Thursday, 16 July 2009

Sisters by a river (Comyns) VMC 164

Sisters by a river is Comyns' first novel, and is a fictionalised account of her own childhood. I thought it was a lovely little book which gives an insight into Comyns' life. It is set in Bideford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, but I am not sure how accurate it is. It's not exactly a joined up read, rather a series of episodes or sketches under wonderful chapter headings such as "Rooted to the ground", "It wasn't nice in the dressing room" and "The rolly polly field", which come together to give us a fabulous depiction of Comyns and her family.

What is fascinating about the book is the use of language.
"They advertised in the Times for a strong disiplarian"
"[she] talked with a high floating voice, leaving her sentances half finished and or with a wave of her hand she would add "and so forth" which was a favourate expression"
The blurb on the back says that "Barbara Comyns's first novel is told through the eyes (and spelling) of a young girl". I loved the feel that this gave to the book, but according to the introduction, this was not necessarily intentional. Comyns had notoriously erratic spelling, and was angry when this was not corrected in the first edition of the book (apparently the publishers added more spelling mistakes to enhance its charm). After this she always asked her husband to correct her manuscripts.

The copy I read was borrowed from the public library and was the 2000 edition, with an introduction by Celia Brayfield. Virago originally published this title in 1985 and it had first been published by Eyre and Spottiswode in 1947.

I loved it and have just reserved Skin chairs and Who was changed and Who was dead at the library. I think one of the best ways of going about this challenge is to tackle each author at a time. I may change my mind.


  1. My wife found this book recently and enjoyed it as much as you. I'm sorry to say I couldn't stand it! The spelling didn't deter me as much as the strange motivelessness of children (or an adult writing as if a child).

    I take it you know "The Young Visiters" by Daisy Ashford? You might also appreciate "The Everlasting Story of Nory" by Nicholson Baker, written in the deliberately flat voice of the author's primary-school daughter.

    Good luck with your challenge!

  2. Thanks. I'm not sure that she was deliberately writing as a child, it was just that was her style. But I can see that it would be off-putting; normally I dislike books not written in straight English (e.g. dialect) but it wasn't so far off to render it unreadable for me. Comyns is definitely a sadly neglected author.

    I don't know the Young visitors, though it was mentioned in the introduction. Have requested copy from Central Library store... It's not a Virago though so it's not going to help me on my way through these c550 books!

  3. I'm not sure whether the spelling would drive me crazy! It is certainly an interesting approach (either intentionally by the author or the publisher). Simon reviewed this recently and loves Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. You are lucky your library has them to request; mine has no Comyns at all :(. I will have to wait until I find these secondhand to buy and for the time-being console myself with my newly acquired copy of The Skin Chairs and A Touch of Mistletoe, which I've had for some time and keep meaning to read.

  4. Oo, another Comyns reader. The spelling irritated me rather, but I loved the style and voice. I know Bidford pretty well, one of my closest friends lived there before university - I lent her the book and she loved it too. As PR says, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is my favourite Comyns - I've also enjoyed The Juniper Tree and The House of Dolls, though I don't think those two are Viragos. Not sure. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is, though again I liked it less than others I've read. I have The Skin Chairs and A Touch of Mistletoe on my shelves, waiting for me, in beautiful green Virago editions.

  5. This sounds interesting. I've loved Comyns since I discovered Our Spoons Came From Woolworths in a charity shop, but haven't read anything else by her.
    Stupidly I keep mixing up Barbara Pym and Comyns, so I have three books by Pym that I purchased thinking she was Comyns!

  6. That doesn't matter - Barbara Pym is a favourite of mine and I will be writing about her soon!

  7. I'm looking forward to really all my new Pyms for the first time :). I may have a Pym marathon and drink some Pimm's and now I may just be becoming slightly hyper at the thought.

    I confuse Winfred Holtby and Mollie Panter-Downes, perhaps because they are both Virago and Persephone authors.