‘I saw a film called A Student in Prague with Conrad Veidt as the student and fell in love with him. He took the place of the Pope for a week or two, and then I really did fall in love with a black-haired art student,’ says the narrator, Victoria Green, of Barbara Comyns’ 1967 coming of age novel, A Touch of Mistletoe, set mostly in 1930s England.

The art student in question is Half-French, and very sadly a schizophrenic, named Gene, who thinks a lot of things are ‘merde’ and becomes upset when he sees ‘windows filled with plaster little girls lifting up their skirts and gnomes and monks or demons twisted up in agony’. They meet in front of a Degas painting in London, (the haunting black and yellow Sur La Plage) and spend their time ‘leaning close together with our arms entwined, talking or listening to the gramophone playing The Three-Cornered Hat.’ They are introduced to Dylan Thomas, whose ‘face was soft like a balloon and there was a black mark under his skin as if coal were there.’ Victoria is an artist too, but hides her paintings under her and Gene’s bed.

A photograph of Barbara Comyns' A Touch of Mistletoe
The book follows Victoria through hard knocks ( including childbirth, poverty, a Waugh-like drinker, and the Blitz) from her teens into middle age. She spends a brief period of her life working for a bull terrier breeder in the Netherlands, and another living with her sister Blanche who attends a ‘Mannequin Academy’, and who at one point develops a boil ‘right in the middle of her lip so that she appeared to have a beak’. When Victoria doesn’t have access to a bath, her ‘unwashed knees smelt of roast chicken.’

A Touch of Mistletoe was published the same year as Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop – the books could be sisters (there are alluring boy-painters and bull terriers, a Pre-Raphaelite brightness and a moreish Dickensian atmosphere to both), so it’s tragic that A Touch of Mistletoe is out of print, like many of Comyns’ books. I bought my copy for a few dollars from a second hand bookshop so stuffy I often faint on the doorstep after browsing inside, my hands swollen and red from dust mites. Both Carter’s and Comyns’ oeuvres are scattered with bits of walnut cake, men who wear loud suits and have red hair, heaps of gin,powdered cheeks, fairytales, pregnencies and brats, kippers, upset stomachs, cinemas, multiculturism, and Bohemians in a distinctly 20th century British style I call Panto-Realism. (Comyns died the same year as Carter, 1992,  which also took Mary Norton author of The Borrowers making it a dark year for literature.) Yet I would also describe Comyns, with her shabby gentility, her addictive-to-read repetition of theme, and delicious imagery, as the unrecognized British Nabokov.

Having been raised by a single artist mum, and later spending part of my early 20s living with a painter who made enormous pictures of horrid monkeys, and surviving off a diet of stolen cheese and morning after pills, reading Barbara Comyns was the first time I encountered a life so directly like my own in fiction, but I would recommend her to anyone for the quality and magic detail of her prose, and I hope a dusty copy of A Touch of Mistletoe is waiting for you in a ragamuffin bookshop nearby.

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