Invisible Ink: No 136 - Barbara Comyns Carr

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The Independent Culture

The pocket magazine Lilliput is usually considered (if anybody considers it at all anymore) a quirky Bloomsbury amusement for clubbable gentlemen. Each cover featured a man, a woman and a terrier, and inside were tasteful photographs of naked ladies interspersed with fiction from some genuinely superb authors. It was responsible for bringing these writers to wider audiences, one of whom was Barbara Comyns Carr (nee Bayley).

Born in 1907, she trained as an artist and married one, and although they were well-connected within London's artistic community, her husband proved incapable of fidelity or, indeed, of making a living. Broke and desperate, Carr fell in with a black marketer, hopping from flat to flat as the money ran out. She repaired pianos and bred poodles to make ends meet, sold antiques, drew advertisements. But when her fortunes continued to decline, she took a job as a cook in a country house and began to write stories for her children.

Carr's luck changed when she met the civil servant Richard Comyns Carr. Her childhood biography, Sisters by a River, was serialised in Lilliput magazine under the title "The Novel Nobody Will Publish". She wrote about impoverished artistic days in Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and later about happier times shuttling to Barcelona in Out of the Red and into the Blue. Although she published 11 novels in all, The Vet's Daughter, a fable of unremitting gloom, stood out strongest, and plays like a precursor to Stephen King's Carrie.

In it, Alice is the daughter of an animal-torturing vet who beats her and his wife. Alice's mother dies of her injuries and is replaced by tarty barmaid Rosa. The innocent girl survives an attempted rape and becomes the companion of a lonely old lady who once tried to hang herself, the rope-marks remaining upon her neck. There's a suggestion that Alice escapes into a fantasy world to avoid further abuse – or does she really learn to levitate? When Rosa and her father discover her occult powers they see the commercial possibilities of exhibiting her, and arrange for a display on Clapham Common, setting the scene for a final terrible tragedy. Graham Greene admired this mixture of innocence and ominous fantasy, and the book was a hit. Although why Sandy Wilson, the composer of The Boy Friend, thought it would make a cheering subject for a musical is anyone's guess. It's back in print from Virago.