Reading Challenge 2016: A Book Published Before You Were Born


former cover - stanley spencer

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.New cover

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.

Barbara Comyns-our-spoons-came-from-woolworths
Barbara Comyns

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.

‘Excluding the lumpen hoi polloi’: The auto/biographies of Muriel Spark


I’m a Death-Of-The-Author kind of student and I’ve never been a reader of biographies, but I’ve recently read through a fair amount of biographical material relating to the subject of my research thesis, Muriel Spark, and I thought it would be a useful exercise to collect my thoughts on this material and record them here. I’ve supplied a bibliography below, but for ease of reference the major texts referred to in this post are Martin Stannard’s 2009 biography, Muriel Spark’s own autobiography Curriculum Vitae, which covers only the years before she really found fame, and Derek Stanford’s volume of criticism and memoir. Spark instructed research students focusing on her work not to read the latter. Nevertheless, those students who disobey Spark’s ruling will take Stanford’s book with a pinch of salt once they have read Curriculum Vitae, because the ever-watchful Spark took steps to ensure that Stanford’s memoir would not be taken seriously. She corrects more than a few of Stanford’s mistakes: for example, Spark’s grandmother did not have gypsy blood, and little Muriel was not breast-fed for two years as Stanford claims; he also bungles the French of the title of Proust’s major work (Recherche dans le temps perdu!).


In fact, Stanford was very fair to Spark in his 165-page memoir. Stanford himself emerges from contemporary accounts as a rather ridiculous figure, a dapper little bald fellow given to aping eighteenth-century speech mannerisms which never failed to irritate those with whom he conversed. Spark lampooned Stanford in A Far Cry From Kensington by casting him as the odious pisseur de copie, Hector Bartlett. After reading Spark’s sharp, pared-to-the-bone prose and Stannard’s lucid account of Spark’s life, Stanford’s written style reads as excessively elaborate and often contrived, but he attempts to do justice to his subject and is not insensitive as a critic: he gives a very plausible reading of Spark’s poem, The Rout [Stanford, pp. 83-88]. However, his critical responses are more reliable when he is assessing Spark’s poetry; when he moves on to her fictional prose, he flounders a little and it is clear that Stanford, steeped as he was in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writing, didn’t really have a critical grasp of the more modern forms of literature: some of his harsher judgements appear to stem from his own lack of comprehension. But Spark herself comes out well: Stanford depicts her as being delightful company, playful and humorous, yet determined to achieve her goals. In Curriculum Vitae, Spark, however, writes that she was concerned about Stanford’s habit of inaccuracy: ‘It was often small facts, dates and titles that Derek couldn’t get right… In a literary collaborator, this carelessness puzzled me and worried me in those early ‘fifties’ [CV, pp. 189-190], so she was understandably concerned when she found out that Stanford was writing a biographical and critical study of her. Stanford caused more problems than simply getting a few minor dates wrong, however. After the Second World War, rationing continued in England until 1954, and Stanford cheerfully and regularly ate half of Spark’s meagre rations, even though he was still living with his parents and she was evidently under-nourished. He cared for her when she suffered her breakdown and obtained on her behalf some money from Graham Greene to tide her over. However, when he let himself into her rooms in order to pack some belongings to take to Spark in her retreat, he helped himself to a couple of notebooks of juvenilia which he later sold for profit. He also betrayed Spark when he sold a large number of her letters, and the memoir too was an exercise in cashing in on the fame of a more successful writer to make money for himself.


Muriel Spark was intensely paranoid about, and fiercely protective of, her public image. She never doubted her own talent, that much is clear, but she did not trust other people to acknowledge it and was hypersensitive to any perceived criticism. Stannard’s biography tells of a series of arguments and fallings-out that continued throughout Spark’s lifetime, hence Ved Mehta’s oft-quoted remark that Spark ‘went through people like pieces of Kleenex’ [Stannard, p. 322]. Spark resisted interviews following a first disastrous experience with Venetia Murray, but it was she who approached Stannard as a potential biographer after she had read and reviewed the second volume of Stannard’s biography of Evelyn Waugh, a writer connected to Spark through both literary style and adopted religion. Spark instructed Stannard to treat her as if she were dead, but he tells us that she ‘used up a great deal of her own time helping [him] to revise the first draft’ [Stannard, p. xi]. A S Byatt reported, truthfully or not, that Spark went through the biography ‘line by line’ [O’Neill, p. 107]. James Campbell, reviewing Stannard’s biography for the TLS, makes some acidic comments about this state of affairs in what is overall a rather harsh critique, and he also notes that Stannard’s use of Spark’s letters is limited to either very short quotations or paraphrase, although he has quoted liberally from letters written by others. Indeed, I think I would prefer to have read a volume of Spark’s personal correspondence. The letters would be rather more fun, I’m sure, and they would undoubtedly reveal more than Spark would wish the general populace to know. In reality, Stannard was probably not entirely at liberty to quote ‘an unspecified amount from her unpublished writings, including the letters’, as was the original arrangement with Spark [Stannard, p. xi]. (I believe Spark’s letters are held at the University of Texas and the National Library of Scotland, but I’m open to correction on this.)


In another review of the biography, Joseph O’Neill describes Stannard’s unflinching defence of Spark as a means of ‘awakening in the reader a prosecutorial instinct’, and surmises that Spark ‘foresaw her amiable assassination by Stannard and arranged for it’. This is an interesting conclusion, but O’Neill doesn’t give us anything to go on: he doesn’t really explain why he thinks Stannard’s biography is so damning. He draws a clever likeness between Spark arranging her own biographical assassination, and the character of Lise, who arranges her own brutal murder in The Driver’s Seat, Spark’s most accomplished and most horrible novel. I like this line of reasoning very much, but I wish O’Neill had explored his conclusion in more depth. I’m tempted to think that he was perhaps so enamoured of his clever comparison that he didn’t dare examine it further in case his theory just didn’t hold water. On the whole, I think there is much that is good about O’Neill’s review, but I do feel the need to point out that although he is quite right in asserting that ‘postmodernism was around well before 1980’, he ought to bear in mind that it took a little while for these new fancy theories to take hold in the UK, so Stannard is justified in describing Spark as being ahead of her time. (She was. It’s quite clear from reading contemporary reviews that a not-inconsiderable number of critics just didn’t know what to make of her.) I also had to wince when O’Neill describes Stannard, who works as a Professor of Modern English Literature at the University of Leicester, as ‘not much given to literary theory’. Perhaps he simply meant that the biography is not weighed down or overloaded with passages of criticism, which is true enough. Let’s hope so.


Alan Massie notes in his own book on Spark’s oeuvre that a biography is ‘something impertinent if done unsanctioned during its subject’s lifetime, generally worthless if written with his [sic] co-operation’ [Massie, p. 12]. So, by this reasoning, the Stanford book is impertinent and the Stannard worthless. As for Spark’s autobiography, she ‘determined to write nothing that cannot be supported by documentary evidence or by eyewitnesses’ [CV, p. 11]. While this is an approach that has its merits, the end result is a book that is rather dry and humourless compared to her fiction; in fact, her barbed corrections of Stanford’s errors make for some of the most entertaining passages – that and her spat with Marie Stopes. Nevertheless, given Spark’s concern for her public image, the volume of autobiography should be treated with caution. Jenny Turner hits home in her description of Curriculum Vitae as ‘a debunking job…a pre-emptive attack’ [online source]. Turner here anticipates O’Neill’s conclusion that Spark, expecting the inevitable attacks to come, took care to arrange matters so that the presentation of biographical material was as much under her control as it was possible to be.


As previously stated, I have my doubts about the use or relevance of biographical material to literary criticism, so I find myself in the happy position of being gloriously untroubled about the problems pertaining to the use of this sort of material. I’m grateful nevertheless to Professor Stannard for having done so much of the necessary leg-work: his bibliography alone is immensely useful to anyone wanting to write about Spark. And it would be churlish of me not to acknowlege that I did, in fact, pick up some very useful information here and there along the way. For example, one small fact threw a little bit more light on a Spark short story I’ve written about before: A Member of the Family.

Spark stayed with Christine Brooke-Rose in the Austrian Alps, and when asked what she thought of the view, she replied ‘It’s just like Wales’. Stannard tells us that everyone laughed, although ‘privately [Brooke-Rose] thought it verged on bad manners in a guest’ [Stannard, p. 214]. Spark may or may not have picked up on Brooke-Rose’s mild displeasure, but in any case she includes the remark in the dialogue of her short story: Trudy tells Gwen that she thinks Southern Austria is ‘all rather like Wales’ [Complete Short Stories, p. 124]. What has become apparent to me since reading Stannard’s account of the conversation with Brooke-Rose, and what should really have been obvious before, is that this remark which Brooke-Rose considered impolite really is a rather dull and stupid thing to say, and Spark puts these words into the mouth of Trudy, a rather dull and stupid young woman. But there’s more than this: in referring to Richard, the hero of the story, Stannard writes that he has ‘supposedly turned up by coincidence’ [Stannard, p. 214, my emphasis], the implication being, of course, that Gwen and Richard (or perhaps Gwen and Lucy?) have plotted and arranged beforehand that the three should meet in Austria in order to instigate a love affair between Richard and Trudy, which is how events play themselves out. The reader knows that Gwen and Richard talk about Trudy behind her back: ‘as he told Gwen afterwards, this remarkable statement was almost an invitation to a love affair’ [Complete Short Stories, p. 127]. The reader can infer that Gwen has also told Richard of Trudy’s dull remark about Wales, because Richard himself makes this comparison while he and Trudy are out boating: ‘ “It looks like Windermere today, doesn’t it?… Sometimes this place,’ he said, ‘is very like Yorkshire, but only when the weather’s bad. Or, over on the mountain side, Wales’ [Complete Short Stories, p. 128]. It is obvious now to the reader that Richard is mocking Trudy because he elaborates and improvises on her original dull-witted observation: they are on a lake which looks amazingly like Windermere – which is also a lake – and the landscape of Southern Austria is similar to Wales because it has mountains, and Wales has mountains, doesn’t it, and furthermore, the Austrian Alps look just like Yorkshire when it’s raining because it rains in Yorkshire too. One can imagine how Richard and Gwen will later laugh together at Trudy’s naive stupidity and her inability to recognise when someone is pulling her leg.

Trudy is mocked mercilessly by Richard, Gwen and the narrator, but in fact, she is manipulated in a more calculated manner than this: if Richard’s appearance in Austria was indeed engineered, then the intention to recruit Trudy as a member of the family was there right from the start. Trudy was not  ensnared purely by chance. She was deliberately targeted as the next victim. This story gets more sinister every time I read it, and looking at it again now, something else has just struck me. Even before Trudy meets Richard’s mother, she is already cast as a member of the family in her relations with Gwen:

‘Trudy wanted to move her lodgings in London but she was prevented from doing so by a desire to be near Gwen, who saw Richard daily at school, and who knew his mother so well. And therefore Gwen’s experience of Richard filled in the gaps in his life which were unknown to Trudy and which intrigued her.’ [Complete Short Stories, p. 129]

Already, Trudy spends much of her time discussing Richard in the company of another woman. So desperate is she for news of him that she suppresses her wish to change lodgings in order to have ready access to information about her lover from Gwen. Trudy is playing out by way of rehearsal what will be her role eternally once Richard has finished with her.

Spark’s writing is just so good. What looks simple and innocent on the page becomes more and more barbed as you dig deeper. I’m so glad that I learned of that simple conversation with Brooke-Rose because it’s helped me to understand just how nasty this simple story really is.


Muriel Spark did, in fact, lead a very interesting life. Born in 1918 and raised in Edinburgh, she left Scotland to marry Sydney Oswald Spark in Africa, where she gave birth to her son, Robin. Sydney Spark was a violent manic depressive: ‘too mentally unstable to hold down a job, he also revealed himself as prone to gunplay and wife-beating’ [O’Neill, p. 100], so Muriel deserted her husband and obtained a divorce as soon as she could. The outbreak of the Second World War delayed Muriel’s return home, but she eventually managed to secure a passage back to England where she worked for the Foreign Office alongside Sefton Delmer, broadcasting falsified information intended to discourage the Germans. Once the war was over, Muriel worked extremely hard to secure herself a role in the world of literary London. She was offered the position of secretary for the clique-ridden Poetry Society, where she met the two men with whom she had the most intense love affairs, Howard Sergeant and Derek Stanford. She was eventually sacked from the Society, but she continued to write as often as she could while dealing with poverty, malnutrition and hallucinations brought on by her use of the slimming drug, Dexedrine. She converted to Roman Catholicism in 1954. When Macmillan commissioned a novel from her, she made use of her new-found Catholicism, and her hallucinatory experiences, in writing The Comforters, which was very well-received. From that point onwards, her star continued to rise until she finally achieved something like financial security with the success of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. She left England to take up residence first in New York, then Rome, and finally she settled in Tuscany with the painter Penelope Jardine, who was her companion for over thirty years until Muriel’s death in 2006 at the age of eighty-eight.


Stannard’s biography, even in its heavily-tampered-with state, cannot disguise the fact that Spark was driven by her sense of writerly vocation to the point of extreme selfishness: for example, her son Robin was brought up by his grandparents leaving Spark free to follow her literary career. She regularly sent money to her parents towards Robin’s upkeep, but he was eventually cut out of Spark’s will when he managed to offend her once too often. But, as O’Neill quite rightly points out, ‘rarely is anyone much detained by the parental flaws of male writers’ [O’Neill, p. 101], which, as far as I’m concerned at least, will do quite nicely as the last word on the subject of Spark’s parenting. Spark was a huge intellectual snob: the quotation in the title of this post comes from one of Spark’s diary entries, and it more or less sums up her attitude to those who weren’t her intellectual equivalent. For Spark, the world was full of dullards and time-wasters. The reader is never encouraged to feel sympathy for stupid little Trudy in the story discussed above, nor for any of Spark’s slow-witted fictional victims. But there are worse crimes than snobbery and Spark saw such crimes during her years in Africa, the details of which she used in some of her short stories. Spark heard white colonials boasting about how a little black boy had been shot dead for peeping at a white woman breast-feeding, and she wrote about this killing in a story entitled The Curtain Blown by the Breeze. Another violent death provided the basis for yet another short story: by an enormous coincidence, Spark’s old school acquaintance Nita, who bore more than a passing physical resemblance to Spark, had also relocated to Africa and Spark met up with her there, shortly before Nita was shot dead by her husband. In Bang-Bang You’re Dead, Spark writes about two women, Desirée and Sybil, who look very much alike – so much so that Desirée is shot dead in place of Sybil, the intended victim.


Spark used autobiographical material in her writing, as do most authors: it makes sense, of course, to write about what you know. Stannard has conscientiously documented the points at which Spark’s life meets Spark’s fiction, and although the biography weighs in at 536 pages, it remains readable throughout. Having said that, I have to admit that at one point I did tweet ‘If I had 1p for every time I’ve read the words ‘Muriel was irritated’ in Stannard’s Spark biography, I’d have enough £ to pay my PhD fees’.



Campbell, J., 2009. Timorous Beasties. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 11 September 2012].

Kermode, F., 2009. Mistress of Disappearances. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 24 November 2012].

Massie, A., 1979. Muriel Spark. Edinburgh: Ramsay Head Press.

O’Neill, J., 2010. Killing Her Softly. Atlantic Monthly, September pp. 99-107.

Spark, M., 1992. Curriculum Vitae: Autobiography. London: Constable.

Spark, M., 2002. The Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin.

Spark, M., 2007. The Cahiers Series Number 2: Walking on Air. Lewes: Center for Writers & Translators at the Arts Arena of The American University of Paris and Sylph Editions.

Stanford, D., 1963. Muriel Spark: A Biographical and Critical Study. London: Centaur Press.

Stannard, M., 2009. Muriel Spark: The Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Turner, J., 1992. She Who Can Do No Wrong. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 24 November 2012].


Muriel Spark: Nicholas Garland in The Observer, 31 Jan 1988. The British Cartoon Archive, Accessed 20 Jan 2013.

Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas

I’ve been reading Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics, and one of the suggested exercises was to write your life story as a cookery recipe, which sounded like fun, so I’ve given it a go. One thing I noticed straight away as soon as I started to write was just how many very violent verbs there are in cookery books: batter, smash, grind, pound, and so on. It occurs to me that it would be possible to write an excellent murder scene in the form of a recipe. I might try that next, using the scene in Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye when Mr Druce murders poor Miss Coverdale of the long neck.

Here’s the life-story recipe. I’ve not included everything, because that would be tedious.

Marinated and battered administrator with chips and mushy peas


  • Teenage angst
  • Various qualifications of different sizes
  • Cider
  • Work experience in varying degrees of awfulness
  • Several useless boyfriends
  • Two husbands
  • Sedatives
  • Counselling in measured amounts
  • A fistful of lovely friends
  • Chips
  • Mushy peas
  • Wine



Take a pear-shaped casserole dish and line with plenty of teenage angst. Turn the heat right up until the dish is red-hot, then add some of the smaller qualifications and mix well. Transfer to a university and soak in cider for three years. Spoon in another, larger qualification, turn the heat down and simmer in a solution of tepid retail experience until tender but not quite on the point of collapse. Toss into a large library then dunk in a publishing house. Sprinkle in a useless boyfriend along with another of the smaller qualifications and let the mixture bubble and froth until boiling point is reached. Pour into a marmite and remove to France. Let the mixture stand for a year, by the end of which time it will be coated in fat. At this point, return the mixture to the UK.

Batter with another useless boyfriend and then leave to stew in teaching for eight years, or until thoroughly browned off. During this stage of preparation, add the first husband. Stir until dissolved then remove the empty shell.

The mixture will now be very pale and flat, so keep adding sedatives and measured amounts of counselling until it begins to rise. Sweeten with lovely friends and allow to settle. After a month or two, warm the mixture in university administration. Drain and drop in the second husband. After three years, scrape away the remains of the husband’s parrot.

Season to taste. Serve with chips, mushy peas and as much wine as you can get down your neck without being hospitalised.