22 January 2021

Mr Fox by Barbara Comyns

The other day my husband asked me what Mr Fox is about.  For some reason, rather than give a quick synopsis I said "horror and hope".  The horror is down to the matter of fact way in which Comyns writes about abandonment, hunger, poverty, vile characters and even death.  When a dog was introduced into the storyline I immediately feared for the animal's life because I've been here before with her novels.  Comyns doesn't sugarcoat or shy away, but her main characters (at least in the six books I've read) seem to carry a thread of positivity that inspires hope for a better life ahead. 

Caroline Seymour is raising her three year-old daughter in an atmosphere of uncertainty after her husband signs on to fight Franco.  Caroline thinks Oliver left because she became fat and dreadful while pregnant.  Oliver doesn't come across as the sort of man who goes around looking for noble causes....

He used to spend most of the day lying on a crimson Victorian sofa thinking about poetical things, and he said I had a petit bourgeois mind when I did things like cleaning.  He didn't mind so much when I cooked; but he didn't have to watch me doing that because I had to do it on the landing under the skylight.  It was fortunate Oliver had a small private income, because he earned very little being a poet.

By letting rooms in her home, Caroline is barely scraping by.  As the threat of war approaches, tenants began to leave.  Wondering what to do next, Caroline seeks the advice of Mr Fox, the owner of a garage.  Over the past two years Mr Fox has had several business ventures in buying cheap items and then selling them on for a profit.  Caroline notices that Mr Fox will grow a beard, then shave it off.  The reader knows he needs to change his appearance to avoid the constabulary.

Mr Fox suggests a relationship that merges his meagre assets with Caroline's.  Feeling she has no other option, Caroline agrees and becomes a general housekeeper in his attic flat, surrounded by suspicious tenants.  Covering dingy wallpaper with primrose paint becomes a regular pastime.  A lack of money leads Caroline to work at a less than desirable nightclub.  A lack of experience means she doesn't see through a scheme to lure cash from men in return for her company, shall we say.  Leaving her little girl in the evening, the groping male company and too much unwanted whisky leave Caroline feeling ill.

When the Blitz rains bombs on London, Caroline finds employment as a housekeeper in a village.  It's also a passive way of escaping from Mr Fox for the time being.  Remember my comment at the beginning about horror and hope?  I hoped Caroline and Jenny would appear at the door of a warm family that would bring them joy and stability.  It doesn't....but, there are some quietly humourous moments that I enjoyed very much!

Barbara Comyns Wikipedia page reveals elements of her biography that match certain details in this novel.  Converting homes into apartments, a relationship with a marketeer, renovating pianos and upcycling used furniture, and becoming a cook for a manor house during World War II.  If you read a handful of Comyns' novels you'll have had a glimpse into her past experiences. 

There's no explaining why I enjoy Barbara Comyns' novels so very much.  They can be odd, frightening, depressing and quite often several of the characters are downright contemptible.  It bothered me whenever Caroline would leave her daughter alone in a dingy flat because Mr Fox wanted her company for dinner.  She weighs what needs to be done for survival against any revulsion for the unsavoury or even the dangerous.  Caroline has a positive outlook and strong will that hopefully ends in triumph.

A Corner of Merton, 16 August 1940
Harry Bush (1883 - 1957)

8 comments:

  1. I always think I love Comyns but I wonder if they are too much for me now - definitely the animal stuff - and that I was tougher with things like this when I was younger!

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    1. Oh yes, I used to enjoy spooky films but not anymore so I do think what we consider entertainment does change as we get older. And the thought of a sad animal crushes me. Don't laugh, but I'm hand-feeding a wasp fig jam....it's been overwintering in a fern in my kitchen!

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  2. I've read and liked her stories though this one sounds a bit dark.

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    1. Spot on, my friend. Lovely to hear from you, Mystica!

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  3. I thought, "well this sounds interesting" and since there are few copies in US libraries, I checked Amazon to see if there are any used copies. There is ONE used paperback available. . . wait for it. . . for the $2,681.99. My jaw dropped. (There are also hardcovers for $140.) I did check Book Depository and there is a recent PB edition for about $16 so that's something. But $2681.99??? I am flabbergasted.

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    1. Something silly is going on, isn't it! That's a trip to London and a budget B&B...hopefully the IT team at Amazon have fixed the problem.
      Lovely to hear from you Karen!

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  4. Horror and hope is such a good description! Hope you're well Darlene.

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    1. Hi Simon! Doing well but SO looking forward to warmer weather and the vaccine.
      We get the TLS at work. A recent issue had an excellent article on Comyns that made my lunch hour on Saturday a lot more fun. I wish she had written more!
      All the best, Simon...hope you're doing well, too!

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