Short Classics Week of #NovNov: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Can you believe it’s the last week of Novellas in November?! I’m hosting our final theme, short classics, and my first review is of a strange, mesmerizing 1950s novella.

We hope some of you will join in with our last buddy read, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (free to download here from Project Gutenberg if you don’t already have access). I’m looking forward to rereading it – in one sitting, if I can manage it – on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning and will review it on Thursday. This list of 10 favourite classic novellas I put together last year might give you some more ideas of what to read this week.


Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (1954)

[146 pages]

I’d heard about this via its recent Daunt Books reissue and was attracted to the plague theme. The spark for the story was a real-life event in France in 1951, but Comyns takes imaginative liberties. In 1911, a Warwickshire village is overtaken by calamity: first a flood and then a mysterious sickness. The first line – “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window” – sets up a jolly, fable-like atmosphere as the Willoweed family go rowing through their garden. And yet there’s death all over the place. The multitude of drowned animals soon cedes to a roll call of human casualties. Some deaths are self-inflicted and others result from rapid illness, but all are gruesome. The general pattern of the sickness seems to be stomach pains, fits, bleeding and death, all within a few days. At first, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a medical phenomenon or a case of mass hysteria. Either is rich fodder for fiction.

Ebin Willoweed writes it all up for the newspapers, leaving his motherless daughters to do the hard work of cleaning up from the flood damage and looking after their little brother. Meanwhile, Ebin’s brutal, selfish mother presides over the household like some ogre in a fairy tale. The title (which comes from Longfellow) makes it clear that even those who survive this epidemic will not escape totally unscathed.

Comyns is entirely unsentimental in this, her third novel; those characters who are not horrible are typically passive, and the humour is very black indeed. It’s illuminating to observe how each figure responds to tragedy and what their priorities are. In general, though, it’s not a rosy picture of human nature. While I was initially reminded of H.E. Bates’s The Darling Buds of May and Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, this feels darker. There is some casual racism and the morbidness probably won’t be for everyone, but I remained gripped, wondering how on earth this would conclude. I liked it enough to try more by Comyns – my library has a copy of the brilliantly titled Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, but I’m also open to other suggestions. (Secondhand purchase)


Keep in touch via Twitter (@bookishbeck / @cathy746books) and Instagram (@bookishbeck / @cathy_746books). We’ll add any of your review links in to our master posts. Feel free to use the terrific feature image Cathy made and don’t forget the hashtag #NovNov.

Any short classics on your reading pile?

16 responses

  1. Spoons is excellent and the one I can bear – I used to love her but I’ve started to realise I can’t cope with the darkness and morbidity now (if you’d like any others I have started to give mine away …). I’m still chipping away at yet more novellas, I have one to review tomorrow ish, one on the go from NetGalley I didn’t realise WAS a novella till I was suddenly 25% of the way through it very quickly, one read but it goes with another I’m still reading and then two older novels that might fit in with the classics theme …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll read Spoons from the library at some point. Are there others you remember enjoying?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I enjoyed them all, to be honest. I think I have one rare one I might try to sell, but I can send you some others if you’d like?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That would be great, if you get a chance. I have a parcel to send off to you next month.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns (Rebecca at Bookish Beck) […]


  3. This was my first Comyns and I loved it. Dark, yes, but so good!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Snap — sounds like it was a good one to start with for a taste of her style.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns […]


  5. She’s so clever and disorienting: I love her stuff. I think The Vet’s Daughter is a common starting place with her, but I’m also thinking it would make a lovely ending place, for reasons I can’t say.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That seems like her best-known work. Definitely one to find.


  6. My favourite of hers, and my favourite opening line of any book ever! I think The Vet’s Daughter and The Skin Chairs are brilliant, both quite dark. Everything she does is great, but I found her later ones a little less wonderful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Luckily, I like dark stuff! And it certainly is a brilliant opening line.


  7. I am joining in for Ethan Frome. I’m about halfway through it right now. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Terrific! I reread it this morning in two sittings. It impressed me even more this time.


      1. I have been fitting in a bit of reading time for it at night before bed since it’s on my Kindle. If I weren’t reading War and Peace by Tolstoy right now, I could have probably gotten it read in probably two sittings as well. 🙂 I can tell that this is one I will want to re-read and will probably pick up more on a second read. Wharton’s prose is magnificent in this novella!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow, War & Peace vs. Ethan Frome — two ends of the spectrum when it comes to classics!


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