A novel about a young woman who has a desperately ill mother, a violent father, and yet in the midst of never-ending hardship possesses a secret of her own. 1959.
The consensus among people who’ve read The Vet’s Daughter is that this is a strange book, a challenge to rate and classify. It’s very short—under 150 pages—and throughout most of the book, the main character passes from one bleak situation to the next. And yet it’s not a depressing book. I wouldn’t call it positive, exactly, either. It’s just not a usual kind of book, so it doesn’t fit into the usual kinds of categories.
Everyone also seems to be in agreement that what sells The Vet’s Daughter is the writing itself. This was my first experience with Barbara Comyns, but within the first page I was convinced that this is some of the best writing I’ve ever read. It is beautiful, clear, and precise. Comyns says in the introduction to the book that she wrote this in a kind of frenzy, seeing all of the action like it was a film playing in her mind. When I began reading, I immediately understood what she meant.
The story is narrated by Alice, a seventeen-year-old living in Edwardian-era London with her father and mother. Her father is a veterinarian with an unrepentant violent streak. When people leave him animals to be put down, instead of putting them down he sells them to a vivisectionist. A great dane dog-skin rug decorates the house, and the door to his office is held open by an amputated horse’s hoof.
He’s equally unfeeling towards his family. He frankly despises Alice, only finding her useful as a housekeeper and unpaid veterinary’s assistant. He married Alice’s mother purely to get his hands on her small sum of money. At the novel’s opening Alice’s mother is very sick, doubled over in pain as she tries to fulfill the household duties her husband still expects from her. In the mother’s final illness, Alice’s father visits her sickbed only once, and hours later the mother dies. Alice suspects her father gave the mother an overdose of drugs—and he wasn’t motivated by mercy.
A few weeks later, a “strumpet” from a nearby music hall takes up with the father and moves into the mother’s former bedroom. This woman puts on airs—Alice calls one of her expressions “the sad clown face”—and in her eagerness to get Alice out of the house she nonchalantly puts Alice in real physical danger.
Throughout all this, Alice has few friends. One of them is Mrs. Churchill, the woman hired to help with the housework while Alice’s mother was ill. Mrs. Churchill is motherly and kindhearted but kind of silly, talking repeatedly on a very small range of subjects, such as her flowers and what she might give people for Christmas. There was this one Mrs. Churchill line that really amused me:
Our house is all dogs’ hairs and I like it that way; it feeds the carpets.
Another of Alice’s friends is Mr. Peebles, the man who fills in at her father’s practice right after her mother dies. Mr. Peebles is in a position to be Alice’s hero, except he’s not good-looking (he has a round face and round eyes, so she calls him “Blinkers). It goes without saying that Alice likes him but doesn’t love him. He’s not particularly gallant, either, although he does go out of his way to remove Alice from her morally and physically dangerous home life.
There’s a particularly poignant scene when Blinkers takes Alice out shopping. They’re in a fancy department store, and he keeps wanting to buy her stuff. Alice refuses to let him buy her something, though, because she sees that if she accepts a gift from him, she will probably have to agree to marry him. At the end of the shopping trip she falls in love with a fountain pen. She does let him buy it for her, and she understands that now, when he asks her to marry him, she’ll have to say yes. This scene really stuck with me; it’s like acknowledging that her person is worth as much as a fountain pen.
As I’ve mentioned, it’s the writing style that really sells this book. Alice is young but not at all naive. She sees her surroundings for what they are (bleak), the people around her for what they are (bleak), and yet she doesn’t complain about it much. Her tone is very matter-of-fact, and the story moves along at a decent clip, not dwelling much on either the happy parts or the unhappy parts. It sort of reminded me of D.E. Stevenson’s books for some reason (maybe because they’re published around the same time?), although The Vet’s Daughter is sort of the antithesis to DES. In a DES novel, when a young woman leaves her unhappy home and heads out into the world, she encounters nothing but nice, good-hearted people. In The Vet’s Daughter, when Alice leaves home, she finds only a new collection of casually unpleasant people.
She does discover, quite accidentally, an escape from all this unpleasantry: she has the ability to levitate. As a late-coming, surreal plot development it reminded me of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, in which the protagonist discovers she’s living among witches and becomes a witch herself. But whereas in Lolly Willowes this strange turn of events seems like a delusion of sorts, in The Vet’s Daughter Alice’s gift is much easier to accept.
Alice’s gift is also fitting because all throughout the story, Alice seems to be floating above everything, even before she does literally float above everything. She’s detached from life and the people around her. The action of the novel happens to her; there’s very little she actually does to alter her circumstances. She suffers from lack-of-home as well as lack-of-belonging. There’s a moment of peace where she acknowledges this herself:
I felt so tired it seemed almost impossible to leave my bed; but, when I did and leant out of my window and felt the early spring sun on my face, I felt refreshed. I watched sea-gulls circling round an old man who was ploughing, and somebody’s hens pecking in the hedge in our garden. In the distance there was the sound of ducks and I felt a strange homesickness for no home I’d known.
And this passage is so perfectly representative of the novel as a whole. Comyns paints a complete picture, with just the right amount of detail, and then she caps it off by saying something so quietly beautiful and profound and universal—and also a little sad. It’s a strange book, but one I have to admit to loving.