You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Friday, March 11, 2011


Sisters by a River (Virago Modern Classics)Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barbara Comyns' Sisters by a River has this in common with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Both Comyns and Tolkien wrote their stories to read to their children, neither initially had an eye toward publication. I can image the Tolkien children delighting to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the lot, but I wonder what the Comyns' young ones made of this passage from a chapter titled God in the Billiard Room.

There was a funny light in the billiard room, and I wasn't really surprised when one hot Sunday morning I walked in there to get cool and there was God, he was over by the fishy window and just glided up to me, I knew it was God although he looked like and enormous parchment coloured bag drawn up round the neck with a cord, I had been expecting to see him for a long time but I couldn't help being rather overcome and fainted. When the grown-ups found me they wouldn't believe I had seen God and I fainted rather a lot after that so they said I mustn't eat crab, and  I still don't and I have never seen Him any more.

Comyns was writing up her childhood memories that she would later use in the novel Who Was Saved and Who Was Dead. I think I believe just about every word of them. She relates events through a child's perspective -- she was the middle of five sisters -- and everything she remembers ring true. The family lived in large country house on the river Avon. Their mother went deaf after the birth of her last chlld, and the grandmother, whose home it was, was something of a terror. Their alcoholic father lost most of the family money. The girls pretty much ran wild. They were erratically educated by governesses who frequently fled the household or at boarding schools that frequently sent them home. And through this all the girls seem to having a pretty good time of it. They may be briefly unhappy when their pets die, either through their own neglect or because the groundskeeper, who is very particular, shoots them, but there are constant distractions. Servant girls become pregnant and disappear; Chloe, the youngest, spends a year convalescing from rheumatic fever; when Granny dies, the girls secretly sell off all her smelly Edwardian furniture and create a nice, white room; and, the river is scene of perpetual adventure,

Sisters by a River seems to be out of print, and the old Virago Classic editions get listed for anywhere from a penny to around forty dollars. It's worth searching out, along with the Comyn's novels that are coming back into print through The Dorothy Project and NYRB. And there is the public library.

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