Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Sophia is twenty-one years old, carries a newt -- Great Warty -- around in her pocket and marries -- in haste -- a young artist called Charles. Swept into bohemian London of the thirties, Sophia is ill-equipped to cope. Poverty, babies (however much loved) and her husband conspire to torment her. Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with the dismal, ageing art critic, Peregrine, and learns to repent her marriage -- and her affair -- at leisure. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to a life of unpaid bills, unsold pictures and unwashed crockery ...
Barbara Comyns was educated mainly by governesses until she went to art schools in Stratford-upon-Avon and London. Her father was a semi-retired managing director of a Midland chemical firm. She was one of six children and they lived in a house on the banks of the Avon in Warwickshire. She started writing fiction at the age of ten and her first novel, Sisters by a River, was published in 1947. She also worked in an advertising agency, a typewriting bureau, dealt in old cars and antique furniture, bred poodles, converted and let flats, and exhibited pictures in The London Group. She first married in 1931, to an artist, and for the second time in 1945. With her second husband she lived in Spain for eighteen years.
Two young people who are reasonably content on their own decide to create a life of misery for themselves and others by joining forces. It happens every day. Is this a matter of stupidity, wilful ignorance, a lack of imagination, or species-wide psychic disorder?
In Our Spoons, a naive, hapless, probably slightly retarded (but solvent) 17 year old girls gets married to a witless, unemployed, somewhat passive-aggressive (but reasonably well-fed) artist in Depression-era London. What possibly could go wrong?
Well for starters, of course, the merger creates a medical burden. She finds that thinking very hard about not getting pregnant is an inadequate form of contraception. He finds the facts of life a complete and unwelcome surprise, and considers the pregnancy a betrayal. The net level of misery in the world’s population has been increased substantially.
To call her experience of childbirth medieval would be an affront to primitive medical practice. Her labour and delivery are part of an industrialised process as impersonal as it is humiliating. The real function of this process obviously is to encourage those who were forced to participate in it not to have any further need for it. This warning about expanding the world’s population of the miserable will undoubtedly be ignored.
Grinding poverty does just that: grind whatever unique personality there might be into uniform fragments of various needs. His need is to remove himself from responsibility. Her need is to protect her child from his irresponsibility. He lives on denial; she on hope; the child on almost nothing. Misery expands outward from its epicentre to make any number of family and social relationships untenable. It moves like a disease vector throughout a large population with no immunity.
But poverty is not the most lethal source of misery. It only seems that way to those trapped within it. There’s the botched abortion and the doomed affair with an older man, and the estrangement between mother and child, and yet another pregnancy, father uncertain. None of these things are driven by poverty but by self-delusion.
The self-delusion also suggests a number of obvious but futile solutions - a change of air, a new flat, running away with the children. Meanwhile the gas gets cut off, then the telephone, then the electricity. But even these events don’t suggest to her that reality is other than what’s perceived. The death of an infant child from exposure does raise a glimmer of recognition that perhaps not all one’s life-decisions have been life-affirming.
And despite all this experience, she starts it all over again in middle age. Nought stranger than folk.
By the way is it Woolworths or Woolworth’s? I can argue both ways and am confused... as usual.
Titles like this are positively enticing to a book nerd like me! It went straight to my list a few years ago for that reason alone. Three years later I bought the NYRB edition which I love. Now here I am another four years later with the book finally read. In any case, I’ve fond memories of my own local Woolworths. You see, Grandma used to give us some spending money in August so that we could buy new clothes for the start of the school year. She would sit patiently on a bench inside the local mall while my sister and I did a bit of shopping. Then she would treat us to lunch at the Woolworths lunch counter. Afterwards, we would browse the beauty aisle of the store and choose a shiny new lip gloss or maybe a sparkling nail polish. Nothing too garish or mom wouldn’t allow us to actually use it. Grandma didn’t care though – spoiling her grandchildren was her biggest joy in life!
The similarities between my own life and that of Sophia, the main character and narrator of Comyns’ novel, pretty much end with the trait of naiveté, however. The setting is 1930s London. Sophia and Charles fall in love and marry at the age of twenty-one. Life seems just swell as it often does for the newly married. What could go wrong? Well, more mature souls might ask, what could possibly go right in the middle of the Depression when a young couple marries rather hastily?! Did I mention that Charles is an artist? And that he detests the domestic life? He’d rather paint and spend the meager money his wife makes on gatherings with his friends than on paying the heating bill. We get a hint that not everything will turn out the way young Sophia hopes right from the start.
“We had a proper tea-set from Waring and Gillow, and a lot of blue plates from Woolworths; our cooking things came from there, too. I had hoped they would give us a set of real silver teaspoons when we bought the wedding-ring, but the jeweler we went to wouldn’t, so our spoons came from Woolworths, too.”
