Monday 31 October 2022


On the first page of Barbara Comyns' Who was changed and Who was dead the river floods and ducks sail in through the drawing room windows of Willoweed House, setting the scene for radical disorder, in the family and in the village. Flood followed by pestilence and at the last a certain calm cut through with irony. 

Barbara Comyns' creatures are soaked in a kind of schoolgirl wickedness. The back flap of the book tells us that Barbara and her siblings were brought up by governesses and allowed to run wild. Ebin Willoweed, a former journalist, his children, Emma, Hattie and Dennis, his mother, Grandmother Willoweed, plus Old Ives the gardener, and a couple of maids, Eunice and Norah, make up the household, whose disarray marks it off from the rest of the village. 

There are two deaths by the end of chapter three, one in the flood, the other the doctor's wife who has an unstoppable nosebleed. In chapter four, the baker, Horace Emblyn, already distressed by an ulcer and the infidelities of his wife, decides to experiment with rye bread, and makes a small loaf to go out with all the bread orders in the village. People seem to like it; they order more and the baker employs a new man, Old Toby, who had been disfigured by quicklime in his youth. 

The miller is the first to go. He drowns himself. Then the baker's wife, then the village butcher, who slices open his throat into a wound that looks like a smile; as well as the Willoweed grandson, Dennis, who fades out in great detail about halfway through the novel. 

There was ergot in the rye flour. Ergot is one of the bases for lysergic acid. It thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The village is burning from within. Some are changed and some are dead.

The miller, the baker and the rye flour are but the backdrop to the dreadful Grandmother Willoweed who likes eating and hitting out and stamping her feet. She does not like to walk on land she does not own. 

The book gives us a middle-class shakedown in large gardens, by a river, with early motor cars and superstition. If you die giving birth you have a black baby. Ebin Willoweed's wife Jenny died giving birth to Hattie, who is black, and named for the doctor who delivered her, Dr Hatt. As the shakedown settles she's have a pony, and a dog, and go to a regular school, where they christen her AP, (African Princess). Everything turns out well for the ones who are changed, not dead; and maybe also for those who are dead. 

Grandmother Willoweed has had enough of being a caricature. Willoweed life will go on without her. Ebin, the father, does not go to London with Hattie in order to get away from his mother. He grows a big red beard, buys a boat and is known as Old Captain Willoweed. Emma marries a young doctor and becomes civilised, exemplary, alien. She produces a son who is wheeled round Kensington Gardens, heir to the Willoweed lands and money, according to the dictates of her grandmother. 

Savagery in the English countryside among the relatively well-born, drawn with a caustic humour, is a genre in itself in the early twentieth century. Barbara Comyns, Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm), Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Nancy Mitford, all of them born around the same time, have in common a sense of social and family structure and a need to tear at it from within, to slice it through and chop it about, make fun of it while demonstrating its invulnerability. 

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