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)
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)
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Any short classics on your reading pile?
I’ve been a huge admirer of Maggie O’Farrell’s work ever since I read The Hand that First Held Mine, which won the Costa Novel Award, in 2011. I was intrigued by the premise of her new book, in which she delves further back into history than she has before to imagine the context of the death of William Shakespeare’s son Hamnet and the effect it had on the playwright’s work – including, four years later, Hamlet.
Curiously, O’Farrell has decided never to mention Shakespeare by name in her novel, so he remains a passive, shadowy figure seen only in relation to his wife and children – he’s referred to as “the father,” “the Latin tutor” or “her husband.” Instead, the key characters are his wife Agnes (most will know her as Anne, but Agnes was the name her father, Richard Hathaway, used for her in his will) and Hamnet himself.
As the novel opens, 11-year-old Hamnet is alone in his grandfather’s glove workshop. His twin sister Judith has a fever and lumps at her neck and he is frantically trying to find an adult. But with his father in London, his mother off tending her bees and his grandfather’s indifference all too ready to shade into violence, there is no one to help. Although it’s Judith who appears to be ill with the Plague, readers know from the scant historical record that it is Hamnet who dies. Somehow, even though we see this coming, it’s still a heavy blow. Hamnet is a story of the moments that change everything, of regrets that last forever: Agnes will ever after be afflicted with a sense of having neglected her children just when they needed her.
Short chapters set in that summer of 1596 alternate with longer ones from 15 years before, when WS was engaged as a Latin tutor to the sons of a sheep farmer to pay off his father’s debts. Soon he became captivated by a young woman with a kestrel whom he assumed to be the family’s maid but learned was actually the unconventional daughter of the household, Agnes. She had a reputation as a herbal healer and was known to have second sight – just by holding someone’s hand, she could see into their past or predict their future.
There are some wonderfully vivid scenes in this earlier story line, including a tryst in the apple shed and Agnes going off alone into the forest to give birth to their first child, Susanna. My favourite chapter of all, though, is the central one that traces the journey of the pestilence from a glassmaker’s studio in Italy to the small Warwickshire village. The medical subplot of Hamnet has taken on a new significance that O’Farrell surely never predicted when she was immersing herself in the time period by undertaking falconry and mudlarking.
Although I remain a big fan, Hamnet is the least successful of the six books of O’Farrell’s that I’ve read. Her trademark third person omniscient voice and present tense narration, which elsewhere exude confidence and immediacy, here create detachment and even vagueness (“A boy is coming down a flight of stairs”; “Look. Agnes is pouring water into a pan”). The strategy for evoking the 16th century seems to be to throw in the occasional period prop, but the dialogue and vocabulary can feel anachronistic, as in “Boys! Stop that this instant! Or I’ll come up there and give you something to wail about”.
In comparison with historical fiction I’ve read recently by Geraldine Brooks and Hilary Mantel, this fell short. Overall, I found the prose flat and repetitive, which diluted the portrait of grief. My reaction was lukewarm, but this should not deter readers from trying this wonderful writer – if not this book, then any one of her previous five.
My thanks to Midas PR and Tinder Press for the free copy for review.