Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead

“After lunch I’ll go out in the boat again; I might see something interesting. There should be a lot of interesting things around after a flood like this. Surely in all this water someone must have drowned.”

Offbeat, droll, macabre. Whimsical, charming, strangely delightful.

Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is the last book that I was truly smitten by.

(At this point, it might be worth noting that the word Smitten is the past participle of Smite which means to strike with a firm blow. It is equally correct to say She was smitten by the handsome boy; she was one smitten kitten, as it is to say, The town was smitten with an outbreak of influenza—or madness; or murder.)

I don’t write too many reviews these days—I might start calling them “For Your Consideration” pieces—but this dark, enchanting book, and the sometimes ghastly, sometimes lovely, Willoweed family it follows, has lingered with me long after I first read it.

First, there is a flood:

“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows…. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night.”

Then there is a death.

Well, many of them. The sorrowful hens commit suicide, the peacocks are drowned. Then Grumpy Nan who lived in the cottage by the mill croaks it. Then Mrs. Hatt, the doctor’s wife. Then another, and another. It is all very strange. It is all very dark and funny and matters terribly and doesn’t matter at all. Life goes on.

“Upstairs Emma sat on her bedroom window-sill and combed her marmalade coloured hair. She closed her eyes and forgot the sad, drowned sights of the morning. A feeling of deep satisfaction came over her as she felt the warmth of the sun and combed her hair, dreamily…. “Oh, how I would love to go to a dance and wear a real evening dress,” she thought, “but nothing like that will happen—no dances, no admirers. I shall just me me, and nothing will happen at all.”

Yes, it is a weird little gem of a book.

I was surprised to read that it was first published in 1954—by a woman born in 1909 and raised in an English country house with servants and a governess. Its simple, playful sentences; steady accumulation of strange details and observations; non-sequiter dialogue and diversions; and surreal images encountered by her characters as mundane or a nuisance, seem to predate the postmodern writing of the 1960s á la Donald Barthelme. Others have compared her to Angela Carter and consider Comyns a neglected genius. Still others have said she is not like anybody else at all and that is fine by me too:

“Barbara Comyns is always being compared to writers X, Y or Z “on acid.” The acid part is a cop-out; her voice is clear and direct, even when describing surreal or hyperreal situations, and her crisp descriptions are not kaleidoscopic or druggy in the least. The comparisons to other writers, apt or not, are never a list of her formative influences; she didn’t have any.” – Emily Gould, writing in The Awl in 2010. 

What is certain is she has been largely overlooked and I feel lucky to have happened across her.

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead was banned by The Irish Censorship of Publications Board (though, what book wasn’t? one might ask). I happened to hear about it one night, deep in the interwebs, when I came across Dorothy, a publishing project who reissued the by then out of print novel.

“Dorothy is dedicated to works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women. We want to publish books that, whether conventional or un-, are uniquely themselves, that do not lean against preconceived ideas of what is wonderful, but brilliantly and purposefully convince us that they are, themselves, wonderful.”

Marvelous! I thought. And it really was.

For your consideration:

Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead




Women’s Travel Diaries & Hints to Lady Travellers.

Travel is awesome. Women are awesome. Agreed.

Though it is still rare for women to be mentioned in the the same breath as your James Cooks or your Mark Twains, most of us with an interest in travel writing will have heard of female adventurers like Freya Stark, Alexandra David-Neél and Dervla Murphy.

Not everyone who travels writes to an audience, however, and many extraordinary journeys by ‘ordinary’ folks are largely lost to us.

So I was excited to come across a wonderful resource from Duke University Libraries: a digital collection of Women’s Travel Diaries, conserving more than one hundred journals written by British and American women and detailing journeys to India and Africa, Europe, the West Indies and the Middle East. It’s a great find.

Studies in Travel Writing is another good resource and the generally wonderful ‘Project Gutenburg’ also has a handful of women’s travel journals and books that can be downloaded or read online, including a 19th century voyage to Brazil and an early 20th century journal of a nurse working in the trenches and field hospitals of France in WWI. Fascinating!

Last year the Royal Geographic Society reprinted Hints to Lady Travellersoriginally published in 1889 to encourage and advise Victorian women in a time when independent travel was becoming more acceptable but was still quite unknown territory.

It seems a darling little book but with advise such as wearing skirts above your ankles when mountain climbing so as not to sully your petticoats, and the practicalities of having your maid travel in the same carriage as you, it’s not quite in the same realm as David-Neél who travelled across forbidden Tibet disguised as a beggar or Dervla Murphy’s trouser-wearing escapades across India on a bicycle.

Still, the more women who break out of their relative comfort-zones and see the world the better. It doesn’t really matter how you go, just go!

An Indifference to Decorum: the Significance of Walking in Pride and Prejudice.

As I pack my bags and boxes and consider the enormity of walking from Kanyakumari to Mumbai, my inner Miss Bingley casts a cold eye over my inner Elizabeth Bennet. The most wonderful backhanded compliment from Pride and Prejudice has stayed with me since reading it a couple of months ago:

She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker.

Will that me my epitaph too? Is that how people will characterise me? I think I’d quite like that.

Now that my trip is a mere matter of weeks away, I feel like I can talk about it more. Until now, it’s been quite abstract and dreamlike: a hope and a prayer rather than a reality. Ian and I are packing up our Portland life and leaving for India in September. It will happen. We are going to walk from the most southern tip of the country to its unfathomable, mammoth city, the old Bombay.

I forced myself to write: “We are going to.” My instinct was to say: “We’re going to try to…” Which is the truth but there’s no room for truth anymore; there can be nothing but belief.

Like Lizzy Bennet, I am going to be a most excellent walker.

I’m reading Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: a History of Walking and she dedicates quite a few pages to Jane Austen and to Pride and Prejudice in particular.

Walking was a particularly feminine pastime in eighteenth and nineteenth century England – the “country lady’s amusement” as Dorothy Wordworth wrote in a 1792 letter.

Walking provided a shared seclusion for crucial conversations. Etiquette at the time required residents and guests of the country house to pass their day in the main rooms together and the garden walk provided relief from the group, either in solitude or in tête-a-têtes.

It is both socially and spatially the widest latitude available to the women contained within these social strictures, the activity in which they find a chance to exert body and imagination.

Elizabeth Bennet transgresses the boundaries of this somewhat genteel amusement. She literally and metaphorically strays from the path when she leaves the safety of manicured lawns, muddies her petticoats and sets out on a three mile walk:

To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ancles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.

To which Mr. Darcy replies Nonsense! and is obviously impressed by Elizabeth’s wandering vivaciousness. “You are conscious,” he says to her, “that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking.” Says Solnit:

The acuity of idle people about each other’s conduct extended to critiques of movement and posture, and a person’s walk was considered an important part of his or her appearance… Walking can be for display, withdrawal, or both.

It’s the freedom of walking I’m anticipating most. I love that walking was not only a sanctuary and an act of independence for women but could be one of profound rebellion. For those of you who haven’t read the novel, I will leave you in suspense as to how seductive Lizzy’s legs were to Mr. Darcy. I myself am not at all bothered about the attractiveness of my gait on our walk. I’m just hoping I’m strong enough to do it! As Austen and Solnit show, there’s a little more to walking than one foot in front of the other. Though that’s probably a good place to begin.