The tone of the novel is actually rather light considering the subject matter. Told from Sophia’s point of view, the prose is often simple. Lying beneath the surface, however, is something much darker. There is extreme poverty, the humiliation of childbirth in a public hospital setting, and the talk of grave risks and costs surrounding the practice of abortion. Charles refuses to take any responsibility for the poor circumstances in which they eventually land. It’s the childlike Sophia that carries the burden.
“I had begun to think it was a disgraceful wicked thing to do – to have a baby… People would never dream of doing such a thing to an animal. I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried.”
I’m not going to say much more about this novel. I think if it interests you at all, give it a try. There’s nothing new here, though the timing of my reading combined with the recent developments concerning women’s rights in the U.S. made it seem more relevant than I could ever have imagined. Suddenly, the 1930s don’t seem to be so very far in the past. I can only hope that young women today don’t find themselves in Sophia’s shoes. Her limited choices were scary prospects indeed, but not that many people would really give a damn when it comes down to it.
“I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side.”
On page forty of this novel, the narrator says: This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn't any conversation. I sat up and paid attention when I read that — I'd been skim reading Sophia's prattling narrative up until then. She went on to add: I could just fill pages like this: 'I'm sure it is true,' said Phyllis. 'I cannot agree with you,' answered Nigel. 'Oh, but I know I am right,' she replied. 'I beg to differ,' said Nigel sternly. Great, I thought. The narrator has introduced two new characters to comment on how her story is being written — I love when a writer creates a situation like that. But then I read what followed: That is the kind of stuff that appears in real people's books. I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. I wish I knew words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did and have found it such a disadvantage ever since. So Phyllis and Nigel hadn't been discussing whether the novel should have more dialogue in it. They hadn't been discussing the novel at all, and they had no significance apart from offering Sophia a chance to regret that her account of her life would never be good enough for business men to read (though I think she is mistaken about the quality of business men's reading choices (and why would she want to be read by businessmen in the first place?)).
I read on despite Phyllis and Nigel's disappointing interruption. By Chapter Nine, in any case, I'd grown used to Sophia's naive voice, and her doubt about her writerly abilities was endearing in a way, especially as I began to realize that her situation and experiences mirrored the author's own, and that she was simply a slightly older version of the child narrator of the autobiographical Sisters By a River.
One of the things I love about Barbara Comyns' books is the way the titles are like stories in themselves. Take Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, for example. Seven words that say so much. Before I read it, I imagined it would refer to the destruction wrought by WWI. Even after I'd read it and realised that war is never mentioned, though the story is set in the second decade of the twentieth century and tells of a biblical-type tragedy hitting an English village, I still thought it might be an allegory of what war does to a community (but perhaps I read too much into Barbara Comyns' titles).
The Skin Chairs is another example of a great title. It evokes very strange images, and there are indeed a few strange scenes inside the book to match the atmosphere conjured by the title. But perhaps the book that best demonstrates the notion of a story encapsulated in the words of a title is Our Spoons came from Woolworths, especially as it is set in London in the late 1920s when most people, rich or poor, owned cutlery that had been passed on from parents to their children and so had no need to buy any. When you are aware of that, the five words in the title speak volumes, or at least one volume of approximately 200 pages. The word 'Our' told me of a family unit; 'spoons' being mentioned rather than 'cutlery' made me think of a young and naive narrator; the reference to 'Woolworths', a dime store recently imported from the US, implied very reduced circumstances. And there you have it: this book is indeed the story of a very naive young couple, cut off from family and living in dire poverty.
But for all her naivety, Sophia survives in spite of very tough times, and she makes some interesting points as she tells us her story. Without spelling it out, she reveals the contrast between the unhelpful extended family and the kindness of strangers: philanthropists, doctors, and particularly, a milkman who continues to leave milk on the doorstep though his bill is never paid. She also reveals the contrast in thinking between her twenty-one year-old husband and herself about the attachment babies are capable of feeling. He wants to give their babies away to anyone who will take them, she wants to keep them close no matter the poverty they must live in. And although she continually allows herself to be governed by the men in her life (she drifts into an affair at one point, hoping an older lover might provide a home for her and her two children), she depicts men as very spineless creatures who have no stamina when it comes to hardship. In fact the creature with the most stamina in this story is Sophia's pet newt: he survives a lot better than some of the humans.
