner, I will start The Vet's Daughter.

  • March 19, 2014 at 5:03 pm

    The Skin Chairs is my favourite Comyns, so I'm obviously going to have to find a copy of Mr Fox.
    Oh, Sherpa is *so* pretty (wistful sigh…)

    • March 21, 2014 at 9:26 pm

      You definitely are, Jodie, especially if The Skin Chairs is your favourite – this one really reminded me of it.

      (And I know! I'm always so tempted to sneak her into my bag…)

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