The Comforters contains two broad plot lines: Laurence Manders’ discovery of his grandmother’s involvement in a diamond-smuggling operation, and Caroline Rose’s persecution by an invisible consciousness, a “Typing Ghost” that repeats and remarks upon her thoughts and actions. Much of what happens in The Comforters is connected to the attempts of Laurence and Caroline to solve these mysteries and to prove to each other that their perceptions are grounded in a reality external to themselves.
At the beginning of the novel, Laurence has gone to his grandmother’s house in Sussex, and Caroline, a recent convert to Catholicism, is in retreat from her home in London. While Laurence is excited and intrigued by his suspicions about his grandmother, Caroline’s awareness of the Typing Ghost leads her to fear that she is going mad. With little help from Laurence, her friends, and her priest, Caroline realizes that “a writer on another plane of existence” is writing a story about her and that in believing this she has “hit on the truth.” Since the attempts of Laurence to tape the Typing Ghost’s remarks fail and her friends think her mad, Caroline’s suffering is an “isolation by ordeal” filled with a private incomprehension not unlike that experienced by the biblical Job.
At the beginning of book 2, however, the focus of the novel shifts from Caroline’s Typing Ghost to Laurence’s grandmother and her entanglement with a diamond-smuggling ring. Book 2 is organized around suspicions: the Baron’s belief that Mervyn Hogarth is a diabolist, Mervyn Hogarth’s fear that Georgina Hogg will denounce him for bigamy, Helena Manders’ conviction that her son Laurence is right about her mother. In due course, the mystery of Louisa Jepp’s gang is solved, and the characters of Mervyn Hogarth, Georgina Hogg, and Louisa herself are fully revealed. Resolving one plot line, however, only resolves half the novel.
The larger mystery involving Caroline’s Typing Ghost is only partially explained, and that only in the last pages of The Comforters. Although the reader does not observe the process by which this happens, there is no doubt that Caroline’s suffering leaves her “light-hearted,” “amused,” and secure in her acceptance of the Typing Ghost. Oddly, Caroline has begun to share the Typing Ghost’s point of view. When she tells the characters that she is going to write a novel whose theme is “characters in a novel,” Laurence’s father, Edwin, suggests that she “make it a straight old-fashioned story, no modern mystifications. End with the death of the villain and the marriage of the heroine.” Caroline’s response is “yes, it would end that way.” In fact, by the end of The Comforters, Georgina Hogg (the villain) has drowned and Caroline Rose (the heroine) is “waiting for Laurence to return to the Church” so that they can be married. That Laurence will return is suggested in the last paragraph, when he is presented with evidence that allows him to accept with “wonder” and “rejoicing” that the Typing Ghost is both inexplicable and real.
The Comforters, Spark’s first published novel, is not only the story of the outlandish actions and interactions of a group of English eccentrics but also a novel about writing a novel. Spark later said that the reason she wrote The Comforters was to see whether she could do it; with her new interest in fiction, she was interested not only in writing a novel with the usual characters and plot but also in the process of creation itself.
At any rate, the work can be said to consist of two mysteries. One of them involves Louisa Jepp, a strong-minded old lady who seems to have a source of income of which her family is unaware. No one has worried much about it until she has a visit from her grandson, Laurence Manders, who possesses, or is possessed by, an obsessive curiosity. Laurence decides to uncover the source of her money; admittedly, her unusual...
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