This is my sixth novel by Comyns and another virago publication. This is the usual weird and wonderful world Comyns creates, although with much less of the magic realism that suffuses some of her novels. This is set around the time of the Great Depression (written in 1950). It is loosely based on Comyns’s marriage to artist John Pemberton which ended in 1935. The novel concerns Sophia, a young and naïve woman of twenty-one with no domestic skills at all. She marries aspiring artist Charles and this is the story of her life with him and the workings of their marriage until its end. That isn’t a spoiler, it’s on the first page of the book as Sophia is looking back. It’s a first person novel and the concerns are those of an everyday life; poverty, children, unemployment loss, falling in and out of love, the nature of happiness and relationships. Comyns usual wry humour is still there, here is a relative giving advice on managing food when poor: “She cleared her throat once or twice, and said something about poor people should eat a lot of herrings, as they were most nutritious, also she had heard poor people eat heaps of sheeps’ heads and she went on to ask if I ever cooked them. I said I would rather be dead than cook or eat a sheep’s head; I’d seen them in butchers’ shops with awful eyes and bits of wool sticking to their skulls. After that helpful hints for the poor were forgotten.” And the mechanics of pregnancy: “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.” Comyns can slip easily into the tragic and horrific very easily: “about my father eating a wasp in the jam when we were having tea in the garden under the trees, and how he swallowed the wasp and it stung him as it went down and he was dead in twenty-four hours.” There is also the horror of the commonplace, the descriptions of giving birth in a public hospital are shocking, more so because they were common to the majority of women: “Besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully shamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal. I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried.” Again Comyns has a perceptive way of analysing relationships and men in particular, here talking about the reaction of her husband Charles to their new born son: “Charles still disliked him, but in spite of this made some drawings of us together, so I hoped eventually he would get used to him. At the moment I felt I had most unreasonably brought some awful animal home, and that I was in disgrace for not taking it back to the shop where it came from.” Comyns has the ability of drawing a certain type of humour from the difficult whilst maintaining the sense of how awful it is. Here Sophia gets a job: “The first day there, I had to walk to work because we had no money in the house. Charles promised he would bring some in time for lunch, but, of course, didn’t, and I was too shy of the other girls to borrow any, so I became rather hungry and when it was time to leave I waited to see if he would come to fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry, too. When I arrived home I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it. He did look startled. It was the first time I had done anything like that, and he was disgusted with me. I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologise, so just went to bed and wished I was dead.” As you can see Comyns is very quotable. The novel was certainly realistic about the lives of women and it is a story of survival and the things many women had to do to get by. Although I felt the ending was a bit of a cop out, I did enjoy this, but then I am already a fan of Comyns. This is an early novel and not her best, although it seems to be the best known.
I love these Virago Modern Classic books. Anytime I see these distinctive green or black spines with beautiful artwork on their covers at book sales, I pick them up without looking at the titles, because I already know how good they'll be. By women authors sometimes long out of print, they are rescued by Virago and brought back into circulation for a new generation. Novels by women, about women, of all ages and walks of life; I haven't read one yet I didn't like.
From a note by the author on the title page: "The only things true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty ". Those chapters are about the birth of her first child in a charity hospital, which must have been a godawful place in the 1930's in London. The poverty was because her stupid, childish, selfish husband refused to work to support his family, because he devoted himself to his art. This story has a happy, storybook ending, which we know from the first paragraph, but the journey to get us there is special because of the voice of Sophia, a naive young girl who believes that love is all you need, but comes to find out that's not quite true. She is so funny and eccentric and honest that you want to leap into the pages to save her from herself. This goes back on to my Virago shelf, with its sisters, to maybe be re-read at some future date, but if not, then just to give me satisfaction when I see it sitting there.
I’ll just add that, after some reflection, I can only guess that the precipitousness of the ending was how the first-person narrator felt about it—as well as its showing (maybe) that what came before was much more important. I was a bit perplexed and then remembered the first line of the novel: “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” She cried about what happened in the middle, not the end.
I think…actually, I know my impression of this book was affected by my very strong assumption that the book I was reading was another book written by Stella Gibbons (author of ‘Cold Comfort Farm’)…which I loved and gave it 5 stars. I found that book to be so funny! And for a while there was nothing to challenge my assumption. But then things started happening in the novel and well...I’ll write down my notes that I took to give you a feel for what was going through my head at the time… • She (Jim: Sophia, the main protagonist and narrator) only has two relatives. Sad sentence on p. 21 - end of chapter. So far this is v(ery) good. • They were hoping for a miscarriage! • She tells us in chapter 9 that this is a book and she’s in chapter 9. P41 • Wow this is supposed to be funny? P46-7 Charles is an a^^hole.
I finished the book in one sitting because 1) it was a Sunday morning and I had plenty of leisure time and 2) I wanted to get this book in and out of my system ASAP.
So if I had taken a break from this book, maybe say halfway through and thought about it some, I would have realized that my impression that Stella Gibbons wrote this was discombobulated. Rather, Barbara Comyns, who wrote ‘The Vet’s Daughter’ among other books, wrote this. And if I had known that, my reading of the rest of the book would have probably been altered by that factoid. That book was extremely dark, and sad, and this book too is quite dark. I had to cogitate on my review of that book overnight it was so disturbing, but I ended up giving it 3.5 stars because it was written, to my mind, so well. As I said in my review of ‘The Vet’s Daughter’: “…The book is incredibly dark…So that isn’t too bad. It’s just that it is incredibly incredibly dark (I guess I am repeating myself). But that doesn’t mean a book is bad. I guess this is not the sort of reading I would want to regularly immerse myself in…”
So, likewise I am giving this book 3.5 stars, because the writing is damn good. And it held my attention throughout.
