Only the skin chairs are true

Dear Barbara,

Barbara Comyns

As The Skins Chairs (1962) starts, ten-year-old Frances has been sent to stay with the Lawrences, her mother’s rich relatives. In one of her strolls through the neighbourhood with her cousin, she is taken to the General’s house to the see the famous chairs covered in human skin he had brought from the Boer War. Frances longs to talk about theses chairs with her father, but, shortly after this visit, he dies, leaving her mother and five siblings in impoverished circumstances.

We follow her family’s struggle to scrape, as they move to a smaller house in the village close to the Lawrence’s state. Not used to a life without servants, Frances’ mother feels completely lost, and the house is run by her eldest daughter, Polly, who keeps an iron grip on every expense and undertakes much of the heavy domestic work.

The Lawrences are very patronising and spiteful – in particular, Aunt Lawrence, who is constantly criticising Frances’ mother and interfering with every aspect of their lives. As spitefulness seems to be contagious, Aunt Lawrence’s daughters also join in their mother’s bizarre pleasure in belittling Frances and reminding her family that they are no longer well-off. “The room had the sickly smell of caged birds and spiteful women (…).”

The story is narrated by Frances from some indetermined point in the future, but we seem to be seeing the events unfold through the eyes of a child: there is an uncanny sense that the story is being told by an adult who never grew up, or who might be just a bit off.

This sense of the uncanny is what I love most about your books, and it is no different with The Skin Chairs. You have a special talent for combining benign domestic details and grotesque elements, and describes the strangest scenes in a matter-of-fact, detached way, peppered with a twisted sense of humour – which only adds to the uncanny effect of the book.

As in The Vet’s Daughter (1959), you excel at portraying different forms of violence surrounding domesticity. At one point, Frances and one of her cousins take to visiting a young widow, Vanda, who has been left with a baby daughter for whom she feels no affection and no sense of responsibility. Vanda pushes her baby Jane to Frances and her cousin, and leaves for hours on end to go shopping and meet her lovers. You do not shy away from portraying Jane’s neglected state and Vanda’s mendacity, but also throw a sharp light into the villagers’ hypocrisy toward the young widow.

Frances will meet some colourful characters, and my favourite was Mrs Alexander, the village’s eccentric, “a kind of ravaged, fabulous beauty, like some old and exotic doll in a museum, glittering and dusty”. Mrs. Alexander has led a peripatetic life, dyes her hair red and wears it covered in turbans, paints her slippers gold, and drives through the village in a mustard-coloured car. She keeps all sorts of animals in her house and likes to play with chirurgical instruments once they die (she had wanted to be a nurse once). Now, she is intent on becoming a concert pianist (later, she will turn to roller blades).

Her house seems like a cage: in one room, she keeps her animals; in another, a surgery; her piano is stuck in the cellar (even though she never paid for it, the bailiffs cannot remove it); and she keeps one room locked as a shrine to her dead daughter. “There was a lot about monkeys: her house was full of them. And she had once kept a bear, but people had complained because it used to break into church during the services, and it had to be given to a zoo.

For whatever reason, Mrs. Alexander has a soft spot for Frances, and keeps inviting the girl to her house (and sometimes stalking her). Everyone knows the lady is mad, but they enjoy her conversation. The scene where Mrs. Alexander tries to tame a violent monkey is a masterclass in macabre sense of humour. In another scene, where Frances is ill, Mrs. Alexander appears at her home dressed as a nurse and equipped with her surgical instruments (but still wearing her gold slippers). Thankfully, this time, Frances’ mother has the presence of mind to decline the lady’s bizarre offer of help.

The novel is peppered with grotesque images, instances of domestic violence, and disturbing dreams: “When she had gone, we let Esme’s mice loose in the sitting-room, although they didn’t seem to enjoy it much, keeping close to the skirting board most of the time. There used to be a girl in our village who was continually beaten by her parents and I remembered she used to walk like that, close to the walls”; “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”; One night I dreamt that Mother’s head had been severed and made into a pork pie. Although it was pork pie, I could still see it was a dead head. There was another fearful dream that Father was floating down the canal, all enlarged with water, and that eels were living in him.”

The one problem I had with the book was its underlying racism: particularly with respect to the chairs, but also present in the description of the fur of a dog’s breed. 

The eponymous chairs covered in human skin appear in different moments in the novel, in general connected to death. When Frances’ father dies, the story of the skin chairs she was planning to tell him remains forever untold, and she never gets to attend his funeral. The chairs eventually take on a life of their own, and Frances believes she can hear them “rumbling and grumbling together”, as if they were possessed. By the end of the book, Frances will go on to baptise them with water from a flower vase; then, she will name each chair after her favourite poets; and, finally, she will read the burial service to the chairs, as some kind of exorcism.

The chairs both fascinate and repel Frances, as much as the uncanny elements in your book both fascinate and repel us. “One chair certainly was lighter than the rest and I carefully sat on it, expecting something strange to happen; but it was exactly like sitting in any other uncomfortable chair. My bare arms touched the back and, remembering what it was made of, I stood up and wiped my arms with my handkerchief. 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? How had the General brought the skins back? And did the workmen who covered the chairs know what gruesome work they were doing?”

The chairs are treated as a macabre souvenir. People prefer to turn a blind eye to what they represent: a symbol for violence accepted, toned down, domesticated. In the introduction to the Virago edition, Ursula Holden writes that you declared of the novel: “Only the skin chairs are true. I saw them.” The chairs are an emblem of flayed bodies, exposed as an adornment right at the core of the home – a place otherwise thought of as a safe, civilized, respectable. But the chairs are true; we saw them.

Yours truly,


Vestment on a Chair, by Edgar Degas, c. 1887
Vestment on a Chair, by Edgar Degas, c. 1887

“Don’t you know being poor is a very private thing?” – Barbara Comyns, The Skin Chairs

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