Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

Another of my reads for the Classics Club, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is narrated by Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles Fairclough. In writing this book, the British-born author Barbara Comyns has drawn heavily on her own life experience – it is, by all accounts, a lightly fictionalised version of her first marriage, a relationship characterised by tensions over money worries and various infidelities on her husband’s part. Although it took me a couple of chapters to fall into line with Sophia’s unassuming conversational style, I really warmed to her character, particularly as the true horror of her story became apparent. This is a wonderful book, by turns humorous, sad, shocking and heartwarming.

When young Sophia meets fellow artist, Charles, on a train, she soon falls for him against the backdrop of a glorious English summer. In spite of opposition from virtually everyone in Charles’s family, the couple marry very quickly and find a flat in North London which they furnish with secondhand pieces, all painted a beautiful duck-egg green. Their lifestyle is rather bohemian to say the least.

Right from the start, money is in very short supply. While Sophia has a regular job at a commercial studio, Charles considers himself to be a more ‘serious’ artist, reliant on the occasional commission or ad-hoc sale for income. In reality, he contributes next to nothing to the household finances – and when he does, it is quickly frittered away on luxuries such as paint, new brushes and restaurant dinners. For all her charms and initial optimism about married life, Sophia is rather naïve, and the first half of the novel is peppered with humorous moments as she tries to get to grips with marriage and running the house as well as being the main breadwinner in the family. Impractical advice from various members of Charles’s interfering family does little to help matters, especially when it’s delivered in a rather condescending fashion – here’s a typical example.

Although most of Charles’s relations came from Wiltshire they used to come to London very frequently. They all talked and asked questions about our financial position and took the line of “I hope you are looking after dear Charles properly”, or “What a lucky girl you are to have married into our family.” In those days I was too timid to say much, but I used to resent it all the more and sometimes, after they left, I would be nervy and resentful with Charles. Also they would keep suggesting impractical ways we could earn extra money. They sent cuttings from the Daily Mail about how I could make sweets or gloves at home and make a fortune, or complicated rackets for Charles to sell note-cases to our friends on commission. As none of our friends had any notes, he wouldn’t have done very well from it. (pp. 20-21)

Things take a distinct turn for the worse when Sophia finally discovers she is expecting a baby (cue some amusing scenes as she wonders why she has been feeling poorly all the time). Charles is pretty horrified by the prospect of becoming a father, and Sophia herself has no real understanding of the practicalities of motherhood. In short, they are both completely unprepared for what lies ahead. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feel for Sophia when I read the following passage.

Before I married Charles I used to hope I would have masses of children. I thought it would be nice always to have at least one baby and quite a number of older children all developing in their individual ways, but before we were married Charles told me he never wanted to have any children, and I saw they would not fit in with the kind of life we would lead, so I just hoped none would come to such unsuitable parents—anyway, not for years. 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, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong. (p. 26)

When Sophia informs her boss that she is pregnant, he responds by telling her she might as well leave at the next holiday. We are in the early 1930s here, many years before the introduction of maternity pay and employment protection for expectant mothers. With Sophia out of a job and Charles swanning about all day nurturing his artistic tendencies, the couple’s prospects are very poor indeed.

Much to Charles’s dismay, Sophia has a little boy which they name Sandro. He is a fragile little thing, very quiet and gentle and almost certainly malnourished. In spite of all this, Charles doesn’t warm to the child. Not for the first time, Comyns pulled me up short with one of Sophia’s revelations about life with her husband with all his blatant insensitivity.

Charles still disliked him [Sandro], 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. (p. 64)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the plot. It might spoil things, I think. Suffice it to say that the situation gradually deteriorates over the course of the next couple of years. While there are occasional periods of brightness – an inheritance from Sophia’s aunt and the occasional commission for Charles provide brief respites from poverty – they are sporadic and relatively short-lived.  All too soon Sophia finds herself desperately scrabbling around for money again, a situation which leads to the re-emergence of tensions in the marriage. She is forced to find another job to support the family as Charles won’t (or can’t) hack it in a commercial studio. As the story moves towards a somewhat inevitable crisis point, the mood darkens considerably, and the humour that characterises the first half of the novel gradually falls away. In this scene, Sophia reflects on her first day back at work as a commercial artist. Once again, Charles’s selfishness is all too apparent…

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. (pp. 100-101)

Hooray for Sophia! I think I would have sideswiped him with that chair, too.

