Barbara Comyns’ novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (first published in 1950) has attracted considerable critical attention recently, much of it a consequence of reissues by various publishing houses of several Comyns novels – notably NYRB Classics in autumn 2015. Because it’s so easy to find online reviews with plot summaries, I’ll simply discuss here some features of the novel that seemed to me so remarkable.
Inevitably I need to say a little about the plot. Sophia is an engagingly bright, ingenuous, unworldly woman of 20 who marries Charles when they are just 21. Most of the novel relates the hellish experiences she undergoes in this marriage to a selfish, probably talentless struggling artist. He insists that he needs his freedom to work on his art: this means Sophia has to do all the paid work and domestic chores. He loftily assumes that this is her sphere and responsibility – an attitude that even today hasn’t entirely disappeared.
Maggie O’Farrell describes this situation perfectly in her introduction to my VMC edition as the ‘erosion of a woman’s spirit through her husband’s vain and casual cruelty’.
It’s not a spoiler to say that Sophia finds happiness in the end after a gruelling sequence of horrible events. The key to the story’s being told at all is given to us in its arresting opening sentence:
I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.
In the final chapter we learn that Helen is a close friend of Sophia’s. The narration takes place eight years after the grinding Dickensian poverty and misogyny Sophia experienced during her first marriage in London. When she’s finally freed from the parasitic Charles she finds true love and a happy marriage. This colours the way she tells the story: it’s a testament of the indomitable young woman’s spirit that enabled her to endure appalling events and emotional abuse: even as she tells, in the final chapter, of her new-found happiness, she fears it won’t last:
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.
It’s much more than a sort of fictitious misery memoir, then; despite all the ordeals that Sophia endures it’s strangely uplifting and often very funny (misery is subverted by lines like ‘even the cat had run away’ when there’s no food for the young family to eat). It’s the mode of narration and the narrative voice that are so interesting. Like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, she’s compelled to tell her story in a bleakly matter-of-fact voice to her incredulous, horrified friend; it’s a kind of therapy, but she keeps the full emotional horror at bay by either ignoring it or minimising it (those flashes of humour in the face of adversity are one such device).
The narrative at first seems charmingly eccentric, humorous and more than a little twee (for example Sophia has a bizarre taste in pets; her favourite is a newt), as the young couple scrape together enough to set up home (hence those cheap spoons); here’s a typical example of her capacity for seemingly inadvertent insight (she’s talking about a man who thinks he can cook):
Men are often like that. They say they can cook and it turns out to be an omelette, scrambled egg or sausages. They never can cook jam or Christmas pudding and proper things like that (I don’t, of course, include chefs when I say this, I mean real men).
The lightly humorous parenthesis is a smokescreen; Sophia in such moments of lucidity is perfectly aware of the gender inequalities that beset her; incapable of fighting them, inexperienced as she is, she makes fun of them instead. It’s a charmingly pointed, poignant weapon.
The tone darkens perceptibly, though, as money runs out and Charles refuses to work gainfully; the Bohemian idyll turns into a nightmare. Sophia’s voice throughout alternates, as her vicissitudes multiply, between a sort of jauntily optimistic cheerfulness and grimly stoical acceptance.
Here resides most of the novel’s power, for me: the reader is required to fill in the unstated social, moral and emotional message. Sophia isn’t lacking in perception as she tells her story: she’s protecting herself from its full traumatic impact. We have to reconstruct this ourselves, and thus feel its force indirectly, in the near-absence of emotionally explicit comment or analysis from Sophia’s point of view – what she does state is obliquely offered, and she’s usually reluctant to judge or lapse into self-pity. Here’s a typical example, indicative of her fatal inexperience, as she relates her response to starting an affair with a married man who appears to care for her:
I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.
Her second baby, a daughter called Fanny, dies of scarlet fever (from which Sophia almost dies also) after they spend a night on the bitterly cold streets, having been turned away by that treacherous lover Peregrine, Fanny’s father. ‘Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty’, muses Sophia. This heartbreaking summary is not innocent or naive: she is perfectly aware of the injustice of her fate, but is powerless to change it. She lacks agency in a patriarchal society – it’s significant that although she’s an artist herself, the only way she can make money is by exploiting her beauty through posing as a model for male artists – whose gaze is usually more sexually than aesthetically inspired. But Comyns is too subtle a writer to hector her reader with feminist polemic; this adds to the novel’s powerful emotional impact.
These brief extracts above give an indication of her extraordinary voice. It’s often somewhat misleadingly described as naïve and simple – there are recurring, dated, gushing colloquialisms, like ‘I was frit’. ‘I wish I knew more about words’, she admits in chapter 9, where she stoically but pointedly remarks that ‘this will never be a real book that businessmen in trains will read’. (Jane Eyre might have said something similarly self-deprecating but mordant.) I agree with Trevor Berrett in his short but perceptive piece in a Nov. 2015 ‘Mookse and Gripes’ review of the NYRB Classics reissue here, when he says: ‘There’s no doubt that the protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths lacks polish and sophistication, but Comyns’ rendering and style — which to me is more like Hemingway than like a child — is complex and darkly psychological.’
It’s tempting, as some reviewers have said, to feel frustrated with this aspect of Sophia: she seems too passive and accepting of all the troubles life (and society) throws at her, too inclined to feel sympathy for the appalling Charles when she is the one suffering – but there is an element of toughness in her:
Charles was getting desperate. I felt dreadfully sorry for him, but angry, too.
She doesn’t seem fully to recognise how guiltless she is, how feckless the men in her life are, and how stacked against her are the social and cultural attitudes towards women in the 30s, where this novel is set. In the Paris Review article (taken from her introduction to the NYRB Classics reissue) here Emily Gould writes about the ‘class and sex limbo’ in which Sophia finds herself, horrifically and frankly portrayed in the three chapters devoted to her labour and childbirth as a charity case in a bleak public pre-NHS hospital – she’s too poor to give birth, as most middle class women would have done in the 1930s, at home, so endures brutal and humiliating treatment from the maternity unit staff. She feels ‘shame, helplessness and terror.’
I don’t think the happy ending is too like a fairytale’s. It’s in keeping with the tone and voice of the narrative, as I’ve tried to show here, that Sophia is shown ultimately as a survivor, and her integrity is justly rewarded. But it’s hard not to feel disgruntled that this has to come in the form of the love of a good – and very wealthy – man.