It’s about time I paid heed to Virago Reading Week, which has been popping up all over the blogosphere this, er, week. Thanks Rachel and Carolyn! I love it when publishers are hailed in this manner – long-term SiaB readers may recall I ran an I Love Hesperus week many moons ago, and of course have enjoyed Persephone readalongs, and cheered from the sidelines for NYRB Classics. As luck would have it – it certainly wasn’t my organisational ability – I happened to be halfway through a Virago when the week began, and even my current sluggish reading pace has allowed me to finish off The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns.
Props to Thomas (that’s a good American expression, right? As is that ‘right?’ there.) for his Virago banner, by the way. If you think you recognise those pics, head over here for Thomas’ competition.
It’s no secret that I love Barbara Comyns – she’s probably in my top five favourite authors, certainly top ten – and I’m fast reaching the end of her books. Just two novels to go… so I’m treasuring them as I go, and The Skin Chairs is no exception.
When I first started reading Comyns, I thought her novels were bizarrely different from one another, in terms of style. It’s only now, looking back, that I realise I started off with the three most disparate I could have chosen – Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and The Juniper Tree. Having read more of her books, I realise that she does have an identifiable tone – surreal but matter-of-fact; an unnerving but captivating mixture, and one which leads to a very unusual angle on events. As shown most effectively in The Vet’s Daughter, but also on occasion in The Skin Chairs, even cruelties are dealt with in this unshockable, even tone. Here’s an example:
When she had gone we let Esme’s mice loose in the sitting-room, although they didn’t seem to enjoy it much, keeping close to the skirting board most of the time. There used to be a girl in our village who was continually beaten by her parents and I remembered she used to walk like that, close to the walls.
Lest you think this is a miserable book, I must add the scolding given to children when they sit on some graves: ‘Nanny found us and said that we had no respect for our bottoms or the dead.’ There are plenty of laugh-aloud moments.
The Skin Chairs is told in the voice of ten-year-old Frances, one of six children, who must go and stay with her Great-Aunt’s family: ‘My mother[…] sometimes became tired of us and would dispatch us to any relation who would agree to have one or two of the family to stay.’ Shortly after this, and having endured Aunt Lawrence’s unwelcoming home, Frances’ father dies and the rest of her family move to an unlikeable, small modern house. Relative poverty is a theme throughout Comyns’ writing, and she relishes writing of their privations – nightdresses made out of old sheets; ‘not being able to play with paint’, and so forth.
As with other Comyns novels, not much happens. This one has a little more of a central thread through it than some, in terms of the family’s destiny, but Comyns is best at her bizarre hangers-on. Chief amongst these is Mrs. Alexander, with her red-purple hair, turbans, mustard-coloured car, and golden shoes (repainted each evening by her chauffeur.) She keeps monkeys, and cleverly builds a wall after buying a piano, so that the bailiffs can’t remove it when she goes into debt. Then there is young widow Vanda, who neglects her baby, but thinks she’s doing a good job as the infant never goes short of orange juice. How Comyns thinks of all the tiny details, I can’t imagine. So many are bizarre and wonderful – unexpected, but not dwelt upon – and always mentioned so calmly.
The first day at school was not so bad as I expected. The worst part was when most of the girls trooped off into the dining-room and we had to eat our sandwiches in one of the classrooms. The only other occupant was a particularly plain girl wearing a patch plaid blouse and eating a pork pie. She said she adored eating pork pies and ate them in her bath.
And those skin chairs of the title? Yes, they’re human skin, and belong to a Major who lives in a large house in the village. They pop up near the beginning of the novel, and reappear every now and then – with some significance, but the true justification for the novel being called The Skin Chairs doesn’t rest with that. I think they’re the perfect symbol for what Comyns does best: the domestication of the surreal; the macabre passed over with matter-of-fact interest, and no more – there is probably a girl eating a pork pie close by, which will be equally involving.
If you haven’t read any Comyns yet, I urge you to do so (The Skin Chairs is going for a penny on Amazon.) The more I read of her, the more I feel sure that she has been unjustly neglected – and is one of the most intriguing novelists of the twentieth-century.