Lightness of Voice and the Levitating Narratives of Barbara Comyns
The British writer Barbara Comyns wrote eleven well-received novels from the late 1940s to 1990, but she has been largely neglected in terms of scholarly attention. (The MLA bibliography lists one academic article, and she is briefly noted in a handful of monographs covering mid-century British fiction.) My paper seeks to bring renewed attention to this overlooked writer by focusing on what most commentators have mentioned admiringly, but only in passing: her distinctive voice. Drawing on James Phelan’s description of voice in Narrative as Rhetoric, I will examine how voice connects to both character and plot in two of Comyns’s novels: Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and The Vet’s Daughter (1959). I will argue that Comyns’s use of voice creates narrators particularly attuned to the undercurrent of violence that subsists within social relations. These narrative voices, spoken in homodiegetic narration by young women, are often described as simple, matter-of-fact, honest, and naïve. But another quality is also present, an “authority of address” and “method of seduction” (Davis viii, x), a “marvelousness,” “childlike wonder,” and “lightness (in Calvino’s usage of the term)” (Evenson vi). These voices, both naïve and seductive, straightforward and full of wonder, create uncanny effects in Comyns’s often darkly comic narratives, presenting the narrators as both ignorant and knowing: ignorant of normative social conventions while possessing an outsider’s knowledge of the violence that lies within them. If these narrators are often the passive victims of violence, their traumatic knowledge (Hartman) uncannily lifts them above these experiences, offering them the means to find a language for the traumatic effects of violence that that would not otherwise find expression in the normative discourses surrounding them. This lifting-above—literalized in the surreal and Gothic touches found in Comyns’s work, such as visions and levitation—is what accounts for the clear-eyed wonder and lightness of the voice.
Davis, Kathryn. Introduction. The Vet’s Daughter. By Barbara Comyns. New York: New York Review Books, 2003. vii-xi.
Evenson, Brian. Introduction. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. By Barbara Comyns. Urbana, IL: Dorothy, a publishing project, 2010. i-vii.
Hartman, Geoffrey. “On Traumatic Knowledge and Literary Studies.” New Literary History 26.3 (1995): 537-63.