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Authors: Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree

BOOK: The Juniper Tree
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Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns was born in 1909 and brought up in rural Warwickshire where she began writing and illustrating stories at the age of ten. She was one of six children. Her novel
Sisters by a River
records her childhood. Her first painful marriage broke down in 1935. Ten years later she married Richard Comyns Carr. Then began her flow of idiosyncratic novels, described as ‘pictures painted on glass’. She died in 1992.

Margaret Drabble
, born in 1939, read English at Cambridge. She has published seventeen novels, most recently
The Sea Lady
(2006), biographies of Arnold Bennett (1974) and Angus Wilson (1995) and a memoir,
The Pattern in the Carpet
(2009). She is married to the biographer Michael Holroyd.

The Juniper Tree

The Juniper Tree

Barbara Comyns




The Juniper Tree

© by Barbara Comyns 1985

First published in 1985

This edition published by Capuchin Classics 2011

Reprinted 2012

Capuchin Classics

128 Kensington Church Street, London W8 4BH

Telephone: +44 (0)20 7221 7166

Fax: +44 (0)20 7792 9288

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Châtelaine of Capuchin Classics
: Emma Howard

ISBN: 978 1 907429 19 4
eISBN: 978 1 907429 57 6

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the copyright owner

‘My mother she killed me,

My father he ate me,

My sister, little Marlinchen,

Gathered together my bones,

Tied them in a silken handkerchief,

Laid them beneath the juniper tree,

Kywitt, Kywitt, what a beautiful bird I am.’


he novels of Barbara Comyns are strange and unsettling, and her career was unorthodox. She was never a mainstream writer, though her fiction has in recent years been described as a foreshadowing of the Magic Realism that became fashionable in England in the 1970s and 1980s, long after she first began to publish.
The Juniper Tree
, which appeared in 1985, is one of her most successful, confident and curious productions. It has the clear pure narrative quality of a fable, but also shows a humanity and maturity not always evident in her earlier stories. It is an outstanding achievement by a woman in her late seventies, written after a mysterious silence of eighteen years.

Barbara Comyns Carr, née Bayley, (1907–1992) took her penname from her second husband, a Foreign Office employee whom she married in 1945. Her first publication was a memoir,
Sisters by a River
(1947), which was garnered from a collection of sketches and essays written in somewhat faux-naif Daisy Ashford style spelling and describes her highly eccentric childhood in a decaying old house in rural Warwickshire with a deaf mother, a demanding grandmother, and a hard-drinking father. She was the fourth of six children in a downwardly mobile middle class family, and the misfortunes of the poverty-stricken genteel, taking refuge in artistic Bohemia and in unskilled modelling or housekeeping jobs, provided one of her staple themes. Her first novel,
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
(1950), a lively account of her reckless and feckless first marriage to an unsuccessful artist, was followed by several more titles, including her best-known,
The Vet’s Daughter
(1959), which features a scene of levitation.

Her second husband’s close association with Kim Philby, exposed as one of the Cambridge spies in the early sixties, led to the couple’s flight to Spain where they lived in semi-exile for nearly twenty years. It was on their return to England, and in particular to a home in Richmond, that Comyns was moved to write
The Juniper Tree,
inspired in part by a very strong sense of the spirit of place, and perhaps encouraged by the reprinting of some of her early work by Virago Press. This powerful contemporary fable is based on a well known German fairy story collected by the brothers Grimm, which she herself described as ‘too macabre for adult reading’. It has all the power of the original, in which a young wife longs for a child ‘as red as blood and as white as snow’ but dies at his birth, leaving him to fall to the care of a stepmother who prefers, in the time-honoured way, the interests of her own daughter Marlene. She murders the boy and feeds his flesh in a stew to his unwitting father, but little Marlene his half-sister gathers his bones and buries them under the juniper tree, wrapped in a silken scarf. The secret is betrayed by a bird which flies out of the tree, singing

My mother she killed me

My father, he ate me

My sister little Marlinchen

Gathered together my bones

Tied them in a silken handkerchief,

Laid them beneath the juniper tree,

Kywitt, kywitt,

What a beautiful bird I am.

The Freudian content of this tale is striking, and wicked stepmothers (this one is killed by a falling millstone) are an essential part of the stuff of fairy stories, as Bruno Bettelheim’s
The Uses of Enchantment
(1978) and Marina Warner’s 1994 study
From the Beast to the Blonde
so clearly illustrated.

What is truly remarkable about Comyns’s version is her insight into the stepmother’s role, and her compassionate twentieth century version of the deadly millstone. (This is in stark contrast to the cool heartlessness of the tone and plots of some of her early novels.) The stepmother narrator of this version, who lives to tell her own tale, is a rounded character, a single mother surviving in the multicultural London of the 1980s, maternal, affectionate, hard-working and enterprising, whose life connects by chance with the beautiful, generous, calm, blonde German wife Gertrude and her English husband Bernard. Comyns’s adaptation of the Grimm plot is both ingenious and creative, and her portrayal of London as she rediscovered it on her return from her long absence in Spain has a clear-eyed freshness and sharpness. She sees with the eyes of wonder, but not with the eyes of innocence.

