Barbara Comyns

A savage innocence

By Avril Horner

Barbara Comyns
Hardcover -
  • Price: £30.00
  • ISBN: 9781526173744
  • Publish Date: Mar 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
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  • Price: £30.00
  • ISBN: 9781526173737
  • Publish Date: Mar 2024
  • Publisher: Manchester University Press
  • Buy Now £30.00

    Delivery Exc. North and South America


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    Book Information

    • Format: Hardcover
    • ISBN: 978-1-5261-7374-4
    • Pages: 372
    • Price: £30.00
    • Published Date: March 2024


    The extraordinary twentieth-century writer Barbara Comyns led a life as captivating as the narratives she spun. This pioneering biography reveals the journey of a woman who experienced hardship and single-motherhood before the age of thirty but went on to publish a sequence of novels that are unique in the English language.

    Comyns turned her hand to many jobs in order to survive, from artist's model to restoring pianos. Hundreds of unpublished letters reveal an occasionally desperate but resourceful and witty woman whose complicated life ranged from enduring poverty when young to mixing with spivs, spies and high society. While working as a housekeeper in her mid-thirties, Comyns began transforming the bleak episodes of her life into compelling fictions streaked with surrealism and deadpan humour. The Vet's Daughter (1959), championed by Graham Greene, brought her fame, although her use of the gothic and macabre divided readers and reviewers.

    This biography not only excavates Comyns's life but also reclaims her fiction, providing a timely reassessment of her literary contribution. It sheds new light on a remarkable author who deftly captured the complexities of human life.


    One of The Independent's best non-fiction books to read in 2024

    Jé Wilson, The New York Review of Books

    'Avril Horner's absorbing biography shows how much [Comyns] had to overcome to construct her distinctive writer's identity.'
    Dinah Birch, Times Literary Supplement

    'Horner weaves a satisfying late-in-life success story from the flurry of attention Comyns received in the years before her death in 1992, and makes a strong case that her "life was as extraordinary as her novels." This should earn Comyns some new fans.'
    Publishers Weekly

    'Horner is heroically non-­judgmental, a calm and measured guide through some rackety, tempestuous years, awkward human desires and mistakes. She celebrates decency and generosity and understands how friends and family fall out and fall back in again.'
    Norma Clarke, Literary Review

    'Horner's book is an important intervention, ensuring Barbara Comyns' name is not forgotten. But it's also a reminder that writers' legacies need careful stewarding and are never guaranteed.'
    Jessie Thompson, The Independent

    'First-class biography'
    Roger Lewis, The Times

    'A labour of love and should be received in that spirit. Let's hope it encourages new readers to discover Comyns's haunting novels and the compelling artist behind them.'
    Lee Randall, The Spectator

    'Avril Horner's absorbing biography shows how much [Comyns] had to overcome to construct her distinctive writer's identity.'
    Dinah Birch, Times Literary Supplement

    'A meticulous, fascinating biography spotlighting a remarkable woman'
    Maggie Gruner, Camden New Journal

    'Horner's achievement and contribution is to have started from the ground up, working almost entirely from previously unpublished material. The research is formidable and shines new light on artistic communities in the 1930s, while dignifying Comyns's life and work with its devotion.'
    Oliver Soden, Engelsberg Ideas

    'Through letters, interviews, press cuttings, and many other sources, Horner gives readers a valuable insight into a true original.'
    Tracey Thompson, California Reading

    'A marvellous biography - detailed, fascinating and meticulously researched, bringing to life this uniquely talented author in a highly compelling way. As well as winning Comyns a new legion of fans, the book looks set to raise some tantalising questions for existing devotees.'
    JacquiWine's Journal

    'Richly detailed, sympathetic and endlessly fascinating, this biography brings Barbara Comyns to life.'
    Claire Fuller, author of Unsettled Ground

    'A riveting account of the bohemian life of one of Britain's finest - and most underrated - novelists. It made me long to re-read her distinctive and original novels.'
    Alexandra Pringle, Founding Director of Virago Press

    'Barbara Comyns has a truly unique voice. Her books are surreally truthful, hilarious and utterly haunting. She deserves to be recognised as one of the most original and talented writers of the 20th century. Avril Horner's beautifully written, thought-provoking and extensive examination of Comyns' life will hopefully garner some of the recognition this incredible writer so richly deserves.'
    Jan Carson, author of The Raptures

    'Here is the book fans of Barbara Comyns have been waiting for. Finally, there is a definitive and fascinating record of this overlooked writer's wildly varied and adventurous life, told in prose as fast-paced and naturally riveting as that of Comyns herself.'
    Emily Gould, author of Perfect Tunes and Friendship

    'A fascinating read about one of the twentieth century's most interesting writers. Thoughtful, thorough and completely engaging, the book delves into Comyns's work and life and brings both vividly to the page. I loved it.'
    Kate Hamer, author of The Lost Girls

    'An exemplary biography that sheds light on the life of a wonderful and original writer. Horner not only makes a case for Comyns's literary importance; she reveals someone human and impulsive and fallible - and all the more likeable for it.'
    Brian Evenson, author of Song for the Unraveling of the World

    'This is a riveting portrait of a writer more people need to read. I hope Avril Horner's book will be an introduction to the singular, savage, and sneakily complex world of Barbara Comyns'
    Richard Mirabella, author of Brother & Sister Enter the Forest

    Finally, a biography of one of Britain's greatest novelists! With revelatory and exciting sources, deep insight and compassion, Avril Horner has written a wonderful biography of a 'hidden in plain sight' genius and a vital examination of being a woman artist and writer in the 20th century.'
    Camilla Grudova, author of The Coiled Serpent

    'An important and valuable job in bringing Comyns into the light.'
    Rosemary Hill, author of God's Architect


    1 From Bell Court to Amsterdam
    2 Portrait of the artist as a young woman
    3 Lovers and others
    4 Desperate measures
    5 The Pemberton persecution
    6 Mr Fox
    7 Becoming a writer
    8 Becoming Comyns
    9 Spies, lies and fictions
    10 Ibiza
    11 Settling in Barcelona
    12 The San Roque venture
    13 The return to England
    14 Hauntings
    15 Legacies


    Avril Horner is an Emeritus Professor of English at Kingston University. She is the author or editor of numerous books, most recently Women and the Gothic with Sue Zlosnik (2016) and Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934-95 with Anne Rowe (2015).

    Barbara Comyns

    By Avril Horner

    Hardcover £30.00 / $39.95

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