This is an excellent novel, one that I enjoyed a lot more than I had expected to. For some reason, I had got it into my head that Comyns would be too left-field or eclectic for my tastes. How wrong could I be! I found Sophia a rather endearing narrator – yes, she is gullible and naïve, but she is also sympathetic and good-natured at heart. I couldn’t help but warm to her matter-of-fact, childlike narrative, a style that makes her revelations all the more shocking and impactful when they come, like little bolts out of the blue.

One of the things I like most about this novel is the way Comyns weaves various points of social commentary into Sophia’s story, all grounded in personal experience no doubt. There are some truly shocking and degrading scenes depicting Sophia’s treatment in the maternity wards following her admission to give birth. Several of the nurses are cruel and insensitive to her condition, and she is forced to carry her own suitcase from one room to another during a seemingly endless sequence of transfers through the hospital. The lack of proper care doesn’t end there either; this next passage highlights the lack of support and information available to young mothers following the birth.

We had no money at all and the milkman wouldn’t leave any milk because we hadn’t given him any money lately. He was quite nice about it and said we could have some free milk every day if we applied to the council. Mothers with new babies were allowed one pint a day if they had no money. The council went up in my estimation when I heard about this. Up till now I had thought it was almost a criminal offence to have a baby. All the same I did not apply for the free milk, because I was afraid they would take the baby away and put it in a home on the grounds of its parents having no visible means of support. (p. 65)

I’ve probably made this novel sound terribly grim, but it isn’t at all. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments here, especially in the first half of the book. More importantly, perhaps, we know from the opening page that there is some light at the end of the tunnel for Sophia. By the end of the novel, she is in a happier place having learnt some important lessons along the way. I guess that’s as much as any of us can hope for in life.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy.

49 thoughts on “Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

  1. Tredynas Days

    Her style is idiosyncratic but endearing. I started with this one followed by Sisters by a River – also very funny & dark. About to post on The Vet’s daughter- by now the quirkiness is becoming a bit limiting- but she’s an extraordinary writer

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, idiosyncratic is a great way of putting it. I really warmed to this – much to my surprise as I didn’t get very far at all with The Vet’s Daughter when I tried it last year! It just seemed too off-beat or left-field for my tastes. Maybe I need to try it again at some point.

      Reply
      1. Tredynas Days

        Yes, I think Vet’s Daughter is not the best place to start. It still has that bizarre blend of gothic monstrosity (she clearly had a terrible set of parents, if their fictional counterparts are accurate) and whimsical naivety: this can become a bit repetitive after two novels in similar mode. But I still think she’s engaging and entertaining, if, as you say, left-field. Apparently her patchy education as a child is responsible for that ingenuous narrative voice and approach, the childlike idioms and vocabulary. I’m not so sure: she seems to know exactly what she’s doing.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, there is something deeply unsettling about those gothic horror elements when they are related by a young child – the matter-of-fact narrative voice makes them sound all the more frightening and bizarre. I completely agree that Comyns seems to know exactly what she’s doing with her writing. There is a tendency for the childlike voice to lull the reader into a false sense of security – but then she suddenly hits you with the most shocking revelation of cruelty or maltreatment. It’s a very effective technique

          Reply
  2. Poppy Peacock

    I have had this on my TBR for a good few years but kept putting it off I think because I had an idea it was grim reading… while it certainly seems to have its moments your review has reassured me there is a good balance and I am now intrigued, both by the narrator’s perspective and the social commentary. May be a while before I get to it as all books still in boxes but I’ll be looking out for it when I eventually unpack.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have to admit to going into this book with a less-than-positive mindset, but as I said in my review, I was very pleasantly surprised! Sophia’s story does have its sad and shocking moments, but the humour balances these at least to a certain extent. Plus, we know from the start that Sophia gets through it all in the end, so that makes a difference too. I think you will really enjoy this one, Poppy – don’t leave it too long to dig it out!