There was humor scattered here and there throughout the book. Here is a description of a large woman that Sophia (the main protagonist in this novel) encounters: • He brought a ‘great woman’ with him, who really was a great woman. She was quite six feet tall and very beautiful in a totem-pole kind of way, with huge staring eyes, like head-lamps. I found that funny…in a totem-pole kind of way. 🙃
But even some of the humor is dark: • “I told him…about my father eating a wasp in the jam when we were having tea in the garden under the trees, and how he swallowed the wasp and it stung him as it went down and how he was dead in twenty-four hours…” (Jim: well, I’m not saying that was funny, per se… 😬)
So: if you are in the mood for a dark book that is well-written, I would heartily recommend this book. Conversely, if you have had a bad day and feel a bit low, avoid this book like the coronavirus 😐
One of my pet hates (and my followers will know this) is a writer who writes outside their characters sensibilities. For instance, we think we know a character but then the author uses observations, allusions and metaphors beyond that character's thought processes. Thankfully this isn't the case with the very quirky and unconventional Our Spoons Came From Woolworths.
Sophia is a young commercial artist who marries, in haste, an artist called Charles. The novel begins quite simply: "I told Helen my story and she went home and cried." Most of the novel is narrated in this matter of fact way, yet by concentrating on often incongruent details, Comyns brings what must be an early example of magic realism to the book.
"Then the morning came and it was light. There were half-packed suitcases all around my bed. The posters that had disguised the ugly wallpaper were lying about in long white scrolls. Great Warty looked at me from his glass house, so I took him out and let him walk up my arm until he fell in the bed, then I made tunnels out of the bedclothes for him to walk slowly through and he looked prehistoric."
When Sophia talks about what happens to her as she goes into labour, we realise (as readers in the 21st century), the deplorable state of affairs of maternity wards in the 1930s. She is not only treated with rudeness and an uncaring attitude but she is forced to carry her suitcase from one ward room to another whilst in the early stages of labour. It is not in Sophia's nature to question this and be appalled at the system, nor later to really question her husband's selfish attitude towards her and the children. It's just the way things are. As a reader I couldn't help enjoy Sophia's take on life, especially her sojourn in the country, and applaud Comyns for her originality. Highly recommended!
Read entirely aloud over Skype with Maya while we're on different continents. Probably the slightest of Comyns' novels I've come across yet (but it's just her second). Even so, she has such a perfect yet completely unaffected and conversational turn of phrase that she's always a pleasure. Plus:
Social realism -- the precise details of class and place and social atmosphere in depression-era England are spot-on and create a vivid portrait. She crams the pages with perfect particulars. Right down to the title.
Social surrealism -- and as with Comyns' best works, things can get nonchalantly weird and horrific, blindsiding the reader and then going on as if nothing much had happened.
And through those details, those structural rhythms, Comyns has a kind of social purpose. Not exactly feminist here as the narrator wouldn't have possibly considered things on those terms, but her strength of character, and Comyns', draw attention to subtle, and not-so-subtle, realities and gender politics in a constant undercurrent. Now if only the protagonist had been able to make her own way out of her troubles an not required the neat ending that this reaches, but again, such was likely outside her (the character's, not Comyns') imagination in those times.
I was quickly drawn into this strange novel. It is narrated by Sophia in her youthful, passive voice. She meets a man called Charles on a train, they are both carrying artists' portfolios, and they soon decide to marry. We are given an insight into the life of 1930's bohemian London and their personal decline into financial despair and poverty. Sophia and Charles marry in haste and live a chaotic and ungrounded life. It is written in a chatty, conversational way as she describes happy and sad events. There is an isolated feel to her words as she struggles to understand her new life. The novel touches on a variety of themes including marriage and love, happiness and fulfilment. It is not as grim as it sounds and there are uplifting, amusing, loving moments too. Sophia gains in experience and grows into a young, optimistic woman. It is a very quirky book written in quite a unique style but I found it an intriguing and gripping one.
On the copyright page of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the italicized comment "The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty." Despite the disclaimer I suspect many dimensions of this novel are autobiographical. There are some parallels in Sophia Fairclough's story of a bohemian and artistic life between the wars and that of her creator, Barbara Comyns. I believe the poverty, especially, is real; I think of this as a novel about poverty.
