In Re-Covered, Lucy Scholes exhumes the out-of-print and forgotten books that shouldn’t be.
When I’m asked how I first became interested in out-of-print and forgotten books, my answer is always the same: it all began with Barbara Comyns. Eight years ago, Virago reissued three of the midcentury British writer’s novels—Sisters by a River (1947), Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), and The Vet’s Daughter (1959)—on their Modern Classics list, and I was immediately and utterly smitten by her singular voice. With her way of combining elements of social realism, replete with Dickensian touches, with all manner of macabre gothic tropes dark enough to have been taken out of the original Grimm’s fairy tales, Comyns was quite unlike anyone I’d ever read. Angela Carter is the only writer who comes close, but Comyns’s work has none of the same feminist underpinning. I wrote a short rave review of the 2013 Virago editions for the Observer, and then I began tracking down copies of Comyns’s eight other works, only two of which were then also in print: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954), which had been reissued in the U.S. by Dorothy, a publishing project, in 2010, and The Juniper Tree (1985), which appeared as a Capuchin Classic in the UK the following year. I also began learning what I could about Comyns’s life, keen as I was to find out as much as possible about the woman behind these weird and wonderful books.
Tantalizing tidbits were scattered both in the various introductions that had been written by her admirers and friends over the years and in the novels themselves, since Comyns often fictionalized her own life. As a child, she and her siblings had been left to run wild in the hands of inattentive governesses. Comyns’s parents—a deaf and disinterested mother and a violent, alcoholic father—were too consumed with their own sparring to pay their children much attention. Comyns documents this in her debut, Sisters by a River, a book she wrote to entertain her own children when she worked as a cook and housekeeper during World War II; it was initially serialized in Lilliput magazine under the title “The Novel Nobody Will Publish.” As a young woman, she showed considerable talent as a painter; she trained at the Heatherley School of Fine Art and exhibited with the London Group. Later in life, she supported herself and her family by doing a variety of jobs that included modeling, selling antiques and classic cars, renovating houses, and breeding poodles. Perhaps most intriguing of all, though, was her connection to the infamous MI6 double agent Kim Philby, who was a colleague of Comyns’s second husband, Richard Comyns Carr, in Whitehall, and in whose Snowdonia cottage the newlyweds spent their honeymoon in 1945. Ultimately, though, rather than satisfying my curiosity, these enticing snippets of what came across as an extremely eclectic and often precarious life left me with more questions than answers.
Luckily, the task I’d set myself was greatly assisted by the generosity of Comyns’s granddaughter, Nuria, who in 2014 hosted me for a week at her and her husband’s home in Shropshire, where she let me read the diaries that Comyns kept from the mid-’60s, along with other archive material. I wrote about that week, and what I discovered, in a 2016 essay for Emily Books. Until recently, my piece was the most detailed account of Comyns’s life and work available, though I’m thrilled to report that the British academic and writer Avril Horner has recently completed a full-length biography of Comyns, a taste of which can be found in this fascinating essay, published earlier this year in the Times Literary Supplement, about Comyns’s forty-year friendship and correspondence with Graham Greene.
Because Comyns was the very first neglected writer whose work got under my skin, and in light of the fact that four of her novels have been reissued in the past year—including A Touch of Mistletoe (1967), published this week by Daunt Books—it seemed only fitting that I should write about at least one of her books in this column. Rather foolishly, I also thought this would be a relatively easy assignment. Here was a writer about whom I knew more than most people, and whose work I’d read on multiple occasions. This would be a breeze! Yet, as I discovered when I actually sat down to write, not only did I want to avoid simply regurgitating what I’d written about Comyns in the past but, more crucially, as I found myself listing just how many of her works are currently in print—eight of the eleven titles she wrote, and with six different publishers—I suddenly wasn’t sure whether she even strictly qualified as a neglected author anymore.
In this column, the same question comes up over and over again: If the book under consideration is so good, how did it ever fall out of print? Yet, when it came to Comyns, I found myself preoccupied by a different question entirely: What does a book or an author being “rediscovered” actually look like? Some kind of critical championing is often the starting point, but republication is the holy grail. Take Kathryn Schulz writing about William Melvin Kelley in The New Yorker, for example, which then sparked a bidding war between publishers eager to reprint his work. Or Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, rediscovering and then reissuing Bette Howland’s work. Or even my own championing, this past year, of Kay Dick’s forgotten dystopian masterpiece, They, which was simultaneously rediscovered by the literary agent Becky Brown and is now being brought back into print next year.
Comyns—whose first novel was published in 1947, and whose last appeared in 1989—won accolades throughout her career, and beyond. Writing about The Vet’s Daughter, Greene—who, as Horner elucidates, both acted as a mentor for Comyns and “advanced her career whenever he could”—applauded her “strange offbeat talent … and that innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurrence.” Anthony Burgess, meanwhile, was equally impressed: “Let us make no bones about it: Barbara Comyns is one of our most original talents.” And Margaret Drabble, Alan Hollinghurst, Maggie O’Farrell, and Helen Oyeyemi are just some of the other writers who’ve more recently sung her praises. “The mildly mystical approach to her subject, with its overtones of inescapable gloom, is expressed in final form in language so precise and economical,” wrote Caroline Moorehead of The Vet’s Daughter in the Times in 1981, “so pared down of all unnecessary words that it conveys a sensation of truth.” This was the first of Comyns’s titles that Virago republished in the eighties. She was the perfect fit for the publisher’s new but rapidly expanding Modern Classics list, which rescued women writers from obscurity, and for each of the five more Comyns reissues subsequently added to the list, similar laudatory reviews followed. Since then, each and every reissue of one of Comyns’s novels has heralded a joyous resurgence of interest in her work. I myself confidently declared her “a neglected genius” in 2013; three years later, given further room to elaborate in my Emily Books piece, I called her “a writer lost in time … ripe for rediscovery.” Did it surprise me to see this exact same phrase—“ripe for rediscovery”—used in the headline above the excellent appreciation of Comyns’s life and work by Lynn Barber in the Telegraph earlier this year? No, not really. As Barber herself perceptively points out, there’s a distinct pattern to Comyns’s career, one that began while she was alive and has continued since her death: “acclaim, followed by neglect, followed by revival.”