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    I read this fairly recently and loved it too :-) It’s the only Comyns I’ve read, but I think she is a bit more left-field in her other novels. I definitely want to read more fro her. I remember thinking this novel was the most compelling argument for the vital need for a welfare state!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think you’re right in saying that her others are more ‘out there’ than Spoons, certainly judging on my brief dalliance with The Vet’s Daughter last year (I didn’t get very far with it the end). Good point about this being one of the most compelling arguments for a welfare state! The hospital scenes are truly shocking, aren’t they? Like being in trapped in some terrible Kafkaesque nightmare…what a horror.

      Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always Jacqui.

    It is ironic that bad relationships can make for some very good fiction.

    Charles sounds like frustrating character. Unfortunately he sounds like a realistic character.

    I can see how a story like this can be both grim and funny.

    Reply
  5. Anneontheshelf

    Thanks for this. I read this eight or nine years ago so it has jogged some literary memories ! Agree about the grim tale being lightened with humour. If only births were controlled by wishing!!! If I still had my copy I would reread but given the length of my TBR it’s probably a good thing it went off to Oxfam. Great review as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, if only! I’m glad my review jogged a few happy memories for you. I think Sophia and her story will stay with me for quite a while…

      Reply
  6. Max Cairnduff

    Wonderful title isn’t it? I read Simon’s review of this with interest also. I wonder if knowing from the outset that things do later improve is necessary to avoid it being too grim? Without that knowledge it sounds like some of the later sections might be hard to manage, credible and convincing as they are (or because they’re credible and convincing).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the title’s absolutely brilliant. It’s actually a line from the opening chapter of the book. Here’s Sophia on setting up home with Charles:

      “We had white walls in the kitchen, and Charles painted a chef by the gas cooker. The thing we were most pleased about was the dresser; there were drawers for our clothes and shelves for the china. 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 jeweller we went to wouldn’t, so our spoons came from Woolworths, too.”

      I loved going to Woolworths as a child, especially the pick ‘n’ mix section…those were the days, eh?

      I think you’re right about needing to know from the start that Sophia is going to get through this, otherwise it would be really hard to take. Much of what she has to put up with from Charles, his relatives and the broader society of the day is pretty shocking. It’s a great book, definitely worth considering – I think you’d get a lot out of it.

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    This is the only Barbara Comyns I have read so far. I enjoyed the unusual quirky voice. I do have two or three others tbr which I must get around to. I think I need to be in the right frame of mind for writers who are a bit left field – but I did enjoy Our Spoons came from Woolworths.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know exactly what you mean about needing to be in the right frame of mind for something like this as the style is a little unusual. I think that’s why it took me a few chapters to fall in line with Sophia’s voice, but luckily I really warmed to her innocence and naivete.

      Reply
  8. BookerTalk

    Does this qualify as the most unusual book title I have seen yet this year? Reading all those extracts about the attitudes towards her by her employer and the health service make me greatful I was not living in the 1930s. Not sure how I could have coped

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it must have been pretty dire back then. It made me wonder how much had changed by the time my mother was Sophia’s age – a little, I suspect, but nowhere near enough.

      Reply
  9. Jonathan

    The only Comyns I’ve read is The Vet’s Daughter, which I enjoyed. ‘Spoons’ was going to be my next one by her; I saw a copy in my local library the other day and now with your review I think I’m being nudged towards reading it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. There’s a pretty good chance you’ll enjoy this one especially given the fact that you’re already attuned to the author’s rather unusual style, that tendency to blindside the reader when they’re least expecting it. I need to try again with The Vet’s Daughter, but your fondness for it certainly gives me some encouragement!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely worth making time for this one, Guy. I’ll be interested to see how you get on with Comyns. (Have you read any of her others by any chance?) The only element I wasn’t entirely convinced by here was the ending, which I found a little contrived. Without wishing to give too much away, I suspect you might have sone quibbles with it too. A minor point in the scheme of things as the rest of the book was excellent and very convincing.