It's told in Sophia's voice made infectiously innocent by Comyns. It's the strength of the novel, I think, and what makes this novel an infectious read. And yet some of the choices Sophia make are those of someone not so innocent, someone possessing a sturdy determination and practicality. Even if the story of a young woman's passage to happiness has been told countless times, Comyns makes it interesting. The only quibble I have with it is the almost headlong careening into a storybook ending. I didn't mind the ending itself but thought it needed more development so that it would not be too good to be true. But then I remind myself the ending is not included in the truths Comyns claims for the novel in her famous disavowal on the copyright page.
Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Her winsome, stream of consciousness narrative is misleading - the early part of the book beguiles the reader into thinking that this is a piece of cheery, lively fiction about a young married couple starting their lives. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. The book is set in the 1930's, during the global depression between the two wars.
That sense of optimism rapidly devolves into something more akin to horror. Sophia conceives, and having never received even the tiniest bit of education about the reproduction process, is surprised. She believed that just wishing to NOT have a baby would work to counteract conception. No one is happy about this baby - they are too young and too poor and no one is willing to see Charles clearly for what he is.
Which is a dead loss as a human being. He, initially, lives off of Sophia, his father having stopped his allowance once he married. Sophia is working at a commercial studio, and is fired once she has to admit she is pregnant. Her sense of pride prevents her from admitting that this is a terrible hardship. Even after she is let go, Charles does nothing to try to contribute the family coffers.
His family is terrible, blaming Sophia both for the pregnancy, as though she managed that on her own, and for interfering with his ability to develop his great artistic talent. Everyone, including Sophia, seems to accept that it is Sophia's responsibility to keep the young couple in food and housing. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia's class to work.
The chapters that address the birth of Sophia's son, Sandro, are harrowing. Comyns describes the process of labor in a charity hospital in both explicit and horrifying detail. She is dragged from room to room, never told what to expect, and subjected to the most awful indignities, and once the birth is over, her son is removed to the infant room and she doesn't see him for two days.
It actually gets worse from here. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. Through it all, Sophia's voice remains mostly optimistic and always convincing.
This is, more or less, a book about poverty - about how it grinds and about the experience of being completely powerless due to structural inequalities, such as male supremacy and class-based oppression. Reading it pissed me off, I was so angry at everyone: Charles, for being such an irredeemable asshole; Charles's family for being so monstrously uncaring, and, even, Sophia, for not seeming to find her situation as intolerable as I did. She was so captive to her own circumstances that it seemingly never occurred to her that she should've been able to expect more from her husband and family.
There is one briefly satisfying moment when she loses her temper. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. Charles promises to bring her some money in time for lunch, but he blows her off. When it comes time to leave
"I waited to see if he would come fetch me, but again he failed me, so I had to walk home, getting more and more hungry on the way, and angry too. When I arrived home, I saw Charles through the uncurtained window. He was sitting reading with a tray of tea-things beside him. He looked so comfortable, I became even more angry, and dashed in like a whirlwind and picked up a chair and hit him with it."
Even then, though, Sophia is made to feel that she is in the wrong. "I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead."
It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles - a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us.
After I graduated from undergraduate, I applied to and was accepted to law school and left the city where I had done my undergrad. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. Back then, first year law students had to sign a contract that they couldn't work. Our agreement was that he would get a job and send me money for food. I needed that money to eat.
I had a scholarship to cover my tuition, and some of my rent, and I had some savings, but I was wary of running out of money. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn't worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term.
He sent me one check. It bounced. I had never experienced hunger before, and like Sophia, I was far too proud to tell anyone how broke I was. In retrospect, that is such an act of callousness that I would have been more than justified in ending the marriage. I didn't. I took a few things that I could scrape together and I pawned them for $50.00 so I could buy some food, and then I began secretly temping for about 10 hours a week to make a little bit of money. I ate nothing but macaroni and cheese for a couple of weeks until my first paycheck came through. No one at the school found out, so I was able to do enough of this to pay for my groceries.
As you can probably imagine at this point in the story, the marriage failed completely about six months later. But reading this book brought it all back - the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality that no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. And I was 24, and it was a completely different time. Women were able to work, and I didn't have children (thank god I didn't have children), but I was still tied to this worthless asshole who didn't care that I was hungry. And I internalized all of this by concluding that, somehow, I was at fault for all of it, and my loyalty to this failure of a person prevented me from asking anyone for help.
I think probably all women have a story like this.
Even with the grim subject matter, though, there is something fresh and appealing about both Sophia and the book that I can't really explain. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.
So, I do recommend Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, even if it made me want to hit something.
"Things one dreads usually are: it's only the things we look forward to that go all wrong." "There seemed no point in being good or bad; everything was so dreadful in any case."
At times, sad and pessimistic, and at others, quirky, comical and entertaining, Comyn's 'Spoons' was my introduction to her work. I'm not entirely sure if I appreciated this as much as many have on here due to reading it in small doses on a long flight to and from a very distant location, but as I rated this a '3', I can say that I'm not turned off by her writing and she was (in my opinion) better at story-telling than writing, and that's why I gave it a higher rating than I initially felt.
