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The Vet's Daughter (1959)

by Barbara Comyns

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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4941738,124 (3.86)132
In this Freudian fantasy, Alice Rowlands lives with a father glowering 'like a disappointed thunderstorm', a fast-fading mother and a beastly menagerie in a dark house in 1930s Battersea. With her mother's death, life becomes almost intolerable for Alice, whose father treats her as a slave. Then kind 'Blinkers', the vet's assistant, arranges for her to live with his mother in the country. There, Alice revels in the beauty of nature and falls head over heels for Nicholas, the lovely boy who takes her skating, motoring, and smiles at her. But Nicholas has other fish to fry, and Alice is forced to fall back on a talent for rising above her troubles . . . Back in London, that talent comes to the attention of her father -- who rapaciously propels Alice towards fame on Clapham Common . . .… (more)
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English (15)  Spanish (2)  All languages (17)
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
”A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down sort of creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn kneecaps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘ You must excuse me ,’ and left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

This is the opening paragraph and I hope you get the feeling I did on reading it. The author has immediately draped the novel in darkness, which she maintains throughout. It also brought up a number of questions: who is this stranger? Who are the Plymouth Brethen? Why was he so despondent? It just seemed like such a stark way to start the narrative. This same man makes a brief appearance at the culminating events at the end of the novel with still no explanation of his significance. So I keep thinking about him.

I finished this novel yesterday but had to give it some time to simmer before I could write a few words about this very dark novel. I couldn’t really decide what I thought about it. I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Alice Rowland is the seventeen year old eponymous daughter and she faces many challenges. Her mother is gravely ill, her father is abusive and she would desperately like to be somewhere else when her mother dies and her father brings the local tart into the house to be his “housekeeper.” A savior attempts to save her by asking her to become a companion for his elderly mother in a distant village. Things continue to go downhill for her and she is faced with a Dickensian couple who maintain the woman’s residence and generally take advantage of her. Alice is forced to return home where her father continues his abuse of her until he discovers she has a gift he thinks he can capitalize on.

The horrifying culminating event presents Alice and her gift. This actually threw me for a loop and I find it interesting that some reviewers characterized this as Alice’s triumph. I didn’t see it that way at all but I did find the novel to be riveting and could hardly put it down. The writing is spare and the novel is stark. But absolutely fascinating. And I wonder when I’ll stop thinking about these well drawn characters. ( )
  brenzi | Mar 28, 2018 |
The Vet’s Daughter is only the second book by Barbara Comyns that I’ve read, the other being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, which is a wonderfully quirky, slightly sad little book. Comyns is an interesting writer, her prose is very readable, deceptively simple, yet her stories are visionary and unusual, combining realism and a little surrealism. As a reader one detects a sparkling, lively imagination. Having read the author’s own introduction this Virago edition, I think I can see where this strange slightly out of kilter world comes from.

“I was born in Warwickshire in a house on the banks of the Avon and was one of six children. Our father was a semi-retired managing director of a midland chemical firm. He was an impatient, violent man, alternately spoiling and frightening us. Our mother was many years younger and lived the life of an invalid most of the time. I remember her best lying in a shaded hammock on the lawns, reading and eating cherries, which she was inordinately fond of, or in the winter sitting by the morning-room fire and opening and shutting her hands before the blaze as if to store the heat. Her pet monkey sitting on the fender would be doing the same.”
(Barbara Comyns in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter 1980)

I loved the opening of the novel, which serves to pull the reader immediately into the world of Alice Rowlands, our unforgettable narrator.

“A man with small eyes and ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else. Together we walked down a street that was lined with privet hedges. He told me his wife belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, and I said I was sorry because that is what he seemed to need of me to say and I saw he was a poor broken down creature. If he had been a horse, he would have most likely worn knee caps. We came to a great red railway arch that crossed the road like a heavy rainbow; and near this arch there was a vet’s house with a lamp outside. I said, ‘You must excuse me.’ And left this poor man among the privet hedges.”

Alice is of course the vet’s daughter of the title, and her home life is dominated by her father, a cruel bullying man subject to sudden rages of temper. Alice by comparison to her father is a gentle innocent, her mother cowed by her marriage is very sick, and we know immediately she won’t last long, and Alice will be left alone with her unpredictable father. The house has a dark, sinister atmosphere – and when (on page 6) her father sells a sack of furry creatures – brought to him to be destroyed – to a vivisectionist, the reader can be in no doubt about what kind of man Alice’s father is. Alice’s life is lonely, restrictively dull and uneducated. She longs for romance – for a different life away from her father.

“Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once. Perhaps…”

The only kind person in the vet’s house following Alice’s mother’s death is Mrs Churchill, who works as cook, and with whom Alice spends more and more time. While Alice’s father is away for a few weeks the business of the vet’s surgery is taken care of by Henry Peebles, the first ever man to treat Alice with kindness and consideration. Alice calls him Blinkers to herself, and starts to meet him in secret after her father’s return.

