Remember when you were a kid, and you had your favourite pudding EVER? The one your mum only made once in a blue moon? And it was so delicious you just couldn't stop yourself eating it, but at the same time you really wanted to make it last as long as possible? Well, The Vet's Daughter IS that pudding. Right from the first couple of pages, I was totally torn between scoffing it down like a bowl of banana Angel Delight, and savouring every mouthful, like a fancypants cake from the top tier of afternoon tea at the Ritz. Which is weird, because it really isn't a sweet book at all.
17 year old Alice lives in a greasy, dingey house in Wandsworth with her mother and father at some point in around the early 1900s. Her father (the vet) is a drunken, mysogenistic lout who beats her mother and ignores Alice almost entirely. Her mother is frail and timid. Without giving too much away, she dies near the start of the book, leaving Alice alone with her father.
Her situation goes from bad to worse. She's forced to take on many of her mother's chores. Her father's mistress moves in almost immediately and takes over her mother's room. She later basically attempts to pimp Alice out to some greasy chap who works in a local hotel. Alice eventually manages to escape by going off to Hampshire to be a companion to the rather fragile Mrs Peebles. This doesn't really help much, since Mrs Peebles doesn't seem to want her there. She finds some brief happiness ice skating on a lake with the locals, and starts a relationship with a boy called Nicholas. But sadly it is all shortlived and she soon finds herself back in Wandsworth.
Alice has a heartbreakingly lonely life. After her mother dies, she has very few people to turn to. Her father doesn't speak to her directly unless he can help it. The down-to-earth housekeeper leaves after Rosa (the mistress) moves in. And Mrs Peebles barely notices her. It's very telling that the only real friend Alice has, and possibly the only one who actually listens to her, is a deaf mute.
You're probably thinking that this sounds like a dull Edwardian soap opera. However, the book is elevated far, far beyond that by the quality of the writing, and the fact that it throws in some unexpected magic realism. Alice develops an unusual ability over the course of the book (which a lot of the book covers disappointingly give away). It is almost incidental to the plot for the most part, but it does become the major factor of the ending. I won't reveal what happens, except to say that it is as near perfect an ending as I've ever read.
Alice tells the whole story in first person, and her narration is pitch perfect. She has all the dreamy hopefulness of a 17 year old girl; imagining that some handsome man will marry her and take her out of her dreary life. At one point, she is tasked with taking a dog to a house in Knightsbridge, and she describes the scene with reverent awe:
Horses and carriages waited outside some houses, with liveried coachmen in attendance, and there were great motor-cars shining like fabulous monsters. It seemed to me that everything was rich and very safe - even the fat pigeon that was being stalked by a huge grey cat. I stood there in the sun and thought, 'Some day I'll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me...
She contrasts this with her matter of fact descriptions of her life as it actually is:
In the morning I would come down the dark brown stairs, and there would be my mother scurrying about, always keeping close to the wall... She would dart about with brushes and brooms and later with jugs of steaming water for Father's room - and his breakfast, too. Kippers and eggs and crisp, curly bacon would disappear upstairs; but we had damp bread and jam in the kitchen.
However much she dreams of better, Alice has no real illusions about her lot in life. She sees Rosa's desperate attempts to raise herself up by marrying her father. She hears her mother's stories of how she was forced to marry a man she didn't like and was moved from a life she loved in the country, to a brutal existence in London. It seems there were very few happy endings for women in Edwardian times - and because Alice doesn't really expect happiness, we don't expect much for her either. As much as you feel sorry for her, you're never surprised when the next tragedy happens. This sets the ending up brilliantly.
Barbara Comyns seems to have a genius for picking out little macabre details. Her descriptions are filled with a black humour that say so much with so little. There are lots of little touches throughout the book which speak volumes; they all add up to create a very vivid picture.
Each Monday morning he would ask for her purse. I would hand it to him, all black and thin and worn. He would put in four sovereigns and four half-crowns, and the purse would come to life again. He could hardly bear to touch it and would wash his hands in the surgery afterwards.
It's such a slim novel (only 159 pages) but it really packs a punch. I immediately wanted to go back to the beginning and start again, which is very rare for me. I'll definitely be savouring it again at some point though; like that favourite pudding, it's just too good to resist.
- Barbara Comyns put quite a bit of her own experience into The Vet's Daughter. Her father was "an impatient, violent man, alternatively spoiling and frightening" Barbara and her siblings. Her mother was an invalid, who became deaf at the age of 25, so the children had to use sign language.
- The Vet's Daughter was made into a musical in 1978 called The Clapham Wonder. I can't imagine how this could possibly work, and since I can't find any information about it, I'm guessing it didn't.
- In The Vet's Daughter, Alice is reading a book called Pomeroy Abbey by Mrs Henry Wood. This is an actual book, published in 1878. You can download a digital copy and read it for yourself. I know, because I did this. I wouldn't recommend it.
The best book I read in 2022, and now one of my all time favourites. If you like macabre suburban gothic, with pitch perfect subtley, I urge to gorge yourself on this beauty.
The Vet's Daughter is happily back in print, and widely available. Woo hoo!