Obituary: Barbara Comyns
Thursday 16 July 1992
I DISCOVERED the work of Barbara Comyns in 1951. I started with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths (1950), the story of a young girl, Sophia, set in pre-war London, and the book has stayed in my memory ever since. I recognised an original writer and determined to read everything she wrote. Eventually she become my friend.
She was born Barbara Bayley in 1909 and brought up in a Warwickshire country house, one of six children. They were largely educated by governesses, who allowed them to run wild. Her mother went deaf when quite young and sign language was used by the family. Barbara started writing when she was 10 and always illustrated her work. In her teens she studied at Heatherley's Art School in London.
Her first novel, Sisters by a River (1947), gives an accurate depiction of her childhood in a world where large houses, servants and governesses were not unusual. She followed this with Our Spoons Came From Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954). It is for her next book, The Vet's Daughter (1959), that Barbara Comyns will be chiefly remembered. This tour de force tells of the ominously occult powers of a young Edwardian girl and ensuing tragedy. The book earned her high praise from Graham Greene. It appeared later as a BBC serial, a play and a musical, with the book and music written by Sandy Wilson. More novels followed and an autobiography. After 1967 there was a gap until The Juniper Tree, which Methuen published in 1985, followed by Mr Fox (1987) and The House of Dolls (1989), by which time Virago were re-issuing most of her work.
Barbara lived for a time in Spain with her second husband, Richard Comyns Carr, and her two children by her first marriage, to John Pemberton. Birds in Tiny Cages (1960) and Out of the Red into the Blue (1964) both have Spanish settings. In all of her work it is the freshness of her approach and her simplicity in tackling bizarre or horrific events that is so impressive.
I first met her in 1980 when she lived in Richmond. I was struck by her wit and her lively interest in the arts and in young people, of whom she was never critical. 'I like people to be happy,' she said. She loved gardening, and flowers always bloomed inside and around her home. She had a considerable knowledge of antique furniture - at one time she ran an antique business as well as dealing with vintage cars - and she was also a talented painter who exhibited with the London Group. These concerns never precluded her from the business of writing books.
When her family were young she rose very early each morning when she could have time and peace in which to work. She always had good advice to give on plants, homes, cats - she always owned at least one - and, of course, writing. She leaves a son, a daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her 11 books are remarkable for her ability to see into character with a vision that shifts between savagery, lyricism and tragic wit. Barbara Comyns was a true original, and her death marks a loss to English writing.
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