Her father arrived home with a young blonde woman in tow; Rose Fisher – a barmaid from The Trumpet – Mrs Churchill is scandalised by the appearance of a woman she renames ‘the strumpet from the Trumpet.’ Rose claims she will be Mr Rowland’s housekeeper but it seems no one believes that little bit of deception for a second. Rose is an over confident, blowsy young woman, who soon at home at the vet’s house, seeks to re-make young Alice in her own image.

Alice is briefly rescued from her life with her father – by going to live as companion to Henry Peebles’ mother in the countryside. Mrs Peebles is marooned in her own home – terrified of the two servants who run her house to suit their own needs. Alice and Mrs Peebles become friends and Alice is determined to get Henry to dispense with the services of the sinister couple.

“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 gas glove”. 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.”

Alice’s world has been one of constant shocks, and during this turmoil Alice has discovered she a has strange ability – levitation – which over the coming months she practises with. It isn’t long before more change comes – this time to Mrs Peebles’ house, and Alice is obliged to return home to her father. When Mr Rowlands and Rose learn about Alice’s strange ability they seek to exploit it. Alice’s destiny leading to an extraordinary, and probably inevitable moment on Clapham Common.

I really loved this novel, and I am certainly determined to read more – I have a copy of Who was Changed and Who was Dead tbr. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Nov 11, 2017 |
Delightful, dark, and a skosh bizarre, this novel keeps the reader slightly off-balance as we listen to Alice Rowland recount her life in Edwardian London with an abusive father, a dying mother, and little hope of betterment until a young veterinarian comes to act as locum tenens for her father and offers her the chance to be a companion to his invalid mother. A touch of romance, a touch of the occult, and an ending that may be viewed as tragic or transcendent.
Reviewed in 2013 ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Aug 30, 2017 |
This is an odd book, very matter of fact narration by it's innocent and unassuming central character, even as events around her become increasingly unpleasant and then peculiar. It's a bit dreamlike and sometimes nightmarish with vivid, darkly funny descriptions of the strange houses Alice lives in. The ending is quite bizarre and it's just an all-round strange book, hard to categorise, but a joy to read. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Oct 16, 2016 |
This is an odd little book that I loved. It's about Alice, the 17 year old daughter of a mean, abusive, drunk veterinarian. At the beginning of the book her mother is dying. There are odd animals all over the house, adding to the dark and weird vibe in the house. After her death her father takes up with a woman of loose morals and questionable merit. She moves into the house, relegating Alice to an even lower and more precarious position in her father's house. Fortunately (???), Alice meets a veterinary assistant working with her father, who takes and interest in her and seems to want to marry her. He arranges a way for her to get out of the house by going to be a companion for his solitary and deranged mother.

On top of all of this, Alice seems to have some special powers to make herself levitate. At first, of course, the reader will assume this is just a dream she is having, but later in the book it becomes clear that this is actually happening. This power has major consequences for Alice and those around her.

I thought this book was extremely clever and well written. I'd like to read more of Comyns's work if it's all as odd and interesting as this was. ( )
  japaul22 | May 29, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 15 (next | show all)
The Vet’s Daughter combines shocking realism with a visionary edge. ....Harrowing and haunting, like an unexpected cross between Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King, The Vet’s Daughter is a story of outraged innocence that culminates in a scene of appalling triumph.
 

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Comynsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Davis, KathrynForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gardam, JaneIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.
The Vet's Daughter is Barbara Comyn's fourth and most startling novel. (Introduction)
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In this Freudian fantasy, Alice Rowlands lives with a father glowering 'like a disappointed thunderstorm', a fast-fading mother and a beastly menagerie in a dark house in 1930s Battersea. With her mother's death, life becomes almost intolerable for Alice, whose father treats her as a slave. Then kind 'Blinkers', the vet's assistant, arranges for her to live with his mother in the country. There, Alice revels in the beauty of nature and falls head over heels for Nicholas, the lovely boy who takes her skating, motoring, and smiles at her. But Nicholas has other fish to fry, and Alice is forced to fall back on a talent for rising above her troubles . . . Back in London, that talent comes to the attention of her father -- who rapaciously propels Alice towards fame on Clapham Common . . .

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The strange offbeat talent of Miss Comyns and that innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous occurence, these have never, I think, been more impressively exercised than in THE VET'S DAUGHTER." -- Graham Greene

Alice Rowland's world is Edwardian South London at its most sordid and oppresive. She is the daughter of a veterinarian, a bitter and brutal man subject to fits of rage. In their bizarre household Alice must wait on him and help care for his animals, while at the same time trying to ease the pain of her dying mother, a frail woman worn out by a life of abuse. Alice's forays into gentler neighbourhoods show her a far more pleasant mode of life. However, dreaming only leads her to the discovery that she possesses a fatal, occult power, one which she is too naive to hide. Through the eyes of Alice we watch strange everts unfold - events which lead her, triumphantly dressed as a bride, to Clapham Common and her moment of final ecstasy. The Vet's Daughter is a dark jewel of a novel, at once facinating, terrifying, and poignant.
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