"Our Spoons Came from Woolworths" - review
It was Josa Young, author of “One Apple Tasted” and recent guest blogger here on SW, who chose Barbara Comyns’ “Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s” as her favourite book. I was immediately taken by the title and looked it up on Amazon. A Virago Modern Classic. Published in 1950. A novel set in the Bohemian London of the 30’s about marriage, poverty, and adultery, praised by none other than Graham Greene as having “an off-beat humour” and ending happily. Oh, yes. I already knew this was my kind of book and I was right.
Sophia is twenty-one when she marries Charles, spoiled only son of divorced parents - the ghastly Paul and the even more ghastly Eva. Despite having no money, they are happy at first. Charles stays at home all day and paints his still lives – the description of which had me howling with laughter - while Sophia goes out to work and learns how to cook, though until she gets the hang of it everything tastes of soap and she has little idea about what to ask for at the butcher’s.
' “Can I have a small joint of bones stuck together?” '
So far so light-hearted. It all starts to go wrong though when the cheques in the drawer run out, unfortunately coinciding with Sophia’s realisation that she is pregnant. Here is the conversation the newly weds have together to discuss their plight:-
‘Charles said, “Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!” So I said, “I don’t want to be a beastly Mummy either; I shall run away.” Then I remembered if I ran away the baby would come with me wherever I went. It was a most suffocating feeling and I started to cry.’
Sandro’s arrival marks the start of the end of their marriage. Charles refuses to take on any work to support the family and no one will buy his paintings and they are plunged into greater poverty though occasionally it’s alleviated by offers of modelling work for Sophia. When she gets pregnant for the second time, she is forced into an abortion, which goes badly wrong and leaves her hating Charles. She turns to Peregrine, an older artist, for comfort and enters into an affair, which results in a third pregnancy.
So many things go wrong for Sophia but she tells her story with an admirable stoicism, dipping into a delicious black humour, which buoys up the reader throughout the grim bits – and there are some – particularly her experience of giving birth and the episode where she contacts scarlet fever. But we know from the first paragraph that it will all end well for her, so we can put up with the bad bits.
Comyns writes in an almost childish way, though it is far from artless. She uses slang of the period – ‘frit’, ‘waddy’ (lame) and ‘stiff with’ to mean ‘full of’ are her favourite words and she has an occasional habit, when using two adjectives, of putting them in the wrong order, which makes what she says sound very childlike.
Her descriptions are short but always original. Here she is on her landlady: ‘Her face (was) like a melting ice cream, rather a cheap one’
Occasionally she steps right outside the story, as in this example: - ‘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 could just fill pages like this:
“I am sure it is true,” said Phyllida.
“I cannot agree with you,” answered Norman.
“Oh, but I know I am right,” she replied.
“I beg to differ,” said Norman sternly.
(There is neither a Norman nor a Phyllida in the entire novel, by the way!)
“Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s” is a little gem of a novel, shining a light on a dreadful era in history – the Great Depression – while at the same time managing to appear so very modern. One word of advice – don’t read it while you’re in the middle of writing your novel/story/whatever. Comyns’ idiosyncratic style works its way off the page and fastens itself onto your imagination to the extent that you won’t be able to stop it rubbing off on your own prose.