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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Dreamer, Publisher, Novelist SPY: the strange birth of the Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Continuing with this week’s theme of being inspired by Simon at Stuck in a Book, I find myself with a most unusual read. Simon, Polly at Novel Insights and Claire at Paperback Reader are heading up an informal read along of The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns.

I am not reading along because I have read the book a couple of times before and know it to be a wonderful read. There are excellent reviews already at Stuck in a Book, Verity’s Virago Venture and Harriet Devine’s Blog. The novel is typical of Comyns’ unsentimental and spell-bound style and holds in focus a chilling depiction of domestic bullying and the transformative powers of the imagination. It is clear-sighted and interesting and quite unique. It is also cheap on Amazon, so if you haven’t already, maybe give it a go.....

Because it seemed silly to read along, I thought that I would read something else, which has been sitting on my shelves starring at me for some time, and which has an odd and little known connection to the Vet’s Daughter.

My Silent War is the autobiography of Kim Philby. If you don’t know the Kim Philby of history, you may know the Kim Philby of literature as he has spawned numrous literary alter egos, most notably Bill Haydon in John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Kim Philby of history was a notorious double agent; a man who, at the height of the Cold War rose to the top of the British Secret Service, whilst also being a loyal agent of the Soviet state. With his fellow communists Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, he formed part of what has now become known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. My Silent War is an extraordinary book because in it Philby speaks with his own voice; showing the simmering loyalties of “Stalin’s Englishman” and the web of lies that he wove for those around him. He describes the tension between appearance and reality; between what he must have looked like to his colleagues and what he actually was, with real mastery and not a little egotism.

One such colleague, to whom Philby was, or seemed to be close was Richard Comyns Carr, the husband of the novelist Barbara Comyns. Theirs was not a polite office friendship but a close association and a constant round of dinners and drinks parties. So much so, that when Richard and Barbara married immediately after the Second World War, Philby loaned them his own holiday home for their honeymoon. It was there that Barbara Comyns had a dream that inspired the Vet’s Daughter. And so an unexpected and half-obscured path connects the lady novelist and the unrepentant spy.

But the connection does not end there. My Silent War is a book with two prefaces. The first is by Phillip Knightley, Philby’s scholarly biographer and the second is by an altogether more shadowy figure in his history – the novelist and mystery man Graham Greene. Greene’s foreword is compelling but ultimately rather fawning and not worthy of Greene’s usually critical stance. However, Phillip Knightley in his introduction tells us that Greene may have been the man whom the British authorities sent to Moscow to try to persuade Philby to return home. So Greene’s words at the opening of My Silent War stand as testimony to his regard for Philby, but possibly also, his one time “brief” to turn a double agent into a triple agent.

Graham Greene was a man with one foot in the secret service and one foot in the literary world. The foot that was in the literary world was one of Barbara Comyns’ biggest and most influential fans. He consistently championed her unusual and striking novels, including the Vet’s Daughter. Indeed, he even published her first book, Sisters by a river when nobody else would touch it.

My Silent War is an interesting read. It doesn’t shed that much light on the Vet’s Daughter, but it is an fascinating side track in the life of its author. It will be a surprise to nobody who has enjoyed the Vet’s Daughter to learn that it was inspired by a dream – it has a profoundly dreamlike quality about it and the creative and resilient power of the mind is one of its chief themes. I think that political espionage interested Barbara Comyns less than personal betrayal and as she rather dismissively commented “all of our friends turned out to be spies in those days”.

I have included pictures of Barbara Comyns (looking remarkably like Greta Garbo as Vaishnavi has commented), Kim Philby and Graham Greene (looking remarkably similar, I wonder if anyone ever saw them together….). For good measure, Kim Philby’s most famous literary double, Bill Haydon, as played by Ian Richardson also makes an appearance.


  1. Great post, Hannah, and makes the readlong even more interesting with these sidelights thrown upon it!

  2. What a fascinating post Hannah - you really are a Comyns guru. And it's fascinating to see the picture of Comyns!

  3. I've read reviews over the last few days on several blogs on the Vet's Daughter. Thanks for the other bits of information given.

  4. Simon - you are welcome - it has been a pleasure to read reviews of the Vet's Daughter and I do hope that this is of interest!

    Verity - glad to be of service (PS I have umpeen more where that came from if you would like to see just let me know and I will email you a couple)

    Mystica - you are most welcome. Barbara Comyns (and probably most commentators) regarded the Vet's Daughter as her most accomplished novel and I do think that it is significant that it started with a dream. I do hope that the details about her life and connections help people to appreciate her writing all the more.

    Enjoy your thursday evenings all - *friday* tomorrow....


  5. Oh my gosh this was a fascinating post to read! So much insight here!

  6. Philby sounds like a very interesting man! I really liked this post, and learned lots of new things!

  7. Fascinating post. Philby is always enigmatic and interesting.

  8. So interesting! I'm read to read Comyns but I have The Skin Chairs ready to read. Thank you for such an insightful post!

  9. Fascinating post Hannah, I can always depend on your blog to give me something interesting to read about and thanks for linking me up. I am sort of scolding myself into not buying/borrowing any more books as of now because there are piles of books on every available surface including the floor in my room but I might just have to include Barbara Comyns in my list!

  10. I own one Virago book, Comyns's The Skin Chairs. I will promote it to the top of my TBR list.

    Philby does indeed sound interesting, but in an anti-hero way. To me, there is something very wrong with a person who willingly commits treason.

  11. I always find your posts so interesting, particularly as I live outwith the reach of English bookshops. They are not so much reviews as inspirations.

  12. I often feel that there is no better book than a really well done autobiography. I like getting to know people through their own words. I'll most certainly have to pick this one up!

  13. I've been fascinated by the Cambridge Spy Ring for years, ever since I saw the BBC miniseries Cambridge Spies (with the lovely Toby Stephens as Kim Philby). I haven't read his book, as my library has such an old copy I was afraid it would fall apart if I did! But this is all very interesting history.

  14. How interesting all this is! I have managed to get hold of a library copy of Out of the Red, Into the Blue, which as you know is Comyns autobiographical account of a period spent in Spain. I have been unable to put it down and will be blogging about it soon.

  15. Dear All,

    Thank you all for visiting my blog and leaving a comment....

    Amused - thank you for your kind words!

    Zibilee - I think that he was pretty interesting, I have another book about him which I shall read and review properly at some stage...

    Patti - thank you! There might be more on Philby soon...

    Rachel - oh I do hope that you enjoy the Skin hairs - do let me know what you think of it.

    Vaishnavi - knowing your book tastes, I think that you would enjoy it!

    Charlie - yes there is something very distasteful about him - although from what I have read he was a very charming man, but I guess that was part of the deception. I do hope that you enjoy The Skin Chairs - I wuld love to know what you think of it.

    Aguja - I am glad to be of service.... sorry that English bookshops are not to easy for you to find though. One of the many benefits of the internet is knowledge sharing but also international online bookshops, so maybe in future it will be cheaper to buy online and ship...

    Laura - that is definately the case here - you really feel Philby's voice - I would recommend it.

    Carolyn - oohh - I didn't know about the Cambridge Spies miniseries - I will look that up - thanks for the tip off!

    Harriet - gosh - Out of the red is almost the most difficult of Comyns' novels to get hold of so your library must be pretty good! I would *love* to read your thoughts when you are done.

    OK - thanks all and have happy Tuesdays.


  16. Hannah, what a wonderful post with so much interesting detail. I love the idea that The Vet's Daughter came from a dream.

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  18. information which is very nice, and hopefully we can be grateful for what the Lord in love, greetings from me Obat Bius