Charting Comyns’s trajectory over the course of the past eight years, I noted her star waxing and waning in line with the reappearance of various new editions. The 2013 Viragos were followed by two new NYRB Classics in the U.S.: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, in 2015, and The Juniper Tree, in 2018. “Barbara Comyns’s writing is in the middle of a resurgence,” wrote Michael T. Fournier in his review of the latter for the Chicago Review of Books. Here we go again, I thought. She seemed to me like an author forever poised on the cusp of definitive rediscovery—whatever that even means—someone who never quite reached escape velocity. But now I think I had it all wrong. The current Comyns “revival”—as Horner, Barber, and the writer Christopher Shrimpton have all termed it—is just further evidence of the enduring appeal of her work. It doesn’t really matter that we’ve been here before. What matters is that Comyns is still being republished, critics are still writing about how brilliant her novels are, and—most importantly of all—these novels are still finding new readers.
For those of us who’ve been fans for a while, Comyns is a writer one never tires of revisiting. “I have read it many times,” the novelist Sarah Waters reports of The Vet’s Daughter, a brilliantly haunting tale of grisly horrors set in Edwardian Battersea that’s also surprisingly insightful about the psychological mechanisms of post-traumatic stress disorder, “and with every re-read I marvel again at its many qualities—its darkness, its strangeness, its humour, its sadness, its startling images and twists of phrase.” But all the more significantly, Comyns’s books continue to resonate with new generations of readers. “The particulars of Sophia’s delivery are outdated,” writes Emily Gould in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, Comyns’s loosely autobiographical tale of marriage and motherhood while living on the breadline in bohemian London in the thirties, which contains some famously graphic descriptions of childbirth, “but the feelings she describes—of shame, helplessness, and terror, wonder at her baby countered by fear for his life—are still far too common in life, and far too rare in literature.” Most recently, Daunt Books declared Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead—a ghoulish, blood-soaked tale about an outbreak of ergot poisoning in a small village that drives many of its inhabitants mad, and was considered, on its initial publication, to be so disturbing it was actually banned in Ireland under the Censorship of Publications Act—a “twisted pandemic parable,” recognizing that the hysterical fear of contagion amplified therein with such horrifyingly excellent affect makes it especially evocative for readers today. “Perhaps she is currently enjoying a revival because her work speaks more clearly to readers now than it did in the mid-twentieth century,” suggests Horner in her TLS essay, citing Comyns’s originality in exploring “the horrors of grinding poverty and emotional cruelty while celebrating the beauty and the comic incongruities of life.” Comyns’s books are also timely because in many ways they’re ultimately oddly timeless. As Sadie Stein observes in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of The Juniper Tree, despite the occasional reference to contemporary life, ultimately the world of the novel is one “outside normal time … and governed by the arbitrary laws of fairy tales”—something that could be said of many of Comyns’s novels, and was echoed by Marina Warner. “In spite of the lovingly detailed suburban ambience, interiors, gardens and clothes,” she wrote of The Juniper Tree in her New York Times review of the book, “the atmosphere feels torqued beyond time and history into a fairy tale theater of desire and wan hope.”
But more than all this, the story of Comyns’s ongoing success also has things to tell us about the growing visibility of rediscovered classics and neglected books. That Observer review I wrote in 2013 afforded me a mere four hundred words to write about all three novels, and I had to pitch hard for those four hundred words. This isn’t to chastise my editor—I’m grateful they saw fit to give me any words at all! It’s long been notoriously difficult to find review space for reissues, regardless of the quality of the work in question. Yet this is something that, over the past few years, finally seems to be changing. Where once reissues were rarely found outside the remit of a notable classics imprint or the more esoteric lists of the smallest of independent publishers, these days they’re becoming increasingly popular. And many publishers are treating these reissues as they would standard front-list titles. At Daunt Books, Comyns’s novels sit alongside other reissues—Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), for example, and Raymond Kennedy’s Ride a Cockhorse (1991)—but also the latest from fresh talents such as Brandon Taylor and Amina Cain. Meanwhile, Faber has recently released new editions of Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball (1964) and Beryl Gilroy’s groundbreaking memoir Black Teacher (1976) with just as much fanfare as the publisher affords any of its living authors.
Just as more and more publishers have added Comyns to their lists, more and more people are recognizing the value of reanimating titles from the past. Reissues are taking up more space—on the shelves of bookstores, in review pages, and in readers’ lives. Had someone told me back in 2013 that six years later, I’d be writing a monthly column about out-of-print and forgotten books and I’d regularly see rediscovered books being afforded the same review space as their front-list counterparts, I’m not sure I would have believed it. I probably also wouldn’t have trusted anyone who told me those 2013 Virago editions weren’t Comyns’s last shot at fame. Obviously only time can tell, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself writing about her all over again in another eight years. But then again, maybe I’ll leave it to someone else next time. Comyns has preoccupied my attention for the best part of a decade. I finally understand her story as one of success. And if I’ve learned anything over the past few years, it’s that there are plenty of other writers out there who deserve a revival or two of their own.
Lucy Scholes is a critic who lives in London. She writes for the NYR Daily, the Financial Times, The New York Times Book Review, and Literary Hub, among other publications. Read earlier installments of Re-Covered.