Barbara Comyns Our Spoons Came From Woolworths
(The 2016 Reading Challenge: A Book Published Before You Were Born. Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and I was definitely born after that.)
I found a copy of Comyns’ novel in a charity shop, and bought it for its attention-grabbing title and beautiful cover – a reproduction of Stanley Spencer’s Marriage at Cana: Bride and Bridegroom (pictured above) – and very glad I am too that I managed to pick up this particular edition, because the newly repackaged Viragos are just hideous.
See what I mean? More Barbara Pym than Barbara Comyns, I would say. Don’t get me wrong, I quite liked Excellent Women, but I’m not champing at the bit to read anything else by Pym, whereas I’ve already put in orders for Comyns’ The Vet’s Daughter and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (the latter title is a quotation from Longfellow’s The Fire of Drift-wood).
There are quite a few reviews for Our Spoons Came From Woolworths on the interweb-thingy, all largely focused on the same points. To begin with, the book’s reviewers claim that it is mostly autobiographical in spite of its disclaimer, and there is certainly more than a passing similarity between the life of the fictional Sophia and that of her creator. Both married a fellow artist, both suffered extreme poverty, both left their husbands and worked as part of the domestic staff in a country house. However, the disclaimer states that
The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty
My feeling is that it’s probably best not to overdo the biographical reading, especially as Comyns has asked you not to. But – and this is another point on which all the reviews agree – Comyns is plain in her wish that special attention be paid to the three chapters mentioned. These chapters deal with the birth of her first child and the absolutely appalling treatment to which she was subjected. Her fictional counterpart, Sophia, is only 21 years old and extremely frightened. In fact, and in reference to the reviews again, Sophia seems initially to have a fairly hazy notion of how babies are created in the first place and certainly has no idea how to prevent conception:
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. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control.
The blame for her repeated pregnancies is laid very squarely at her door by her husband Charles and his awful mother, Eva:
She didn’t seem to think it was Charles’ baby – only mine, because later on, when I was upstairs putting on my coat, she kissed me quite kindly, but spoilt it by saying ‘I shall never forgive you, Sophia, for making my son a father at twenty-one.’
How dismal it must have been to be female in the 1930s. And this is before the NHS, of course, so to add insult to injury, Sophia had to find the money to pay for her wretched hospital birth. Once admitted, she is given an enema and a ‘large dose of castor oil’, which combine to render her helpless with sickness and diarrhoea. The nurses reprimand her every time she makes a mess and accuse her of having ’disgusting habits’. Sophia begins to feel that she has committed a criminal act in having a baby and is humiliated by the whole depressing experience:
they made me put my legs in kind of slings that must have been attached to the ceiling; besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully ashamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal.
Of course, the ghastly Charles can barely tolerate the child at all. Sophia tells us that
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.
I often heard the threat ‘I’ll kick you into the middle of next week’ when I was a kiddie and I always found this idea rather interesting, that a boot up the bum could be such a hearty one that the recipient would be propelled forward not only in space, but also in time, to arrive next Wednesday. That’s exactly what I’d like to do to selfish, narcissistic, lazy, pointless Charles.
The story of Sophia’s early life is a woeful one, but apart from the chapters discussed here so far, it is told with such lightness of touch and such humour that it is a very amusing book. I wondered how this could have been achieved and pondered the sense of temporal distance that characterises the novel. I had already noted the lack of direct speech which Sophia herself comments on at the beginning of chapter nine: there is indeed some direct speech, but mostly the reader is following Sophia’s own account of events, and spoken utterances are generally rendered in indirect speech as they are filtered through Sophia’s voice. Sophia relates her tale to us exactly as she does to her friend Helen, which gives us the framing device for the story. There is slightly more to it than this, however. My understanding of the novel is that the distance is created because there is no second Sophia, the Sophia-narrator of the past. There is only the Sophia of the present, which explains why everything can be told so simply, with emotional reactions boiled down to bald statements such as ‘I felt very sad’ or ‘I was happy’. While the Sophia of the present day can remember that at such-and-such a period she was indeed very happy or very sad, she cannot describe her emotions as fully as she would have done at the time.
To clarify this further, let’s consider another semi-autobiographical novel such as David Copperfield. There are at least two narrators: the David of the present day, the one who is telling the story, and the David of the past, the one who is living the story. These two Davids are the same character, but two different enactors, because they exist in different time periods and one is older and knows much more than the other. But when the events of the novel are described, they are told from the younger David’s point of view and presented to the reader as the events are being experienced. And this, it seems to me, is the difference between Comyns’ novel and the conventions of biographical novels that one has come to expect. The tale is told by the present-day Sophia and there is no younger Sophia-enactor. This would account for the ever-present sense of distance.
The novel by no means suffers as a result of this device, however. On the contrary, it is refreshing – and no less emotionally charged for not giving way to lengthy lamentation. The reader is a human being after all, and is perfectly well equipped to imagine how Sophia must have felt without having it carefully spelt out.
Only one thing puzzles me: what happened to the war? The story is set in the 1930s and Sophia is relating events from a distance of eight years, so World War II must be in there somewhere. Sophia lives in London, leaving aside her three-year sojourn in the countryside, so must have noticed that there was a nasty war going on. But now I come to think of it, I’m not sure there is anything in the novel which definitively states that the events depicted actually are set in the thirties, although it is confidently claimed that this is the case in the blurb. Comyns herself spent the war working as a cook in a Hertfordshire country house.
I don’t know what to make of this, so at this point, I think we have to recall that Comyns told us quite plainly that apart from certain sections, this story isn’t true. A weedy cop-out on my part, I know. Everything else about the book tells you that the narrator shares the world we live in, but how to account for this huge chunk of missing history? Ah well. Virginia Woolf happily left the war out, as noted by a disapproving Katherine Mansfield.