Not bad, but I didn't always feel like it was worth completing. Something to pass the time.
Not top-shelf Comyns by far, but it had its moments. I was hoping for more laughs and/or absurdity, but alas it only yielded the occasional chuckle and scored rather low on my official Absurdity Appreciation Scale™. It’s actually for the most part quite a dreary tale, the likes of which the conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to strike down Roe v. Wade—and would furthermore like to restrict the purchase and use of contraception—should routinely be strapped to their chairs and forced to read considering (2.5)
Poignant, funny. More people should read and love this.
Sophia plunges into marriage with the man of her dreams, but poverty (emotional and actual) takes its toll. There is a happy ending and a second chance at love, but the emotional heft comes in the painful disintegration of Sophia's first marriage.
What's special about this book (written in 1950) is that Comyns relates all the truly awful things that happen to the naive heroine with a Brief Encounter style of dry detachment that can, on the one hand, be very amusing - “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.” or Peregrine “listened most intently to every word I said, as if it was very precious...This had never happened to me before, and gave me great confidence in myself, but now I know from experience a lot of men listen like that, and it doesn’t mean a thing; they are most likely thinking up a new way of getting out of paying their income-tax.
But the laconic, almost throw-away, style also works as a contrast to moments of real tragedy. At one point
The happy ending may feel a little manufactured (although it is very satisfying), but, in fact, much of OSCFW is based on Comyns' own disastrous first marriage, and happy second one. So, two happy endings - good.
At the end of March, I went to a book talk on Virago Modern Classics at the wonderful Daunt Bookshop. Author Maggie O'Farrell championed this particular book and two things that she said about it really stuck with me. First, she said that it had a wonderful sense of place -- the place being London, the bohemian, artsy bit of it, during the Depression of the 1930s. The other thing she emphasised was the voice of the narrator -- distinctive, without any obvious literary influences, like no other. Having read the book now, I would wholly agree with her assessment.
Sophia, narrator and protagonist, is a young girl -- just 21 -- who marries her boyfriend Charles because it seems like a thing to do. Not so much a great love as a rather tepid like. This attitude, in itself, makes the book seem like a period piece. The idea that 21 is an adult age signalling it's time to do adult things! (Or, we've slept together now so we might as well marry.) Sophia and Charles are both fairly well-born but not at all well-to-do. They are babes in the woods: optimistic, dumb, brave and naive. They want to be artists, but unfortunately, neither has any kind of trust fund. Charles, in particular, has artistic ambition that is breathtakingly selfish and unconcerned with the financial facts and emotional responsibilities of life. What follows is an extremely precarious existence made perilous by the immediate arrival of unwanted (particularly on Charles's part) children. There is no particular plan and certainly no safety net because this book depicts a world pre-NHS and social housing and child benefit.
What follows is a mostly downward spiral (into poverty and all sorts of entanglements) with a fairy-tale-ish happy ending somewhat set apart from the main bit of the story. Dramatic events -- for example, a pretty horrific description of giving birth in a charity hospital -- are all described in the characteristic breezy voice of Sophia, and that voice is often at odds with the content of the story. And yet, it is the detached breeziness of the voice that makes the content bearable -- both to the reader, and its subject, I presume. It's a strange, and strangely distinctive, book. Very readable.
Lo bueno que tiene Barbara Comyns es que es imprevisible y esta novelita es un claro ejemplo de ello. Un libro que parece una cosa y a medida que avanzas se vuelve más turbadora en el sentido de la vida real y de alguna forma es muy universal lo que te está contando aqui la Comyns: una jovencísima pareja se casa, algo inconscientes ambos, egoista él, y poco a poco van aprendiendo los sinsabores de la vida.
Y si Barbara Comyns quería transmitirnos lo que era ser mujer en aquella época, años 30, madre, pobre y casi sin incentivos en la vida, bien que lo transmite. Su estilo es tan directo y transparente, tan cercano y con ese sentido del humor tan luminoso a pesar de varios momentos duros en esta historia que no deja de ser una delicia, pero una delicia que se vuelve muy compleja y oscura en algunos momentos. Hay varios momentos duros que de alguna manera se hacen más llevaderos por la forma en que nos lo cuenta esta autora; otro libro que parecía un cuento amable y deviene en otra cosa más real y profunda. Grande Barbara Comyns!!
This is the second grueling fictionalized biography I've read recently by women who looked back on their early struggles after attaining a certain amount of renown in later life. This read a lot more contemporary than I expected, and the descriptions, particularly that of the horrendous experience of childbirth, are delivered in an almost painful clarity. I admit I haven't read her earlier book which may have shed light on her background which would explain her heroine's inexplicable passivity and naivete.
One of the best reads I've had in a very long time. Added it to my "favorites" bookshelf.
