Sunday 19 April 2009

The House of Dolls

I'm afraid I haven't taken the draw for Yellow yet, and so there's another day to enter the draw.

Good guesses, guys, but nobody got the novel I'm going to talk about - it's The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns, author of 50 Books... entry Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. (By the way, I always refer to the list as my 50 Books, but the 26 you see listed are the only ones I've added to it so far... it's ongoing, and suggestions always welcome!)

The House of Dolls has, in the very vaguest way, similarites with The Enchanted April - that is, both are about four women living in a building together. And that's probably where the similarities end. In Comyns' novel the women are middle-aged prostitutes - but ones which didn't enter the oldest profession in the world until they were middle-aged, in response to their rent prices going. They live in the upper portions of a house belonging to long-suffering Amy Doll and her young daughter Hester. The four women upstairs are, like The Enchanted April, distinct - well, Berti and Evelyn are slightly similar: catty, brash, sarcastic and, deep down, desperately needing each other. Evelyn is described as 'inclined to be a poor man's edition of Berti', and doesn't have her brilliant red hair. Spanish Augustina - known as The Senora - is the most successful of the women, and the least emotional. Finally their is my favourite, shy Ivy Rope, who invites a mild dentist to their rooms, and hasn't the heart to reveal her occupation when he believes it to be a date.

Before Our Vicar's Wife throws up her hands in horror at the salacious material I've been reading, this isn't salacious. Despite their lifestyle, absolutely nothing finds its way to the page, and this was from the pen of eighty year old Barbara Comyns whose humour is quirky rather than rude. I've commented with Comyns before that all her books seem to be very different - The House of Dolls is, stylistically, not wholly unlike The Juniper Tree (reviewed here) - but that was a Grimm fairytale updated, and had that air of myth and allegory. The House of Dolls doesn't have the wonderful, frenetic surrealism of Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but does hint in that direction with daughter of the house Hester, who bunks off school to make china mosaics with a slightly mad man in an abadoned house - a lovely, entirely innocent, subplot of the novel.

Despite all Barbara Comyns' novels being different from each other, the one thing they have in common is my appreciation. And (hurrah!) they're pretty short. I don't think is her best by any means, but anything from her oeuvre is worth reading - next up for me is her first novel, Sisters By A River. This slightly bizarre author is too underrated, and if her novels are not all great, they are certainly very good.


  1. Isn't it about time that you took a walk through riverside meadows? If you don't hurry those gorgeous fritillaries will be over before you can share them with us.

  2. So many more Barbara Comyns books to hunt for, at your recommendation, and A Touch of Mistletoe to pick up from the Virago shelf.

  3. Dear Simon,

    I'm thrilled you enjoyed Barbara Comyns' House of Dolls. I found this by chance at a university library last year and loved it, but was too lazy to blog about it, because it was too much of a long shot that anyone would know it (AND people get tired of my reading out-of-print books). Her tone seemed harder than usual here, more Patrick Hamilton than Elizabeth von Arnim, though it still had that air of slightly whimsical amusement. The characters are so unconentional! I was trying to fit it in with books about older women, like Enid Bagnold's The Squire and Barbara Pym's A Quartet in Autumn. There were several more, but they've slipped my mind.

    Anyway, I'll have to go back to Comyns. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Hello Simon, my love of Barbara Comyns inspired me to comment for the first time here. I hope you enjoy Sisters by a River, I think it's one of her better novels.

    I enjoy reading your blog very much: thank you for writing it!

  5. A very late thank you to those who commented, Mad Housewife and helen, it's especially nice to see people who love Barbara Comyns popping up. An underrated author!


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