‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 - Save & Share - 17 Comments

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.

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17 Responses to “‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns”

Comment from Annie
Time January 25, 2011 at 9:42 am

I’m with you about the covers, but not sure about why her discovery that she could levitate signals an improvement in Alice’s life. Personally I would be seriously worried if I were to wake up one morning and find I was hovering six inches above the mattress. Perhaps I’d better read the book and find out more:)

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 25, 2011 at 9:50 am

A poorly written sentence on my part there: the two things were supposed to be separate, although Alice is certainly pleased by her newfound abilities. It’s quite an odd book.

Comment from Rachel
Time January 25, 2011 at 3:01 pm

I’ve never read any Comyns but you have intrigued me. This sounds like a very poignant, and unusual novel, and Comyns certainly isn’t, from what I know of her, a run of the mill writer, so I would expect something a little off the beaten path. I wasn’t in a rush to read her before but now I might just give her a go! Thank you for taking part in the Reading Week, and I’m very glad that you chose a book you so enjoyed. I am entirely in agreement about the covers, by the way – a lot of Virago’s choices for their modern editions are ill advised, in my opinion!

Comment from FleurFisher
Time January 25, 2011 at 10:36 pm

Barbara Comyns is a genuine one off and it is lovely to be reminded of this particular book that I read many moons ago. And I quite agree with you on the covers.

Comment from Penny
Time January 26, 2011 at 9:44 am

I’m so glad to have found your blog, thanks to Rachel’s Virago round-up.
I have many Viragos, collected over a few decades from charity shops, but I’m afraid I don’t have any by Barbara Comyns, which is a great pity, as I’d like to read this one. At first, when I saw that you hesitiated to call this an enjoyable read and then mentioned that she levitated, I wasn’t too sure, but the more I read of your review, the more I felt I’d like to try it. After all, I’ve read plenty of books about down-trodden or unfulfilled young women and have been glad I did so, even though ‘enjoy’ isn’t really the right word!
Thanks for a very interesting review. I’ll be scouring the charity shops for this one! And now… Off to add you to my blogroll…

Comment from Penny
Time January 26, 2011 at 9:57 am

Update! I DO have one of her books: ‘Our spoons came from Woolworths’. It’s in my TBR bookcase, so hasn’t joined the Virago shelf yet…

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 26, 2011 at 10:16 am

Thank you very much! It was an odd little book, but I find odd can be quite effective when it’s the right sort of odd. At 190 pages it’s a very short book, and I always think that short books are worth taking a gamble on even if you aren’t entirely sure you’ll enjoy it. Good luck with the hunt for a copy. I’m now keeping an eye out for anything else of hers.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

She is an unusual writer, yes. I’m eager to read more of her work now to see if this book is a one off or if they’re all similarly unusual.

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 26, 2011 at 10:20 am

I’m glad to have nudged her a little further forward in your reading queue! It is a shame about some of the modern covers, although having said that I’m rather fond of the new cover for ‘South Riding’ and vastly prefer it to the older one I have. So perhaps there is hope?

Comment from Alex
Time January 26, 2011 at 8:52 pm

What an amazing sounding book! I’ll certainly be looking out for that one and an edition with the old cover. I agree with you – the new edition’s cover seems a bit mad. Enjoy Virago reading week….I loved your comment about small books with large print being sometimes deceptive :)

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 26, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Flicking through my Virago pile (there is no space for them on the shelves so they’re stacked neatly up the side of one of them) it would appear that quite a few of them have the giant font, even books which have a relatively high page count as well. I wonder why this is. I hope you enjoy the reading week as well and good luck finding a copy!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 26, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Yay! What a fortuitous find! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did this one. Please do let me know how it goes.

Comment from Simon T
Time January 26, 2011 at 11:28 pm

I’ve come here via Rachel’s blog – so pleased more bloggers are reading Barbara Comyns. Five or six of us read The Vet’s Daughter together in mid-2010, and all loved it – Comyns was already one of my favourite authors. She’s so surreal, but matter-of-fact and straightforward along with it. My favourite of her books is Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead – but I’ve also just read The Skin Chairs and loved that; a review will probably be up on my blog by the time you read this comment!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time January 27, 2011 at 11:09 pm

I’ve just been catching up with today’s Virago posts and commented on your review! Like all Virago authors I’ve so far encountered, I read this one book and found myself wondering why her books aren’t more widely known, as her writing is just superb. I’ll definitely be looking out for more of her writing, so thank you for the recommendations.

Pingback from It’s late… « Scottish Vegan Homemaker
Time January 31, 2011 at 4:43 pm

[...] then picked up Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, having read a great review Old English Rose  wrote about another of B.C.’s books, The Vet’s Daughter.  I don’t have that one, [...]

Comment from Hannah Stoneham
Time May 17, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Thank you for sharing an excellent review of a top book, I totally agree with you about the covers!

Comment from oldenglishrose
Time May 19, 2011 at 10:47 am

Thank you very much! I loved this book and will be looking out for more Comyns soon. It is a shame about some of the newere Virago covers, but I love their new reissues of Winifred Holtby’s novels, so perhaps they’re getting back on track.

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