Obituary: Barbara Comyns

Barbara Bayley, writer, born 1909, married John Pemberton (deceased; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), Richard Comyns Carr (deceased), died Shrewsbury 14 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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent