Continuing with this week’s theme of being inspired by Simon at Stuck in a Book, I find myself with a most unusual read. Simon, Polly at Novel Insights and Claire at Paperback Reader are heading up an informal read along of The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns.
I am not reading along because I have read the book a couple of times before and know it to be a wonderful read. There are excellent reviews already at Stuck in a Book, Verity’s Virago Venture and Harriet Devine’s Blog. The novel is typical of Comyns’ unsentimental and spell-bound style and holds in focus a chilling depiction of domestic bullying and the transformative powers of the imagination. It is clear-sighted and interesting and quite unique. It is also cheap on Amazon, so if you haven’t already, maybe give it a go.....
Because it seemed silly to read along, I thought that I would read something else, which has been sitting on my shelves starring at me for some time, and which has an odd and little known connection to the Vet’s Daughter.
My Silent War is the autobiography of Kim Philby. If you don’t know the Kim Philby of history, you may know the Kim Philby of literature as he has spawned numrous literary alter egos, most notably Bill Haydon in John Le Carre’s classic novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The Kim Philby of history was a notorious double agent; a man who, at the height of the Cold War rose to the top of the British Secret Service, whilst also being a loyal agent of the Soviet state. With his fellow communists Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross, he formed part of what has now become known as the Cambridge Spy Ring. My Silent War is an extraordinary book because in it Philby speaks with his own voice; showing the simmering loyalties of “Stalin’s Englishman” and the web of lies that he wove for those around him. He describes the tension between appearance and reality; between what he must have looked like to his colleagues and what he actually was, with real mastery and not a little egotism.
One such colleague, to whom Philby was, or seemed to be close was Richard Comyns Carr, the husband of the novelist Barbara Comyns. Theirs was not a polite office friendship but a close association and a constant round of dinners and drinks parties. So much so, that when Richard and Barbara married immediately after the Second World War, Philby loaned them his own holiday home for their honeymoon. It was there that Barbara Comyns had a dream that inspired the Vet’s Daughter. And so an unexpected and half-obscured path connects the lady novelist and the unrepentant spy.
But the connection does not end there. My Silent War is a book with two prefaces. The first is by Phillip Knightley, Philby’s scholarly biographer and the second is by an altogether more shadowy figure in his history – the novelist and mystery man Graham Greene. Greene’s foreword is compelling but ultimately rather fawning and not worthy of Greene’s usually critical stance. However, Phillip Knightley in his introduction tells us that Greene may have been the man whom the British authorities sent to Moscow to try to persuade Philby to return home. So Greene’s words at the opening of My Silent War stand as testimony to his regard for Philby, but possibly also, his one time “brief” to turn a double agent into a triple agent.
Graham Greene was a man with one foot in the secret service and one foot in the literary world. The foot that was in the literary world was one of Barbara Comyns’ biggest and most influential fans. He consistently championed her unusual and striking novels, including the Vet’s Daughter. Indeed, he even published her first book, Sisters by a river when nobody else would touch it.
My Silent War is an interesting read. It doesn’t shed that much light on the Vet’s Daughter, but it is an fascinating side track in the life of its author. It will be a surprise to nobody who has enjoyed the Vet’s Daughter to learn that it was inspired by a dream – it has a profoundly dreamlike quality about it and the creative and resilient power of the mind is one of its chief themes. I think that political espionage interested Barbara Comyns less than personal betrayal and as she rather dismissively commented “all of our friends turned out to be spies in those days”.
I have included pictures of Barbara Comyns (looking remarkably like Greta Garbo as Vaishnavi has commented), Kim Philby and Graham Greene (looking remarkably similar, I wonder if anyone ever saw them together….). For good measure, Kim Philby’s most famous literary double, Bill Haydon, as played by Ian Richardson also makes an appearance.