Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

Bidford bridge

Philip Halling [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Firstly, mea maxima culpa – many apologies that this post didn’t appear in its rightful place a couple of weeks ago; I got the wrong day. Oops. BUT better late than never – and that’s also true of Barbara Comyns’ Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, if you somehow haven’t read it in the 61 years since it was published in 1954. I would argue that it’s the best of Comyns’ surreal and glorious oeuvre.

For starters, how’s this for an opening line? ‘The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows.’ That introduction is very characteristic of Comyns’ combination of the domestic and the bizarre. Her novels are firmly set in families and villages, but in a manner that is somehow heightened and made absurd – and, yet, always told in the most matter-of-fact manner. Absolutely nothing can discompose the authorial voice; everything is presented on the same plane, which makes the incredible events all the more amusing and/or unsettling for the reader.

So, what are these events? Well, the ducks are swimming through the drawing-room windows because the village has flooded. Animals drown, all is uproar, and over the top the tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed worries about her rose beds and demands her lunch. She rules the family with an iron fist, refuses to walk on land that she does not own, and has a decades-long battle with Old Ives the gardener. This is set ‘about seventy years ago’ – so the 1880s – and the feudal system is still alive and well. The village, incidentally, is based on Bidford-on-Avon in Warwickshire, pictured above, which I happen to know well.

And that’s not all. The villagers start to die painful, fairly gruesome deaths, mostly at their own hands… who or what is responsible? Why are the villagers going mad? The solution to this phenomenon isn’t really the lynch pin of the novel, but nevertheless I won’t spoil it. The real crux of the novel is the way the family interacts with each other – how they may or may not escape the clutches of Grandmother Willoweed herself, and how the status quo will have evolved by the final page. Who, indeed, was changed, and who was dead (a title that borrows from a Longfellow poem). If you are spotting similarities to Cold Comfort Farm, they are there (perhaps) in vague outline, but not in style. Comyns’ style is entirely her own. I loved the strange and vivid images she uses throughout, which are curiously naive… for example:

His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted, claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall round her like the petals from a dying flower.

This is my second time of reading and if, this time, her writing and persona come as less of a surprise, it is instead like greeting an old friend – one who is entirely eccentric, but much-loved. If you’ve yet to read anything by Comyns, there isn’t a better place to start. It is shamefully out of print in the UK (I believe) but a lovely edition was reprinted in the US by the Dorothy Project a few years ago… c’mon, read Comyns.

6 comments on “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

  1. Martine Frampton
    January 21, 2015

    Thanks for your review. I have this on my 101 books list having read about it somewhere quite a while ago. I am intrigued by the vague information I have gleaned about the plot, just hoping the library had a copy.

  2. heavenali
    January 21, 2015

    Ooh I have this tbr in a nice original Virago green edition. It does all sound slightly bonkers.

  3. Trilby
    January 22, 2015

    Discovered this a couple of years ago (aslo an old Virago edition!) – great read!

  4. BookerTalk
    January 22, 2015

    Now that is what I call a brick through the window opening sentence. I’ve never heard of this author (red face) but sounds like someone I really should get to know

  5. Pingback: It all starts again… | Stuck in a Book

  6. nicklemesurier57
    April 20, 2016

    Reblogged this on Nick Le Mesurier's Blog and commented:
    This is one of Barbara Comyn’s best novels, set in a village somewhat like Bidford on Avon.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2015 by in Entries by Simon, Fiction: 20th Century and tagged .



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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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