She uses many of the types and tropes of the traditional fairy tale - Bella the scarred heroine; the hunchback godmother; the black coal merchant stepfather; the wicked fairy, the carved bear; the thieving magpie; the drops of scarlet blood on snow - but she weaves them into a realistic narrative that gives the reader a vivid sense of daily London life. She knows the world of bedsitters and playgrounds, of parks and junk shops and antique shops, of drunken parties in Bayswater and stately dinners in Richmond, of Spanish au pair girls and Italian waiters and illegal immigrants. And, in her seventies, she writes with authenticity about this richly peopled landscape, and writes from the point of view of a much younger woman, confronted with the choices and decisions of a single mother who (like the wicked stepmother in the Grimms’ tale) is programmed to prefer the rights of her own child. The complexities of her fatherless dark child Marline’s relationship with the red-and-white son of Gertrude and Bernard are skilfully suggested, and although the narrative has a clear line, it does not simplify. It resonates and expands.

Comyns’s use of colour in her prose is striking, and no doubt reflects an aspect of her early training at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London and subsequent years spent scratching a living by drawing cartoons for an animation studio and working as an artist’s model. She was attracted to colour, to exotic fabrics and designs, to the periwinkles and blue berries in Gertrude’s Richmond garden, to the simple images of a child’s picture book, to a startling scarlet refrigerator. Yet there is nothing childlike in this story of two small children and their mothers. This is a sophisticated account of adult emotions, recorded without sentimentality, and without any conventional preconceptions of how life ought to be lived. It has its shadows as well as its brightness. It is a strange tale that rings strangely true, with an unexpected ending that startles, surprises, and in its way forgives.

Margaret Drabble

Chapter One

uite soon after I left Richmond station I turned into a quiet street where the snow was almost undisturbed and, climbing higher, I came to a road that appeared to be deserted. Then I noticed a beautiful fair woman standing in the courtyard outside her house like a statue, standing there so still. As I drew nearer I saw that her hands were moving. She was paring an apple out there in the snow and as I passed, looking at her out of the sides of my eyes, the knife slipped, and suddenly there was blood on the snow. She turned and went into her house before I could offer to help. I didn’t like to knock on her door. It was a very private-looking one, painted bottle-green and with heavy brass fittings. Facing the wrought-iron gate was a carved bear with sad stone eyes and snow on its back. It appeared to be late Victorian sculpture but the house was much older, Georgian most likely. I thought I saw a dim figure pass by one of the windows and I hurriedly turned away and walked further up the hill towards the park gates, forgetting that I’d come to Richmond in search of work, not to walk in the snowy park among the deer.

I spent over an hour there. It was a long time since I’d walked in clean snow and smelt its delicate northern smell, a smell so faint it is impossible to describe. Children were tobogganing and sliding down a small hill near the gates. Some had real toboggans and others large trays or pieces of wood. The children were shouting and yelling happily and several dogs were joining in and there was a great holiday feeling although it was a Monday morning in the middle of winter. I noticed a greyhound shivering although it wore a coat, and holding its lead was the beautiful statuesque woman I had already seen that morning. She was intently watching the children rejoicing in the snow, and because of the holiday atmosphere I was brave enough to approach her, even forgetting to turn the scarred side of my face away as I spoke to her. I asked after her injured hand, which was covered by a brightly coloured mitten. She smiled and said the cut wasn’t serious in spite of the blood; it was a very clean cut. From the way she spoke I could tell she was foreign, perhaps German. A small boy came running up to us and slipped his bare hand into her warm mittened one for a moment as if to collect its warmth, then ran after his friends. I asked her if he was her son, he had the same colouring, but she said, ‘No, I like to watch the children playing but have none of my own,’ and the happiness left her face and I knew I’d said something wrong. She may have had a child and he had died. We parted and I hurried towards the park entrance and the interview I was so late for.

As soon as I saw the shop I knew I wouldn’t be happy working there. It was the cleanest antique shop I’d ever seen, indeed there was a feather duster in its owner’s hand and she was flicking away at a glass-topped display table. About half of the gleaming furniture was reproduction and the rest well-cared-for antique, quite valuable. The china and glass were in very good condition too, but mostly not to my taste, Dresden figures and Crown Derby dinner services. Miss Murray, the owner, laid down the feather duster and as she came towards me I saw that she was a humpback with a Spanish black shawl carefully arranged around her shoulders and half covering her crisp white blouse. She was very neatly dressed and her tiny feet were enclosed in high-heeled pointed shoes. I felt that she was a perfectionist as a kind of disguise to hide her back, which was not really very noticeable. I told her that I was not a customer and we had already talked to each other on the telephone.

‘Yes, yes, of course I remember. You telephoned in answer to my advertisement,’ she said nervously, peering at my face. ‘Miss Bella Winter, that was your name, and you said you wouldn’t be able to work on Saturdays because of your child. Well, I’ve been thinking, Miss Winter. It wouldn’t do at all, just a five-day week. Saturday is a very busy day for me,’ and her eyes darted away from my scarred face, then flashed back. It was obvious she didn’t want any more deformities in her clean little shop.

BOOK: The Juniper Tree
6.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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