Hard to put this book down. Just wanted to stay in the world that Barbara Comyns took me to, and the woman whose story it was (Sophia).
Wonderful comical moments that made it hard for me to keep my composure when reading this book down at Starbucks.
This should be required reading for any women's studies class about feminist ideas, and what was expected in former times by a lot of men about the women in their lives, and their children.
The ordeals of giving birth in a public hospital, the day-to-day suffering of families in poverty--these topics all come out, but most of all the story of Sophia is what kept me coming back for more.
I LOVED THIS BOOK.
(One little pet peeve I had throughout this book: I was taught by my English-teacher mother and my newspaper-editor father that one is to say "my" and not, "me", such as in the following sentence I quote here: Barbara Comyns wrote: "Then he discovered a stream at the end of the garden . . . and hardly noticed me going." My parents would want to mark that sentence with red ink, so that it would look like this: "Then he discovered a stream at the end of the garden . . . and hardly noticed my going." "Me" is used like this throughout the novel, and each time I wanted to scream, "my".)
P.S. I read the Introduction AFTER reading the book, and recommend that to others. The introduction focusses on ideas that although interesting, were not my main interests. Whereas, had I read it prior to reading the book, it may have influenced me in a certain direction, and I much prefer being my own guide to what I want to focus on.
I don’t have a whole lot to say about this one. I read it in a couple of sittings; it’s one of those books that clamps onto your throat and is a bloody mess to pull off.
Sophia (21) is one of the most frustrating protagonist/narrator ever. She’s terribly naive and often downright stupid. And yet she still somehow manages to be more sympathetic than the idiots she (poorly) chooses to surround herself with and, alas, marry.
The story, in a nutshell, is about how she consistently fucks up her life, day in day out, by making big decisions and not thinking things through despite having very little life experience: rushing into marriage and motherhood, trying to live the life of a bohemian artist in London amidst the scarcity of the Great Depression, again and again, ad infinitum.
That being said, it's also a story about the hardships of poverty, and the reader goes from scorning Sophia for putting herself in this situation to pitying her in an eyeblink.
The style is naive but inventive, often funny in an oddball, quirky sort of way, despite the story being terribly sad at times. In fact, what’s interesting about the narrative voice is the way she’ll describe a tragic event and a humorous one in the same detached tone, often in the same breath, to great effect.
The part that shocked me the most was easily the childbirth scene, a mini horror story unexpectedly plugged into the overarching story, and which we are told by the publishers themselves is autobiographical. Awful.
So yeah, great entertainment value, it has a lot of heart and a beautiful circular ending, but it was missing a bit of depth for my taste, maybe even a point.
I absolutely loved this book, and have enjoyed everything by Comyns thus far. I'm just sorry that I've come to the end of the three pack of her books that I bought and I currently don't have anything else by her in the house to read.
Having read little bits about her, it sounds as though this tale is in part inspired by her own life. She sounds like she was a fascinating person. This is the tale of Sophia, and possibly also the tale of why in many cases 20 is too young to be married and having kids. Set in the 1930s in London, Sophia has just gotten married to Charles, a painter without a penny to his name. His family hate her in many respects and think she is dragging him down by getting pregnant (some things don't change - whether it's getting pregnant too soon or not soon enough, it's always seen as the woman's evil plot). Charles on the other hand is a self-absorbed, lazy inconsiderate man-pig who has little to no interest in his wife or children. She is the only one who works, and they live their years together in utter poverty and desperation. This may make it sound like a worthy and grim novel that has a great many violins playing and is designed to make you feel bad about your own comfortable life, but it's really not like that. She has a wonderful way of story telling that isn't over embellished, and is very matter of fact and this is how it is/was. She isn't looking for sympathy and she doesn't particularly feel sorry for herself. She's just getting on with things. And there are wonderful characters created out of so few words. It is just a treasure to read.
The story of Sophia, told by herself, was very sad (although she had at the end her HEA). She struggled so hard. And the clash between her naivety and the brutal world of poverty in the thirties of XX in bohemian London was unforgettable.
I was with Sophia with my whole heart. I couldn't put the book down. Her way of storytelling about her life was totally gripping.
Like I read in an introduction to my copy it was an account of a marriage dismantled by poverty. It charts the erosion of a woman's spirit by her husband's vain and casual cruelty. But was told in a remarkable way. Like I wrote earlier, Sophia's innocence took all that sadness at a new level.
It was also a poignant woman voice. The voice that wanted to tell us something very important about women, woman's lot, dreams, struggles.
Sophia's voice was like a song of a little bird in a cage. I am glad that somebody ultimately opened the cage.
I really like Comyns's quirky writing style and the combination of wry humour with devastating observations. I didn't enjoy this one quite as much as The Vet's Daughter but it was still pretty great and I definitely want to read more of her work.
