We had lunch in a hotel quite near. It was very grand; but I was a bit disappointed because most of the other people eating there seemed to be quite old - rather fat and middle-aged, really. I'd hoped to see beautiful young people - or rather, wicked ones, the women with enormous hats and black stuff round their eyes, and the men with monocles.
As Simon at Stuck in a Book has noted, in many ways the most striking thing about The Vet's Daughter (1959), by Barbara Comyns (1909-92), is how utterly matter-of-fact it is. The introduction to the (characteristically well-produced) New York Review of Books edition of this slender novel suggests that it can be read as 'outsider art', and while I can't help but wonder how useful this terminology is when applied to literature - which, notwithstanding the recent rise of creative writing programmes, doesn't really have the same sort of institutional framework of training and technique as the visual arts do - it does capture something central to Comyns' writing.
Alternatively, the naivete of the novel's voice - the stoic, almost affectless way our narrator describes her surroundings while leaving us to find (or imagine) her inner self between the lines - may be a more deliberate choice, to suit the story being told and the sheltered, younger-than-her-years character doing the telling. Either way, it works; not least because it makes the concluding events of the novel both more surprising and more grounded.
(That last is a pun, as will become clear...)
17-year-old Alice lives with her parents - a brusquely frightening veterinarian and a sickly, downtrodden housewife - in a semi-industrial suburb outside London. That hers isn't a particularly happy home is signalled by the way Alice circles warily around even mentioning it during the opening paragraphs:
A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken-down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, "You must excuse me," and left this poor man among the privet hedges.
I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so, if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her.
Only on the third iteration does the impersonal, externally-observed "house" become "home", and even then the claim - or the confession - has an air of uncertainty and defensiveness, and it comes accompanied by the sort of half-non-sequitur (the segue into the lino) that proves to be typical of the way Alice presents the world to us. The distanced, dreamy way she interacts with the complete stranger - trying to please, but in a way that seems more reflexive than deeply-felt, the fulfilment of an expected role rather than an impulse born of her personality - also proves to be foreshadowing of what is to come.
The overriding impression Alice gives is that she is someone who is detached from, even numb to, her surroundings. She describes externals, rather than acknowledging or engaging with the emotional undercurrents; she frets about the gravy stains on the table cloth, and her bald account of a silent family dinner speaks volumes:
The three of us sat around the table eating cold meat. It was Monday. No one spoke a word, and our knives and forks sounded rather loud. Mother dropped a spoon that had mashed potato on it and gave a weak little titter. Father bit his moustache. It was a black one with waxed corners.
She rarely ventures to pass judgement directly, and even when she does she focuses on small details rather than think about the larger patterns (going on to explain, for example, that the blackness of her father's moustache is down to "a small bottle of colourless liquid" with which he dyes it, and that she "wished he wouldn't use it because it somehow seemed wicked"). Much of this, I think, is a defence mechanism, because as the final sentence of the opening passage, quoted above, would suggest ("if she had been a dog [...]", this is a household in which patriarchal authority is expressed through violence.
Abuse is infrequent and casual, but endemic. Characteristically, Alice doesn't discuss it herself. Although we are shown her dodging a blow and told that she has been hit in the past, the key details are narrated to Alice by her mother, who wears her hair in a "battered pigtail", "scurr[ies] about, always keeping close to the wall", and "only whispered when Father was around". On the single day a week when he goes to practise in his surgery in London, though, Alice's mother sings, rests, and shares secrets:
"We were married in the spring - on St David's day. The chapel was decorated with leeks and daffodils. I'll always remember the overpowering smell of the leeks and I've never had them in the house since. He made me unlace his boots when he came home and I remember he once kicked me in the face, he was in such a rage, and broke my front teeth. He was sorry afterwards and the next day he bought me a big fur muff, but I didn't like having crooked teeth and having to tell people I'd fallen down the stairs or some such talk."
Then her mother dies - of an illness that goes untreated because she is afraid to tell her husband about it - Alice is left alone for three weeks. (This episode provokes one of Alice's few moments of emotional reflection: "I felt a great sorrow for her and knew she would soon die, and that her small and gentle presence would be gone and I would be alone with Father".) When her father returns with a new woman - Rosa Fisher, rather brilliantly labelled "the strumpet from the Trumpet" by Mrs Churchill, a neighbour - it all starts to go rather Gothic novel: we can see, but Alice cannot, that she is going to be forced out by increments.
