WSwan LBC – The Vet’s Daughter – Barbara Comyns

LBC White Swan

Date:  Sunday 11th of January 2015
Time:  6:00pm
Address: Swan Street, Leeds





The BLURB (or actually, its more of a summary from Amazon)

In this Freudian fantasy, Alice Rowlands lives with a father glowering ‘like a disappointed thunderstorm’, a fast-fading mother and a beastly menagerie in a dark house in 1930s Battersea. With her mother’s death, life becomes almost intolerable for Alice, whose father treats her as a slave. Then kind ‘Blinkers’, the vet’s assistant, arranges for her to live with his mother in the country.

There, Alice revels in the beauty of nature and falls head over heels for Nicholas, the lovely boy who takes her skating, motoring, and smiles at her. But Nicholas has other fish to fry, and Alice is forced to fall back on a talent for rising above her troubles . . .

Back in London, that talent comes to the attention of her father — who rapaciously propels Alice towards fame on Clapham Common . . .

The Book Club Verdict

Whoops – meant to say – huge thanks to @woodsiegirl for the delicious biscuits!

Cover picked to infuriate Liam

Cover picked to infuriate Liam

This was my first book club of the year (though Helen had an Outlaws last week) so – as is usual – I was a bit nervous about it. What if no one turned up? What if we said everything in five minutes or less? Or worse, what if we had NOTHING to say about the book at all? All very standard book clubbing worries, I’m sure!

However, it turned out that as a book club, we were raring to go. Before everyone had arrived, there were mini-chats going on about magical realism, fantasy and writing style!

From the outset, everyone agreed that this was a very odd little book. Some (like me) had absolutely loved it. Others had found it to be too strange. And there were some that found it to be utterly pointless.

I had found the title to be very strange. Of all the relationships within the book, the father being a vet seemed to have little bearing on the plot. However, as the conversation developed, I realised that I was utterly wrong on that score. While his profession might seem incidental, Alice Rowlands is very much her fathers possession and – as one of our members pointed out, he used her right up to the end. After all, she might easily have been the Postman’s daughter – had her mother married him. That might seem to be a very obvious statement but it carried more impact if you’ve read the book. Additionally, his job seems to have impacted upon his actions (or potential actions – we couldn’t quite agree on this!) in relation to the death of his wife, Alice’s mothers. Also, there were frequent references to animals in pain, distress and being sent off to the vivisectionist, which were both telling for the time period and his state of mind (if he can’t cure them, he has them put down) and off putting.

With regards to character development, we were divided. Some of us felt that the characters were very sharply delineated – especially given how short the book was. However, others felt that the characters were given no dimension and that as a reader, they were constantly searching for greater depth. The father for example – was he a good vet? Henry seemed to think so but reading it with a more modern viewpoint definitely put that into question. Rosa was an obnoxious snob and callous creature yet her ending still induced a degree of sympathy…as much as one can have for someone who tries to sell an unwitting person for sex…

Alice was indescribably naive and short sighted and seemed to accept the various situations she was placed in without every questioning it or requiring more information. This was indisputably the case regarding her move to take care of Mrs Peebles. At some point surely someone must have considered that Alice would need to know that Mrs Peebles was suicidal and had indeed almost burned her home to the ground…and yet, she is sent in blind.

For one thing, though the language used throughout is very basic, Alice seemed to have a better understanding of the world that her family gave her credit for. She was frequently described as being simple but her own viewpoint seemed perfectly aware. She was a very young 17 and occasionally seemed a bit younger, meaning a few of us had needed contextual cues to deduce her age. Although she could occasionally behave a bit idiotically; wasn’t really an idiot. As a narrator, there is a simplistic honesty in her storytelling style that was very sincere. Her sadness was affecting and moving/cloying and overtly reductionist depending on which half of the group you chat to!

Naturally, we couldn’t restrain ourselves any longer and began to discuss the leviation/floating/flying aspect. For a few of us, this had been a strange aspect – we considered it at first to be medical – could she have had epilepsy perhaps? Of course the ending of the book rendered that theory redundant. Of course, others had read it exactly as described – she said she floated so she floated. It wasn’t a dream or a metaphor or indicative of anything other than floating. After all the rest of the world depicted in the book was very realistically described. Why would that event be any different? As you might expect, we were equally divided as to whether or not it’s inclusion was useful or not. Here we wandered off the path for a moment and briefly mentioned the films Special and Bolt – whereby someone (and in the latter case a dog) thinks that they have superpowers but actually don’t. Sounds fantastic and I’ll be seeking them out to watch in the future!

Her relationship with Nicholas was of great interest to us. In Alice’s eyes, there was a definite flirtation, though he did find her levitation to be very weird. However, much or all of this could have been in her imagination – her reading far more into the situation than there actually was – see above re behaving a bit idiotically. Henry Peebles on the other hand was a perfectly suitable suitor – if a somewhat bland one. Yet Alice just didn’t fancy him. It was a nice piece of convention defying writing for most of us, quite realistic.

A number of people brought up the pacing of the book as being a bit off. It seemed to speed up during the middle but then slowed down completely again. The levitation as a plot device enters very late into the book and is an utter break from both the whimsy and realism that had been depicted up until that point.

The majority of us did agree that the writing was something very different and a bit special. The mother telling the story of her childhood was a particular high point for most of us.

As has happened at least once before, we were collectively very disappointed with the introduction included in most of the varying versions of the book. It completely spoiled the vast majority of the book so those who read it ahead of the novel lost the element of surprise totally. It also kept referring to the ‘fateful final chapter’ which was irritating. However, perhaps more significantly, we found it very distasteful that the person providing the introduction – who had met Barbara Comyns for tea – portrayed the author as a whimsical Bohemian type. Worst of all, she then questioned the semi-autobiographical aspects in relation to the abusive parent on the basis that they had been excellent grandparents. More than a little offensive, we agreed and a dis-service to the author (to quote one particularly eloquent member).

Only myself and one other actually planned on reading more Barbara Comyn’s works. However, quite a few of us would have been interested in reading an autobiography of the author. Particularly in relation to her friendship with the treasonous spy Kim Philby!

All in all, it was a really wonderful discussion. Thanks to everyone for being there!


6 out of 10

For further details, please email me at or tweet me @LeedsBookClub

The Pub can be contacted on @WhiteSwanLeeds

And feel free to let us know your thoughts using #WSwanLBC!



2 thoughts on “WSwan LBC – The Vet’s Daughter – Barbara Comyns

  1. Pingback: The Vet’s Daughter – Book review | Hello from me to you

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