Barbara Comyns, Outsider Artist
Without a Formal Education, She Produced Gothic Masterworks
In the 2005 movie Junebug, Madeline, a Chicago art dealer travels to her husband’s home in rural North Carolina to secure the singular work of a self-taught painter. The artist is an old man who speaks in a thick drawl and weaves conversationally between biblical verse and discussions of violence and scrotums. “Here I couldn’t finish Lee’s cock on the front,” he says, holding up a canvas of one of his bloody Civil War scenes, all of the soldiers with their pants down and shooting bullets out of their dicks. He turns it over. “So I painted it round on the back.”
Madeline owns an outsider art gallery in Chicago. The title “outsider art” was coined in 1972 as an English synonym for art brut, a term invented by Jean Dubuffet to describe the work of self-taught art-makers who learned to create outside the boundaries of official culture. In other words: no formal education in the medium, and often the artists were from remote locations where you wouldn’t find museums and galleries. While also called folk art, visionary art, self-taught art, and art brut, the term outsider art is the one that has largely stuck. But it’s language that from the start risks imbalance. How can curators respectfully bring outsider art into insider spaces? The biographies of outsider artists often include varieties of trauma, or institutionalization, or stunted education; often the work is appreciated for its peculiarities. The tension of Junebug emerges from the culture clash of this big city art dealer coming to do business with provincial people. Madeline promises the artist that his work speaks to her, that she’ll care for it. But she’s also looking to sell it.
The term outsider art is less commonly associated with writers than visual artists, but the concept works across forms. Henry Darger, a hospital custodian from Chicago, is one of the most famous outsider artists of all time. He left behind a cramped room, a ream of collage paintings of young girls in party dresses, and a 15,000 page single-spaced manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.
The writer Barbara Comyns, born in 1907 in Bidford-on-Avon in England, was also an outsider artist of a kind. Comyns’ family alternated between having money and being broke, but in both states the children were routinely neglected. In Comyns’ introduction to her novel The Vet’s Daughter, she writes that her father was an “impatient and violent man” while her mother “lived the life of an invalid.” After her mother gave birth to her sixth child, at the age of 25, she went deaf. “We were educated by governesses who had few qualifications to teach,” Comyns writes. “We seldom mixed with other children.” She says that she and her five siblings spent most of their time in boats on the river even though only two of them could swim.
Comyns briefly attended boarding school as a teenager, but left due to financial trouble. She experienced long stretches without any formal education. At a young age, she left home, got married, had two children, and got divorced. To support her own children, she went into business renting apartments and selling old cars, but World War II brought that business to a halt. She left London and moved out to the country with her kids; a family had agreed to let her use a wing of their house in return for cooking their meals. There, in her late thirties, she wrote her first novel Sisters by a River. In writing that book, she says she “relived her childhood.”
Sisters by a River is a semi-autobiographical, episodic novel about growing up in a family that resembles Comyns’ own. Devoid of a larger narrative arc, each vignette within the novel depicts some moment of familial trouble. They are often quite psychologically or physically ferocious, presaging the sort of surreal novels Comyns would go on to create. But publishers weren’t interested in this book. Lilliput magazine finally excerpted it under the title, “The Novel Nobody Will Publish,” which led Eyre & Spottiswoode to take a chance on it in 1947. Due to her interrupted education and minimally verbal upbringing, Comyns struggled with spelling and grammar. But the publisher didn’t fix her mistakes. To increase the sense of naïve charm, they added additional errors instead.
In Sisters by a River, Comyns writes that her sister, Chloe is “extreemely tall” and has “a lovely misterious face.” She writes that her “dogs were mongerals and behaved abombably,” and that there were always “cavervans arriveing” at Big Creek. Yet her prose is evocative and razor-sharp; she unflinchingly describes her parents beating the hell out of each other and then pleading for forgiveness the next day. While Sisters by a River is far from Comyns best work, it provides a glimpse of what was to come. But it also presents a discomfort; why is this surreal but lucid language encumbered by poor spelling? Even if we consider leaving errors in a manuscript as a matter of authenticity, adding them in is certainly a matter of making a writer look dumb, or at least fetishizing their unconventional background.
While her first novel sat unpublished, Comyns had kept writing. She returned to London in 1942 where she bought and sold antique furniture and bred poodles. By the time Eyre & Spottiswoode published Sisters by a River, Comyns had already finished her second book, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a novel about a young pair of artists who can’t get their lives together. As Emily Gould writes in an introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, “Charming daffiness runs right alongside frank and understated evocations of what it was like to be young, female, and crushingly poor.” The novel doesn’t suffer from the distractions of incorrect spellings or unintentional run-on sentences, and it demonstrates a remarkable vision at work, a writer who can quickly enchant her reader and then lead them to nightmarish places. Comyns pursues unfamiliar narrative arcs and destabilizing tone shifts with ease.