Soon Alice is a servant in her own home, a development of which her father carefully cultivates ignorance. I was particularly - grimly - amused by his reaction on one occasion when he is confronted with this fact in a way he can't avoid: "Once he found me grovelling on the hall floor, polishing," Alice tells us, "and said, 'Get up! Never go on your knees, girl - except to pray!'" (Wow, thanks, Dad! That's really constructive! And how exactly do you think cleaning should be accomplished, in a 1950s household whose patriarch wouldn't dream of sullying himself with buying labour-saving tools?)
When Rosa starts dressing Alice up and taking her out to meet men, the piano chords of doom are audible to everyone except poor, unworldly, just-wants-to-please Alice, who lacks the confidence to trust her instinct ("My throat felt all dry and tight and I couldn't speak") and run. What follows is emotionally brutal; the way Alice freezes out of mingled incomprehension and dread ("I hardly knew how it had happened [...]") reminded me of Alec's rape of Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, but there is something much more visceral and affecting about the matter-of-fact description of the violence here, and the way Alice retreats from the knowledge of what has happened, taking refuge, again, in purposeless detail ("as I stumbled about, I found I was repeating my twelve times table, although I'd never known it properly before. I remembered the lessons I'd learnt in the little school I'd attended with Lucy").
In the aftermath, Rosa is banished from the house, but Alice's father has nothing to say to her, and she is left, heartbreakingly, trying to be a better daughter, as if somehow the whole thing were her fault: "I tried to look after Father well," she tells us, "so that Rosa didn't come back."
Alice remains a closed-off narrator, carefully non-reflective; she appears to have very little inner life at all. Only rarely does she show any flicker of imagination, and even that tends to be expressed only when it has been disappointed: in the header quote, for example, where she finds the cafe not living up to her romance of it, or in a brief, vivid passage in which she pictures the house around her as an "exotic jungle", without ever losing her awareness that what she sees is nothing but an illusion super-imposed over the "brown" reality. And yet there is something quite moving - and revealing - in the way Comyns has her narrate the banality of her routine, the constrictions of her world, with such painstaking exactitude:
It was after breakfast, and I went into the dining-room to clear away the remains of Father's kippers. The sun came slanting in through the window and touched the mantelpiece, where the monkey's skull used to lie. I placed a damp log on the recently lighted fire. A soft hissing sound came and a frantic woodlouse rushed about the smoking bark. I rescued it with a teaspoon although I had no fondness for woodlice. It was a pity to let it burn - and there it was squirming on the damp teaspoon, grey and rather horrible. With one hand I pushed up the window and with the other placed it on the sill, where it crawled about leaving a small wet trail of tea among the winged sycamore seeds that had lodged there. The air was sharp and wintry, and the street very still. The only people to be seen were a few pale women with black string bags. Under the gate a dried leaf rustled very gently. I thought, "It's minutes like this that seem to last so long."
The woodlouse shows more overt emotion here than poor, bored Alice, and yet its plight is - of course - not dissimilar to Alice's own, in that it is powerless without external help.
Such help as Alice does get nearly always comes with a pricetag attached, something even she realises in the case of the paternalistically well-meaning locum vet she nicknames Blinkers, who "kept wanting to buy me things [...] but I didn't like to take these things in case it meant I'd have to marry him one day". A dalliance with a "gleaming and beautiful" young man during a period she is away from home as the live-in companion of Blinkers' mother - the "sadly vague and harmless" Mrs Peebles, a clear parallel to Alice herself - offers brief joy ("I knew what the word rapture meant") followed by further disappointment. Again, Alice seems disengaged from her own feelings.
Slow tears ran from my eyes and trickled into my ears. I thought, "I even cry in a humble, common way, with tears flowing into my ears."
The novel ends, however, with a great, abrupt - and, frankly, wonderfully bizarre - burst of liberation, a splendid transition from the realism of gravy stains and woodlice to a fantasy of magical power, as Alice discovers she has the power to float herself above the ground. Structurally and thematically, this feels like a culmination and an escape: at last, Alice has set her imagination free, and feels "a new pride" in her ability, which relies on no-one but herself. It could be read as a symptom of a mind at breaking point, retreating into dream; one levitation episode, notably, happens in the nick of time to save her from her drunken father's rage:
There he stood above me, swaying and dreadful and very drunk, and he was determined to break every bone in my body, and there was no escape. I called, "Oh God, help me!" And it was as if God heard.
One moment I was lying on the floor by Father's dreadful, shining black boots, and the next I was rising from the ground quite straight above Father, my feet pointing to the door and my head to the window.
On the other hand, though, this can be taken at face value: as a victory over her father (whose turn it is to grovel on the ground, begging for forgiveness). Alice literally rises above her deadening home life, and claims power, at last, in her own right. For once, and for a short time, Alice is able to direct her life on her own terms. It makes for an astonishing and curiously uplifting ending, without taking anything away from the portrait of abuse that precedes it.