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. Read More