This book is narrated by Sophia Fairclough, the main character of the book and deals with her rather difficult life during the 1930’s in London. The language is very simple and straightforward, which is so fitting for Sophia; it’s as if we are reading her diary or sitting and listening to her story over an afternoon cup of tea.
Sophia meets Charles and they instantly fall in love and decide that they want to get married. Even though they are only twenty-one years old and his family does not approve of her at all, they decide to get married. They settle on a “secret” and “private” marriage at the local church, but they tell so many people that on the day of the ceremony the church is full of friends, family and odd acquaintances.
The book starts out on a very humorous tone as Sophia is extremely naïve about marriage, sex and motherhood. Charles is an artist, a bit of a delicate genius, who can’t possibly put aside his art to get a proper job to support his wife. Sophia is the main bread winner of the family and Charles is a terrible manager of their money. Whenever they have a few extra shillings he spends it on frivolous things like painting supplies, wine and dinners. Sophia is too naïve about living life as an adult to ask that her husband go out and get a job. When she becomes pregnant and is forced to quit her job Charles is annoyed at having a baby in the house and having his only source of income cut off.
The scenes in which Sophia finds out about her pregnancy are absolutely hilarious. She is genuinely surprised that she could be having a baby at all; she thinks that if she wills herself not to be pregnant then she won’t have a baby. When she goes to the hospital to have the baby she is shocked by the poking and prodding and the indignity of the whole process, right down to the horrible hospital bed clothes that she is forced to wear.
It is obvious from the very first sentence of the book that Sophia and Charles’ marriage does not end well. As their marriage become increasingly difficult financially, emotionally and physically, Charles stays away from their home for longer and longer periods of time. The humor that was spread throughout the first part of the book is noticeably absent in the send half of Sophia’s tale. She suffers a great deal as her marriage disintegrates.
But in the end, Sophia learns an important lesson about resiliency and happy endings. Even though she has suffered many trials and tribulations with and because of Charles she never becomes jaded or bitter. She is guarded, yes, but never bitter.
The New York Review of Books has brought another brilliant classic to our attention. I highly recommend this book for its humor, interesting storyline, and strong female character in the form of Sophia.
"This is the end of my book, but not the end of my story, which will go on until I die; but now we have come to such a happy part of my life there is very little to say about it. At first, because I wasn't used to happiness and freedom from worry, I would be terrified that disaster was coming round the corner at any minute. I expected that Rollo would suddenly say he didn't love me any more, or that the house was mortgaged up tot he hilt and we must sell everything we had got and go and live in one room, and almost every time he went out without me I thought the telephone would ring to say he had been run over, and if he caught cold I believed it was the end and he was going to develop pneumonia and die. When none of these things happened I worried about Sandro, but there was nothing wrong there either, so gradually I ceased to imagine all the dreadful things that might happen."
I'm a sucker for the naive, eternally optimistic protagonist in the coming-of-age novel! Sophia walks the tightrope between innocence and worldliness, as she survives through "beastly poverty" and some not very nice men. Whimsical and at times brutal, but never melancholic, this is another book I found myself rationing over the last week. While I was swept away by The Vet's Daughter's strange gothic current, this lesser known gem was more like a delightful babbling brook - but don't look too close, or you'll see the dead fish floating. I feel it would have been stronger had there not been such a tidy, happy ending, though that would just be pure selfishness on my part!
"Sophia Fairclough was my new name and quite soon I became used to it and to being called 'Mrs' and to wearing a wedding-ring"
I couldn't put this book down. It was a page turner in that Sophia Fairclough matter of factly discusses the absolute train wreck that is her life. The reader can see the massive red flag in her spousal choice but young love is typically dumb love. Not to be excessively jaded, but young lovers tend not to consider practical matters in life. Sophia meets Charles on a train. They fall in love with only his paintings to see them through life. A spiritualist friend delightedly gives them ten pounds when she is informed of their marriage plans. So they embark on a life with 20 pounds to set up housekeeping in a flat and Charles erstwhile artistic talent to support them.
When Sophia discovers she is pregnant. The natural result of marriage and love. Charles responds "Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram" and places the blame on Sophia for this inconvenience in his life. Cheerfully he consoles her to stop crying and perhaps in the next seven months she will have a miscarriage. Sophia naively wonders how she will be as a mother and how this happened. She mentions she always thought birth control was something she could control with her mind. The following chapters are sadly fascinating in how the impoverished women's clinic is run and how the birth experience is for them. Frankly, I found it to be a traumatic experience for the mothers.
The rest of the book follows the dissolution of their marriage, the introduction of infidelities, and raising of her son. All of which under the looming umbrella of their poverty and lack of security in life. It was just utterly absorbing as Sophia recounts all of this in a matter of fact tone without shame. Which makes the reader both sympathize with her but also marvel at her simple naive nature. And thankfully there is a happy ending. Just an unexpected book in its plot and compelling ability to keep the reader turning its pages.