Monday, 5 March 2012

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I prefer the old livery of the Virago Press which was ivy green with an oil painting on the cover. The present colour is a pea green with a photo. In the case of The Vet's Daughter it is a photo from the Hulton Getty Picture Library of an unidentified woman on a three legged stool milking a cow. It looks suspiciously like a land girl. However this is no bucolic idyll but a tale of a sort of an urban pet prison, near a railway arch in Clapham for all members of the animal kingdom including those classified as rational by Aristotle. Alice's father has his practice there.. Her mother is there with them too, a sad ailing creature whose crooked teeth are the result of rearrangement by Papa's boot. -

so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.

The menagerie theme is carried through the first chapter which is darkly funny and brings into focus the macabre aspect of the British love of All Creatures Great and Small.

Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the carved mantlepiece there was monkey's skull with a double set of teeth, which seemed to chatter when you looked at them.

As I mentioned before Comyns is quirky, a metaphor drawn from cabinetmaking which designates that part of the moulding like a little ledge which marks a crisp transition to the main curve of the ovolo. On that 'quirk' she often lays an odd observation which marks off the main trend of the description.

While I was looking at it, he came thundering out of his office with a thing like a large private rat under his arm. It turned out to be a mongoose.

(a dream) Across a terrace, an almost square politician walked towards me. He came so near our shoulders touched and sparks flashed from us. From the trees small cries and groans came, as if they were women in pain, and I thought, 'I did not cover the parrot with flannel,' and was awake in my bed.

In fact it her mother that is crying out and this is for her death which is protracted and painful. The doctor comes and pain medicine is given but after a consultation with the vet husband she falls into a deep coma and dies without recovering consciousness perhaps sped on her way with the easeful death that he is supposed to deliver to animals which he instead sells on to a vivisectionist.

Clearly if this were not a minor masterpiece you would throw it across the room. Each moment of your reading deepens and intensifies the sense of a world that is perfectly real.
Her father who goes away for 3 weeks after the death, comes back with a strumpet from the bar, The Trumpet, where he plays billiards. She is both sinister and stupid and after setting Alice up with a nasty man called Cuthbert who tries to rape her is ejected from the house. At this point Alice is sent away as a companion to the mother of the locum who minded the practice while her father was away.

This old lady is living in a semi-burnt out large house with a curious feature; the floors are all cast iron grille work which is covered with lino and carpets. Comyns who renovated old places for sale must have come across an example of such perhaps retrofitted where there was interior fire damage. In any case as a metaphor for the permeation of different spaces by light from above or below it creates the exact psychological parallel for the transformation of Alice.

Her room in this house was once the locum's as a boy:

I noticed that the oilcloth on the floor was embossed with pictures from Struwwelpeter, very worn in places but quite recognisable. There was poor Suck-a-Thumb and the Red-legged Scissor Man and that chubby lad Augustus and the boy with the long hair and nails. Sometimes there were holes in the pictures, and I saw light filtering through and realised my bedroom was floored with openwork iron. I was lying on the floor looking through a hole at the grey-and-white flagged hall below when suddenly the door opened without anyone knocking, and I looked up to see Mrs. Gowley grinning at me.

When as B.C. tells us in her introduction to the novel that it seemed to write itself we may be sure that the inner structure was drawn from some archetypal source and that she had only to colour in between the lines. Calling her protagonist Alice is clue enough and her long hair flowing down. Consider Rosa alternatively frightening and wheedling a Red Queen. Then Henry Peebles , the locum, with "his body somehow looked rather like a tree-trunk" is the opposite number of the evil vet and a benign Tweedledee. There are 4 Queens in the novel, mother,Rosa, Mrs. Churchill the kindly charlady and Mrs. Peebles. There is a beautiful Prince and gallant Hussar in the form of Nicholas the sailor. Moreover there is mentioned the terrifying tales of Strewwelpeter and the evil that befalls those that do forbidden things.

The novel progresses to its end and it has moments of uplift but not quite as you know them.

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