Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

By Barbara Comyns

Dorothy: A Publishing Project
November 2010
216 pages


Reviewed by Matt Dube


Taken in broad strokes, Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, first published in England in 1954 and reissued last year by Dorothy, a Publishing Project, is a conventional decency fantasy. A widower and his three children, two girls and a boy, move in with the widower's mother, who operates on an almost fairy tale level of verbal cruelty, in rural Warwickshire. The novel opens in the midst of a Biblically-proportioned flood that somehow fails to wipe anything clean, just killing livestock and one person. In the novel's other dramatic game-changer, an epidemic of suicidal and homicidal madness grips the town, leaving a half-dozen supporting characters dead, but mostly just clearing the way for the fulfillment of the Willoweed family's dreams. Throughout, the children bear up under the thoughtless abuse of their grandmother, and in the end, the girls at least are rewarded for their suffering. But then, it's not the novel's broad strokes that interest us and challenge our ontological sense of what is happening here, it is Comyns's presentation of this most unlikely place.

As Brian Evenson notes in his introduction to the novel, Comyns notes detail with "exacting care and quirky accuracy," a feat she accomplishes without becoming some sentimental cataloguer. Instead, Comyns works several registers at once: physical accuracy occurs alongside psychological insight, as if both are equally visible, as one can see in the following: "As he got up from the table, he glanced at his mother and saw she was almost purple in the face and seemed to be having trouble with her teeth." Her descriptions balance "accuracy, wonder, and disgust" alongside a firm but unorthodox moral sense: "Hattie started to laugh but Emma frowned at her, so she covered her face with her hands and hoped her grandmother would think she was crying." What uncharitable morality would rather interpret a young girl's shaking shoulders as crying instead of laughter? This book, in fact, was banned by the Catholic Church when it was first published: Grandmother Willoweed is a sock puppet of spite Comyns encourages us to hiss our anger at when she makes the scene, and then to quickly put her out of our minds when she dies. Ebin Willoweed, the kids' father, is feckless and a terrible dad, only partly because of his mother's bullying. But Comyns, without actually redeeming him, gives him a sympathetic center—if he's not a good father, he's still a person with needs and wants, and when he writes for the paper, he lights up from within and achieves a kind of purpose.

But it's the children Comyns pushes to the fore, especially teenaged Emma, a decade older than her siblings and a debased Cinderella, believing herself to be on the same social footing as her grandmother's maids Eunice and Norah. Emma's vision of a life beyond the family gloom comes with the visits of the young doctor, Philip Andrew. Hattie, the youngest of Ebin's brood, and it seems, a bastard, shares her father's love of scribbling, making her another possible stand-in for the author, and mellowing, slightly, Comyns's mercenary portrait of writers. At the novel's end, Hattie and Ebin renounce their plan to leave Warwickshire for the London, choosing instead to stay put at the family home. The son, Dennis, sadly dies, maybe some perverse lesson in the role of luck or the vagaries of chance: it feels like he's mythically sacrificed to pay for his sisters' happiness, but it's hard to make the actual plot divulge such clear causation.

Warwickshire in Comyns's hands is populated with misfits who inform the Willoweed story and offer counterpoints: the two sister maids, Eunice and Norah, are treated with sympathy and compassion, whereas Old Ives is as mean-spirited as Grandmother, even if he lacks the material resources to make his spite sting. The baker buries his sense of romantic loss in his bread-making, and in the process inadvertently sickens the town. The neat patterning of the book's characters (two pairs of sisters, two doctors, Grandmother Willoweed and Old Ives, and the list goes on) and the well-timed entrances and exits make Comyns's Warwickshire feel like a set, and one with a stage as shallow as a puppet theater at that: the theatrical foregrounding of artifice marks an attempt to fashion something nurturing and imaginatively useful from what otherwise might remain painful rehearsals of injury. As a reader, I was impressed by the level of technique that underwrote this patterning, but it was a cold appreciation, one that didn't move me emotionally. I never felt like I was seeing a chaotic, real landscape, which I think puts me at odds with Comyns herself. Finishing the book, I was ready to leave Warwickshire behind, but all the evidence of this novel makes me suspect  the  landscape of her Warwickshire childhood still holds her captive.