Every so often I am lulled into a false sense of security by a Virago; some of them are quite short books with rather large print and thus I am deceived into expecting them to be ‘easy’ books. That was certainly what went through my mind when I picked up The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns to read on the train yesterday morning, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was very surprised to learn that Barbara Comyns was inspired to write this while on her honeymoon in Wales though, as it’s far from being the idyllic, romantic novel that you would hope someone would produce while in the first flush of love and is really rather dark. This was not a book I bought myself, but one that I was kindly sent by my LibraryThing Virago Secret Santa in 2010, so I knew very little about it and the author was entirely new to me. All I can say is that she did a splendid job of choosing books for me if this one is anything to go by, as, while it wasn’t an easy read and I would hesitate to term it an enjoyable one, it was very powerful and well-written book and the perfect way to begin Rachel and Carolyn’s Virago Reading Week.
The Vet’s Daughter tells the story of Alice, the eponymous vet’s daughter, who lives in an unfashionable area of London with her irritable, brusque, cruel father, her timid, suffering mother and a whole menagerie of animals. Following a series of traumatic occurrences in her life, Alice discovers that she has the ability to levitate and things appear to improve for her: she moves to rural Hampshire to act as companion to a frail lady and finally begins to enjoy herself away from the tyranny of her father. However, this cannot last for long and soon she finds herself even worse off than before.
The novel is written in the first person from Alice’s perspective, in prose that is spare and bleak with not a single word being wasted and no event without significance at some point in the novel. The starkness of the writing makes the terrible things that happen stand out because they are reported in such a mundane way, such as when she tells the reader:
One morning a dreadful thing happened. A man came to measure Mother for her coffin as if she were dead already. He said Father had told him to come. (p. 18)
The straightforward nature of these simple statements makes it seem as though these situations are usual, and my heart went out to Alice every time I read something like this that she should think that the case. Her voice is lost and sorrowful, a child trying to make sense of an adult world which is cruel and confusing, and at times it is almost painful to read. There are brief flashes of happiness, but these are fleeting and serve only to provide glimpses of what the reader quickly suspects Alice will never be able to attain. These pleasant experiences are always cut off prematurely, such as when Alice’s friend Lucy comes to visit:
Then she produced a fortune-telling tape-measure and we laughed a lot over it. My waist measurement said, ‘Next year’, and my wrist ‘He loves you’ and my nose ‘A sailor’, and my head ‘You will be surprised’. We were still laughing when I heard Father come in and I knew our happy time was over and I would have to get Lucy out of the house quickly. (pp. 33-34)
Although she is the narrator, Alice has no agency in this sad little novel: things happen to her and all she can do is talk about them to the reader. Her power goes no further than little things, such as rescuing a woodlouse from the fire with a teaspoon, and that makes this actions seem all the more poignant and significant. There are times when she appears to be able to exercise her own will, but this is swiftly undermined as Alice is brought back down to where she started. Her lack of ability to act makes her seem somehow detached from the events of the novel, as though she is disconnected from them even though they happen to her. This detachment is manifested in Alice’s levitation, which Comyns handles very skillfully. I like the way that at first it is impossible to say whether Alice really floats in the air or whether it is just her imagination protecting her mind from things that have happened to her. Even so, told in the same style of prose as the rest of the novel, her levitation comes across as simple fact and I accepted it without question. At one point she makes the very logical argument that:
Perhaps it was something that often happened to people but was never mentioned, like piles — I’d seen an advertisement “Why suffer in silence?” — but they were rude things, most likely, and floating would be rather nice when one became used to it. (p. 121)
Even Alice’s levitation goes from being something that she can control at will to something that she must do at the will of others and so it is in many ways emblematic of her position in the novel. It’s not just a silly device to add interest or get around awkward plot problems (my issue with a lot of magical realism) but an integral part of the book which is vital to the tragic yet inevitable ending.
I thought that the cover of this edition is perfect. The girl in the picture by Walter Crane, famous for his children’s book illustrations and his beautiful edition of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen, not only has Alice’s distinctive blond hair, she also displays a blend of innocence and sadness which is exactly in keeping with Alice’s character. Virago haven’t done nearly so well with their cover for the newer reissue of the book, brought out in 2000. The girl on the cover looks altogether too healthy, robust and jolly to be Alice and, for that matter, scandalously dressed for an Edwardian lady. In fact, had I seen this book with the new cover I would never have picked it up, assuming it was about sturdy, practical girls having a jolly good time in the countryside. Don’t let the rather ill-chosen cover image put you off though, as this is an excellent book and well worth reading.
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Published by Virago, 1981, pp. 190. Originally published in 1959.