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Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara…
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Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

by Barbara Comyns

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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» See also 143 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 22 (next | show all)
dead animals floating over the rose bushes -- a butcher slices open his own throat -- a tyrannical grandmother -- plague -- ominous cows -- fire and murder -- getting in the family way -- swanky new yellow automobiles -- punting up the river -- funerals -- a sleepy english countryside village reveals its dark, bloodstained heart. ( )
  haarpsichord | Nov 5, 2018 |
An odd book, commendably short and very well written, felt a bit old fashioned even for it's time (1954). I guess it is Cold Comfort Farm and Gormenghast combined. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | May 27, 2018 |
Who was Changed and Who was Dead is a novel I have had for some time, and it was probably only because I read The Vet’s Daughter in August that I had even remembered I had it. There must be so many books at the back of the bookcase that I have forgotten about. So, I recently ferreted it out, putting it where I could see it on the bookcase next to my chair.

Comyns doesn’t shy away from dark, possibly unpleasant themes, and yet the execution is so quirky and readable that I can’t say I found it as upsetting as apparently some of the early reviewers did. In her introduction to my Virago edition Ursula Holden – explains how modern readers are perhaps not quite so shocked or squeamish as they once were. I may know some readers who really are a little squeamish, and certainly Barbara Comyns does paint some unpleasant images.

Warwickshire – a little before World War One, and swans swim through the drawing-room windows of Grandmother Willoweed’s house. The river has flooded badly with much of the village submerged, people shelter upstairs. Ebin Willoweed, once a journalist, now lives with his three children in his mother’s house. As the waters rise, he rows his daughters around the submerged garden. The river is a huge influence in the lives of the Willoweed family, and the rest of the village.

“She came to a little wrecked pleasure-steamer, which had become embedded in the mud several summers ago and which no one had bothered to remove. It had been a vulgar, tubby little boat when it used to steam through the water with its handful of holiday-makers, giving shrill whistles at every bend and causing a wash that disturbed the fishermen as they sat peacefully on the banks; but, now it lay sideways in the mud with its gaudy paint all bleached, it was almost beautiful.”

Comyns leaves little to our imaginations – her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. A squealing pig floats away, legs flailing in desperation – the peacocks are all drowned. The flooding of the river heralds far worse to come.

The grandmother rules the house with a fierce tyranny, a tyranny to tries to exert over the whole village – albeit from a distance. She has sworn not to set foot on land which she doesn’t own – she owns a lot of the surrounding farmland. On the rare occasions that the grandmother ventures forth – she is rowed down the river. Locked into a bitter contest with old Ives who works in the garden, over which of them will live longest – the grandmother enjoys the power she has over everyone at Willoweed House.

Ebin’s three children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis – are quite neglected by their father – consumed with this own bitterness – primarily the loss of his career and his resentment toward his mother, they are often left to their own devices. Emma is the eldest – quietly she combs out her long marmalade hair and keeps an eye on her younger siblings. She takes the younger children on picnics, giving them a little of the mothering and happy security she herself hasn’t had.

“After a time Emma opened the picnic basket and they ate honey sandwiches with ants on them and drank the queer tea that always comes from a thermos.”

Ebin is critical of Dennis – and fairly dismissive of Emma, who has little time for him – Hattie is his favourite child, although she isn’t his. Hattie is the child fathered by his late wife’s black lover – though neither her colour or her parentage is ever remarked upon.

Sisters; Eunice and Norah are the maids at Willoweed House, struck with a wicker carpet beater by the grandmother if she thinks they aren’t working. Norah has been helping local gardener Fig’s mother – and has developed a romantic interest in Fig in the process. Fig is taking his time to be convinced, at first resenting Norah’s interference, but Norah is persistent in her quiet, gentle way. Meanwhile, her sister Eunice has been seeing a married man, with the inevitable consequences.

In the days following the flood – death starts to stalk the village – when it seems to be hit by a kind of plague. The miller goes mad and drowns himself, the baker’s wife – who had been having an affair with Ebin, – runs screaming through the village – finally falling to the ground on top of the grandmother’s white cat. There are other cases – disturbing cases, Emma stands listening to the cries of a stricken child from inside a village house.

“Emma and Dennis cringed against a hedge. Besides the shouting there were other most disturbing sounds like some great malevolent animal snorting and grunting, and there was a stench of evilness and sweating, angry bodies. A man with his shirt all hanging out pushed past Emma, and in the moonlight she could see his face all terrible, with loose lips snarling and saliva pouring down his chin. Shrieks of laughter greeted him when he climbed on the thatched roof and shouted and swore down the chimney. Several men carried lanterns, which they wildly waved about their heads and which made a strange and dancing light. Emma and Dennis crept against the hedge, and although they were pushed and jostled, they clung to each other and were not parted.”

A cottage is set alight by frantic neighbours – a man burned to death – where will the madness/plague strike next?

Who was Changed and Who was dead is a little masterpiece. It is a work of a rare imagination, which could certainly be taken as an allegory of the extraordinary and violent madness which was about the sweep the globe in 1914. As well as death, madness and destruction in this novel there is also tenderness, innocence and love. ( )
1 vote Heaven-Ali | Nov 25, 2017 |
An oppressive household and a gruesome plague, told in a stolid, detached way that keeps the reader from fully engaging with the characters and their fates. ( )
  xicohtli | Jul 20, 2016 |
I first read this in a gothic fiction class in college and recently wanted to revisit it. It's a tight, disturbing little novel, full of moments of grace and moments of horror, packed in right next to each other where they belong. Maybe the most unsettling thing about it is the undeniably happy ending, coming as it does so close on the heels of all that madness and death. ( )
  jen.e.moore | Feb 11, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Comynsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Evenson, BrianIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Holden, UrsulaIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Of what has been and might have been

And who was changed and who was dead

LONGFELLOW
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The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
"The grandmother cried, 'Don't go yet, tell me more. What about my rose beds?' Her son seized the trumpet... and shouted down its black depths, 'Dead animals are floating everywhere. Your roses are completely covered.'"

At the beginning of June the river floods, ducks swim through the drawing-room windows and Ebin Willoweed rows his daughters round the submerged garden. The grandmother dresses in magenta for her seventy-first-birthday whist drive and looks forward to the first prize of pâté de foie gras. Later Ives the gardener leads a morose procession up river, dragging her to a funeral in a black-draped punt. The miller goes mad and drowns himself and a cottage is set alight. Villagers keep dying and at the house on the river plates are thrown across the luncheon table and a tortoise through a window. The newspaper asks "Who will be smitten by this fatal madness next?" Originally published in 1954, this strange novel with its macabre humor, speaks with Barbara Comyns' unique and magical voice.

Barbara Comyns was born in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire in 1909 and now lives in Twickenham, Middlesex. She is the author of eight novels.

(-- back cover of Virago edition)
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