Once a guinea-pig had died in the kitchen and one of the maids had held a small mirror to its mouth to see if its breath left a mark and ever after I seemed to see the mark of the guinea-pig’s last breath on it.
Barbara Comyns is a writer whose best work, to my mind, reveals the extreme strangeness of the world alongside the ordinary in prose which seems effortlessly innocent, and The Skin Chairs is one of my favourite novels by her. This isn’t really a book review – more of a waffle – and if you (yes you, o readers I do not have) haven’t read it I do give away a lot of the plot so be warned.
Ten-year-old Frances is enduring a stay with her horrible horsey relations, the Lawrences, when her father suddenly dies. Left in reduced circumstances, Frances’s mother is cajoled by Aunt Lawrence into taking a dreary little house nearby into which she must cram her six children. Here they muddle along as best a family can when accustomed to servants and ponies; Mother dons tea-gowns as an economy and makes the family bilious with her occasional forays into extravagant cookery, the eldest daughter Polly rules the kitchen and permits only striped bacon for breakfast and Aunt Lawrence interferes constantly and unpleasantly. Two other widows befriend Frances for their own ends: beautiful Vanda who uses Frances as a babysitter for her neglected infant Jane, and the terrifying Mrs Alexander, who keeps sad animals in her conservatory, makes her chauffeur paint her slippers gold and keeps one room of her house as a surgery and one as a shrine to her dead daughter. The novel, told from Frances’s point of view, is suffused with Comyns’s characteristic charm, humour and sense of the grotesque.
Relationships between mothers and daughters, abusers and victims, pervade the novel, but I was intrigued by the symbolism of the skin chairs of the title and have been thinking particularly about them. According to Ursula Holden, who wrote the introduction to the edition I have, Comyns declared of the novel that ‘Only the skin chairs are true. I saw them.’ In the novel, the chairs belong to the General who lives in a grand house in the village. Frances relates three significant encounters with them, the first being on a visit with her cousin Ruby:
They were dark and churchified, and the backs and seats were covered in what appeared to be vellum, blackish and cracked in places. The General’s wife looked at them ruefully and admitted that the chairs were covered in human skin. ‘He brought them back with him after the Boer War, isn’t it horrible? Five of them are black men’s skins and one white. I believe if you look carefully you can see the difference.’ [...] With a feeling of awe I gazed at the chairs thinking of the poor skinless bodies buried somewhere in Africa. Did their souls ever come to see what had happened to their skins or had they forgotten all about them?
Here the macabre is tempered by Frances’s pity and perhaps even identification with them as bereft and powerless. Later Frances sneaks back into the house to show the chairs to Esmé, her sister. They notice a biscuit barrel on the table with a ram’s head for a lid and real horns on it: ‘I knew that if there were any biscuits in the barrel they would taste disgusting.’ From behind a door they hear breathing: ‘There was something very red and white inside – most likely a hassock, I thought, or even a huge cherry pie.’ In fact it is the General suffering a fatal stroke, and the girls flee in terror leaving him to die alone. This time it is the horror and revolting physicality of death that is evoked.
At the end of the book Vanda and Mrs Alexander and their exploitative relationships with Frances have been banished from the little girl’s life and Mother has married the new occupant of the General’s house, to which the family now moves. Frances is convinced she can hear the chairs ‘rumbling and grumbling together’ in the library and they seem a threatening presence and constant reminder of horror, cruelty and guilt. Yet when Mother banishes the chairs to the attic, Frances feels sorry for them again. One night she creeps out of bed and downstairs to them, clutching her school prayer-book (‘As I did so, the rumbling-grumbling noises stopped and I seemed to hear a great sigh’) to read the Burial Service to them. First, though, she baptises them with water from a flower vase, naming them after her favourite poets (Percy Shelley, George Byron, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Tennyson, William Yeats and Anon. Circa) in an act which renders them safer and almost friendly. The novel ends as she falls asleep on Percy Shelley while reading out the Burial Service.
To me, therefore, the chairs represent death and the grief and horror of death, while offering Frances a way of absorbing that into herself. While she never sees her father’s corpse nor is permitted to attend his funeral, and in fact hardly refers to him after the initial devastation of his death, the chairs may provide her with a physical manifestation of his dead body and her reading of the Burial Service her own private obsequy for him.
There is a great deal more to The Skin Chairs than this (for a start, it's very funny, you wouldn't guess that from this post though) and although it’s now out of print I think you can find second-hand copies quite easily. An excellent article about this and Comyns’s other novels, which has influenced what I have written here, is ‘Skin Chairs and Other Domestic Horrors: Barbara Comyns and the Gothic Female Tradition’ by Avril Horner and Sue Zlosnik (2004; Gothic Studies 6 (1): 90–102). And there’s a really good review of it by Simon of Stuck in a Book here. The photograph opposite of Comyns in later life is taken from the Virago Press site and it is my favourite of the photographs of her which are publicly available.