“Comyns was 40 years old when she started publishing books. She had already lived other lives as an entrepreneur, a model, and a mother—but she never studied literature.”
Such as in a scene from 1954’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead: a grandmother calls her 17-year-old granddaughter into the room to tell her about how the doctor’s wife got a nosebleed. The granddaughter doesn’t understand why this is important—people get nosebleeds all the time. The grandmother keeps rambling: “[The nosebleed] went on and on until the bed became filled with blood—at least that is what I hear—it went on and on and the mattress was soaked and the floor became crimson; it went on and on until Mrs. Hatt died.” The grandmother takes a slow sip of port and looks over at her granddaughter to study her reaction. She says, “Yes, Mrs. Hatt is dead now.” Some of the startling effect of Comyns storytelling comes from scrambling the lede.
The narrator of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is, like Comyns was, an aspiring writer. “I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read,” Sophia says, reflecting on her manuscript-in-progress. “I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.”
Comyns was 40 years old when she started publishing books. She had already lived other lives as an entrepreneur, a model, and a mother—but she never studied literature.
That is, she never studied it in school, where culturally inherited notions of how to construct a story might have guided her. As Sadie Stein writes in the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Comyns’ 1985 novel The Juniper Tree, “There is something deeply haphazard about her powers of attention. Holding her to normal standards of literary propriety can be a thankless exercise.”
The Juniper Tree is Comyns’ re-telling of a Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name. Comyns’ version features Bella, a homeless and jobless single mother who acquires a disfiguring scar in a car accident. But Bella carries on, and The Juniper Tree is, in large part, an optimistic story about Bella not only carving out a stable and satisfying life for herself and her child, but also securing the husband and family of her dreams. But then comes another remarkable example of the destabilizing effect of Comyns’ writing: in the final 20 pages, everything goes horrifyingly wrong. Bella’s young stepson climbs into an open, empty chest while she’s cleaning. It swings shut, breaks his neck, and kills him. But Bella doesn’t think to call for help. “My main idea was to hide him from Bernard,” she reflects. “I would bury him in the garden. So I put him back in the chest while I went out to dig.” The police later find the boy in a shallow grave and send Bella to a psychiatric hospital. Comyns’ novels are worlds in which a person’s luck can change in an instant. She conveys both the good and the bad with calm, unsettling detachment.
In the late 50’s, critics and readers started paying attention to Comyns’ novels, admiring them for their combination of the charming and grotesque. After the 1959 publication of The Vet’s Daughter, she earned the attention of novelist Graham Greene, who wrote, “The strange offbeat talent of Miss Comyns and that innocent eye which observes with childlike simplicity the most fantastic or the most ominous of occurrences, these have never, I think, before been more impressively exercised than in The Vet’s Daughter.”
For the most part: great. Some of those “business men in trains” who Comyns said would never read a book by an unschooled writer were finding their way to this uncanny and feminine work. On the other hand, “offbeat,” “innocent,” and “childlike,” are all words with patronizing connotations. Sure, the characters in Comyns’ books often are naive, and they tend to perceive events in a clear-eyed and judgment-free way. Brian Evenson notes in his introduction to Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead that Comyns sides as a whole “with childlike wonder over grown up viciousness.” Gould writes that “Comyns’ voice has childlike qualities; she looks at everything in the world as though seeing it for the first time.” But “childlike,” particularly in Greene’s usage, can also flirt with the idea that Comyns’ might not have been fully aware of the effect of her own work. That idea is hard to take seriously when you consider that Comyns published 11 books, many of them gothic masterpieces.
“Comyns’ novels are worlds in which a person’s luck can change in an instant. She conveys both the good and the bad with calm, unsettling detachment.”
There’s little record of how Comyns’ felt about the reception of her writing. She died in 1992, and she wasn’t a writer who was interviewed or profiled while she was alive. Twenty years after it was first published, she wrote a forward to her novel The Vet’s Daughter—but otherwise it doesn’t seem like anyone thought to ask her about her own work.
In Junebug, the curator and the artist she pursues achieve a sort of reconciliation, partly driven by the equalizing force of tragedy and partly by business. That might have been what Barbara Comyns found too with the insiders who handled her work—a mutual interest in the marketplace. Comyns sold poodles, furniture, and cars. She sold books, too.
Comyns’ ability to consolidate cheer and horror in her fiction was reflected in her literary career. Like her protagonists, Comyns could endure the arrogance and incompetence of the people she lived and worked with and still publish books that have achieved a cult following, that today get republished by presses like Dorothy and NYRB Classics in the U.S. and Virago Modern Classics in the U.K..
“Mammie tried smacking us, but she wasn’t much good at it she couldnt aim straight somehow,” Comyns’ writes in Sisters by a River, and there’s slapstick horror in imagining this woman too sick and beleaguered to successfully hit her own children. “Anyway we could hit harder than she could and bite too.” It would have been nice if her first publisher had helped Comyns punctuate the sentence. Still, it has teeth.