Who was changed and who was dead

June 5, 2014


WHO WAS CHANGED AND WHO WAS DEAD – Barbara Comyns took her title for this novel from Longfellow’s poem ‘The Fire of Drift-Wood’:

“We spake of many a vanished scene,
Of what we once had thought and said,
Of what had been, and might have been,
And who was changed, and who was dead”

And like the poem the novel concerns itself with recounting the past: in this case “Summer about seventy years ago” – 1914, in a Warwickshire village.

In Longfellow’s poem he describes the feelings everyone of us will experience at some time or other, but which we may find ourselves unable to adequately express in words – a certain longing to return to a past now lost to us; it is a poem about loss, and longing; of friends who have changed beyond recognition, or who have died, or who are simply absent from our lives. The theme is summarised in the poem’s fifth stanza: “And all that fills the hearts of friends, when first they feel, with secret pain, their lives thenceforth have separate ends, and never can be one again.” Thus Longfellow suggests that first realisation of separation…of friends drifting apart, never again to be as close as they once had been. The past, in fact, becomes a foreign country to us all, eventually.

Comyns has told us: “I set it in my childhood village (Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire) and my imagination took hold of me and it almost wrote itself.” Which may help explain why this evocation of a long ago childhood feels so very palpable in this novel. Her style is almost pastoral, a naturalistic rendition of growing up beside a river, but with a darkness that has seeped from any number of Victorian fairy tales, as if Comyns went through the looking glass and across the landscape of the Grimm brothers before setting pen to paper. Her prose is faultless, simple, honest – despite some disturbing imagery!

As a novel there is movement in time, but little by way of a plot. It is the story of the Willoweed family, the river flowing past their home and the nearby village. It commences with a flood:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in.”

This flow of water resembles the flow of time; the characters swim in time, like pieces of flotsam and jetsam, buffeted by external events that shape their actions, their hopes, and their desires. Most plans originating with them come to nothing – in fact with regard to the Baker one might argue that his plans to do good end in disaster!

Ebin Willoweed is depressed by the mere sight of the full river “flowing with such purpose and determination.” Ebin, self-centered and ineffectual, recognizes the river’s power and his own powerlessness.

Comyns, as one commentator has suggested, was “merciless as a portrayer of human relationships. She manages to depict the power struggles within the family itself in a way that seems every bit as naturalistic as the events of the flood. The adults in particular get no sympathy from her: their human masks are very damaged and one can see the animal within.”

The key to this wonderful novel might be this “animal within”: human nature may be loving, but can be bestial, destructive. Comyns strikes a fine balance between this savagery and innocence; between depravity and idyllic interludes of great lyric beauty. Consequently we are exposed to shocking and sad disasters; the viciousness of the natural world surrounding them, leeks like poison into the very essence of certain individuals; they simultaneously appear blinded to the beauty around them and its redeeming qualities.

Thus we get Old Ives the handyman saying:

“Don’t go yet, boy! Look at this little puss I found,” and he produced a dead, sodden kitten from his pocket, the ginger fur had come away from its tail and bone was exposed.”

Or grandmother Willoweed saying:

“ ‘Doctor Hatt was called away in the middle of my whist drive. His wife was worse – her nose was bleeding.’ She filled her glass from the decanter and gave Emma a strange glance.

‘Well, peoples’ noses are always bleeding. You are supposed to put a large key down their back.’…

Grandmother Willoweed took a sip of port, and looked with her lizard-like eyes over her glass.

‘Well, my dear, a key wouldn’t have been much use in this case; this was a peculiar kind of nosebleed. It went on and on until the bed filled with blood – at least that is what I heard – it went on and on and the mattress was soaked and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs Hatt died.’

She took another sip of port.

‘Yes, Mrs Hatt is dead now.’ ”

Death and descriptions of death abound. And there are hints – Old Toby’s dying for example – of pure Grand Guignol. Yet despite this there’s ‘a vein of poetry and compassion that pities and pardons the behavior of ’ the people described in this book. The monstrous, greedy grandmother, the totally self-absorbed father, are heavily contrasted with Emma and the young ones on river picnics, secure in the ‘sealed world of childhood’.

“They lay in the sun again in a straight line, and became very warm and watched dragon-flies. Some were light blue, small and elegant; others were a shining green; and there were enormous stripy ones that took large bites out of the water-lily leaves.”

So the book sometimes resembles an idyllic daydream experienced on a sultry, sun-drenched afternoon, while laying on the bank of some fast flowing river. At other times it is more like a nightmare. Banned in Ireland on its publication in 1954 – no one today really knows why! This book remains, for me, a small masterpiece deserving of much wider exposure.

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