Rohan Maitzen

“Definitely Floating”: Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground.

What a strange, and strangely compelling, novel The Vet’s Daughter is! It seems like a grimly realistic story at first, with its details about the sordid life of eponymous Alice, her coarse, brutal father, and her sad mother, doubled up with a pain that only makes her husband despise her the more: “For Christ’s sake, woman, send for a doctor; and, if he can’t put you right, keep out of my sight!” It continues in what seems like a straightforward enough way, with her mother’s decline and death, and then the arrival of Rosa, the wicked would-be stepmother. It’s an unrelentingly dark story with a gothic atmosphere only rendered stranger by the constant presence of the vet’s patients:

At night I was all alone in the house. Although I slept with my head under the bedclothes, I could hear awful creakings on the stairs, and sometimes I thought I could hear whisperings by my bed. I asked Mrs. Churchill if she would stay and keep me company; but she said her husband didn’t like her to be out at night, and she had ‘our Vera’s’ boy staying with her while his mother was in hospital. One night the dogs started barking and yelping and I thought something terrible really had happened. I lay in bed shivering, too afraid to go and see if the house were on fire, or if burglars were creeping through the pantry window. In the morning I found the cage that contained the old cock with the diseased eye had fallen to the ground, and the bird was dead and heavy.

 Things only get stranger, and grimmer, as the novel goes on — and then just when you wonder whether Alice has hit rock bottom, she rises — quite literally — to the top:

In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. I could feel nothing below me — and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, ‘I mustn’t break the glass globe.’ I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.

It’s possible to move past this moment and assume that, Alice’s own conviction (and the physical evidence) notwithstanding, it was a dream . . . except that it keeps happening: she keeps “floating” above the dreary circumstances that she seems so powerless to change, above the disappointments that follow so bitterly one after another, above the people who fail her or leave her or just don’t love her. Her levitation brings no levity to the novel, though it is darkly comical. For instance, when she asks her one ally, her admirer Henry Peebles, “if it was unusual for people to sometimes rise into the air when they were resting in their beds — particularly in strange beds” he is understandably “very slow in understanding what I meant”; when she decides to show her false lover Nicholas that she “can do things others can’t do” he watches her rise, horrified, and then “in a scared and awful whisper” tells her to “Stop it, stop it, I say!”

Alice can rise above her life but not leave it behind; it seems only fitting that the last indignity she suffers is having her gift used against her, and poetic justice that her final fall should precipitate destruction. The novel has the tautness of a fairy tale and the patness of an allegory. Though it ends up not being a realist novel, though, it’s very specific about Alice’s oppression and her psychic suffering: its critique is perhaps more resonant and devastating because it resorts to fantasy rather than offering restitution or resolution.

The Vet’s Daughter is the first Comyns novel I’ve read and it definitely makes me want to read more (I’ve got Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my Virago collection). Her prose is not elaborate or florid but her turns of phrase are remarkably satisfying and often surprising. The very first line of The Vet’s Daughter is actually a good example: “A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.” Aren’t you immediately curious, both about the man’s business with her and about what she was thinking when he interrupted? I see that the other two novels also have brilliant, irresistible starts: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window,” begins Who Was Changed, while Our Spoons opens “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” The Vet’s Daughter also shows that Comyns can do vivid, tactile description, full of the kinds of little details that make a scene particular, and also scenes full of dramatic action, fear, and pathos — such as the terrible attempted rape, after which Alice — bruised and bleeding, stands in the street and thinks “There is no hope for me — no hope at all.”

The Vet’s Daughter is at once compact and suggestive: it is dense with details that feel meaningful, and meaningfully connected, but whose meaning is not immediately transparent. Why, for instance, is Alice’s father a vet? I don’t mean literally, in terms of the plot, of course: is there something about his meticulous care for animals (his skill as a vet is often mentioned) that helps us understand Alice’s place in the world? Why does Alice call Henry “Blinkers”? What doesn’t he see? How does his mother’s life or death reflect Alice’s situation? What exactly is Nicholas’s role — if he even exists? Does any of it happen the way Alice says it does, in fact? I found myself thinking that it would teach very well: it’s eerie and fast-paced enough to catch students’ attention and puzzling enough to keep it.

The Vet’s Daughter is the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. You will find more great posts and discussion of the book at the Slaves of Golconda site!