The novelist and painter Barbara Comyns – who was admired by Graham Greene and found champions in Maggie O’Farrell, Ursula Holden and Sara Waters – was born in 1907 in Bidford on Avon in Warwickshire, close to where I now live. Two of her eleven novels are set in Bidford itself, or a place very like it. It is a place she makes strange and wonderful and not a little bizarre.
The river Avon runs through those two novels, Sisters By a River and Who Was Saved And Who Was Dead, like a serpent; beautiful, mesmerising and at times dangerous. The river is prone to flood: in Who Was Changed the novel opens with the arresting lines: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.”
It’s the matter of fact way she describes scenes of great beauty and great horror that makes them so compelling. “A passing pig squealing, its short legs madly beating the water and tearing at its throat, which was red and bleeding, and a large flat-bottomed boat followed with men inside.” Just so.
The river is a place of refuge as well as death. The house where Barbara Comyns was born stands well within reach of a major flood. Bell Court (referred to as Shellford Court in Sisters) dates back to at least the sixteenth century. It is still one of the most prominent houses beside Bidford’s short High Street, now a cul de sac but once the main road through the village. Often the girls would escape to the river to avoid their parents’ ferocious rows.
In her introduction to one of her later novels The Vet’s Daughter, she offers a rare glimpse into her autobiography. Of her childhood she says, curtly: “We seldom mixed with other children and spent most of our time in boats, often fishing. It is extraordinary that none of us were drowned because only two of us could swim.”
Drownings are not uncommon in her imagined world. As the flood recedes in Who Was Changed the garden is littered with dead animals: “A few strange dead objects lay about. Old Ives collected them and put them in a stokehole. Dennis sadly watched him pushing in a peacock.” Later Ives produces a dead kitten from his pocket, “its ginger fur had come away from its tail and the bone was exposed.” It too is chucked into the stokehole to be burned. In Sisters, “a very dead boy” emerges beneath her father’s rowing boat while he is fishing, “…it was one of the Drinkwaters.”
Barbara Comyns was born Barbara Bayley, one of six children to a middle class family. Her father she describes as a “semi-retired director of a Midland chemical firm”; her mother was an invalid, much younger than her father, “with a gypsoflia mind, all little bits and pieces held together by wisps,” who suddenly went deaf and with whom the children quickly learned to speak in sign language. Her father was a violent man, prone to fits of temper, and resentful of his wife and children: her mother for the large part was depressed and in bed. Their grandmother, who appears in both books and is a formidable character, is not a little mad. She rules the household like a tyrant, abusing servants and governesses with equal aplomb.
The picture Barbara Comyns paints of this pretty, quiet village on the banks of Shakespeare’s River Avon, is anything but bucolic, though it has its moments of tranquillity. In Sisters she describes haymaking in Big Meadow (as it is still known) across the river: “…we would take our tea over in boats, the newly cut hay in its foaming rows seemed as good as the sea to us, no-one seemed to mind when we made nests and houses in it…” But even this delightful childhood scene is touched with a darker reality: “…but there was one thing that made me sad, there were quantities of poor frogs with their legs mutilated by the mower, and some were cut right in half”.
The vision Barbara Comyns paints of her home is remarkable for the fact that it neither indulges in nor shies away from the fact that much of rural life in the golden age of Edwardian England was sometimes harsh and occasionally cruel, by our standards at least. There is little place for sentimentality.
Original Image: Paul Englefield, Creative Commons