Barbara Comyns

A savage innocence

Avril Horner
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Barbara Comyns: A savage innocence is the first biography of a twentieth-century novelist whose life was as extraordinary as her books. It is also the official biography, written with the help of her family, who allowed the author access to hundreds of unpublished letters and documents. Divorced and a single mother by the age of 29, with two children by different fathers, Barbara Comyns suffered hardship and heartache, taking on many jobs in order to survive. Her first book was published when she was forty and the ten books that followed established her as a unique voice in English fiction. Her letters reveal an occasionally desperate but resourceful and witty woman whose complicated life ranged from enduring poverty when young to mixing with spivs, spies and high society before moving to Spain for eighteen years with her second husband. By her mid-thirties Barbara Comyns was able to transform the bleak episodes of her life into compelling fictions streaked with surrealism and flecked with deadpan humour. The Vet’s Daughter (1959) brought her fame, although her use of the gothic and the comic macabre divided readers and reviewers. As a result, Comyns’ reputation has always fluctuated, although her books are now enjoying a revival. Behind the humour and the apparent innocence of her female characters is a knowing author whose fiction offers a savage indictment of a society in which casual cruelty is commonplace. This biography reveals the life and reclaims the fiction, offering a timely re-evaluation of her work.

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