      Reply
  10. Lady Fancifull

    I do remember reading this some years ago, lured by the wonderful title,. I can remember very little about it, but, reading the title gave me a feeling of pleasure, so I suspect I enjoyed it, and think I must go and find out by re-reading. Not on my shelves, I suspect a library borrow, from back in the day when my library had better books than they do now (an ongoing gripe)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, it’s funny how certain titles can draw us in. I must admit that the title captured my interest too, possibly on account of a fondness for Woolworths that harks back to my childhood years. It’s definitely worth a re-read if the mood takes you. I really fell for Sophia’s rather matter-of-fact way of putting things, more so than I had expected to before I got going with the book.

      Reply
  11. TJ @ MyBookStrings

    I have her Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead on my shelf, which was an impulse purchase because of the title. I am not sure why I haven’t actually read it yet. I found your excerpts quite funny (especially the part about the chair), so I think I could deal with the grim aspect with no problem.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a compelling title! I’d never even heard of it before you mentioned it, but I shall have to look it up. The balance between light and dark works really well here. It’s a tricky thing to pull off effectively, but Comyns manages it brilliantly.

      Reply
  12. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. The only Comyns I’ve read is Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead which I thought was wonderful. I want to read this, but I’m so afraid I’ll find it sad and it will make me angry with Charles and the rest of the world!!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. TJ just mentioned that one in her comment above – she bought it on the strength of the title alone which I can well imagine. Glad to hear you enjoyed it so much, that definitely bodes well. Yes, there’s always the danger that you would get frustrated with the way Sophia is treated in the one, but it’s a risk worth taking. :)

      Reply
  13. Caroline

    I’ve heard a lot of good things about this novel and you describe it a lot like the other reviewers did. I would have picked it up earlier but I’m a bit scared. Apparently in another novel there’s a lot of cruletly against animals and, according to one reviewer, there are some instances in this one too. It’s something that drags me down too much, so if it’s true, I’ll have to stay away. Although, it’s too bad, as it does sound good.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I totally understand where you’re coming from on this, as it would give me pause too. Unless I managed to miss it completely, I don’t recall any scenes of animal cruelty in Spoons. It’s almost certainly there in The Vet’s Daughter — which I started last year but abandoned fairly quickly as I wasn’t in the right mood for it at the time — but not this one. At least, I don’t remember anything of that nature…I’m usually fairly sensitive to that type of thing.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Maybe. Nevertheless, I can understand if you don’t like the idea of reading anything by this author given the nature of some of her other work. It’s a sensitive subject.

          Reply
  14. Sarah

    This keeps cropping up on my radar – it really does look good. I think this will be one of the first books I seek out after my book ban ends!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good plan – it does seem to be a favourite among bookish types! Even though I’d already had a false start with Comyns, I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. I wasn’t expecting to like it nearly as much as I did.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just. Yes, you’re right about the tone. Sophia’s very matter-of-fact tone makes it all the more heartbreaking. It pains me to think that much of this book is based on Comyns’ own experience of marriage…

      Reply
  15. Resh Susan @ The Book Satchel

    This is a book on my TBR. I have not got myself a copy yet. But I think it is worth the read. I found it amusing that we have not progressed much from the 1930s. A friend’s friend recently got fired from a job because of getting pregnant. It is really sad that even though we have all the necessary rules to protect women at work places, some institutions find loopholes to get their way without getting questioned.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m really sorry to hear about your friend’s friend. As you say, it’s a terrible state of affairs in today’s day and age, especially when there is legislation in place to protect the rights of employees in this position. I hope she finds a way through it all.

      As for the book, it’s definitely worth reading. I can totally see why it has become a popular choice for the Classics Club.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like it, Grant. There’s no Barbara Pym cuddliness here, far from it!

      Yes, I think all this reading of novels from the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s has enhanced the experience by giving me a better understanding of what it was like for women like Sophia and some of her contemporaries. In some ways, life seemed a lot simpler back then, less hectic and pressurised. But then again, in other respects it was much harder as evidenced by many of the scenes in this novel.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: Blogbummel April/Mai 2017 – buchpost

  17. Emma

    I’ve never heard of this writer, so thanks for the introduction.
    Poor Sophia. I think I’d want to hit Charles too if I had a husband like this. :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. I think I discovered her when I was looking around for suitable titles to add to my list for the Classics Club. Her name kept coming up again and again, especially across the blogosphere and Twitter. This book in particular seems to be a favourite.

      As for Charles, I think he had it coming!

      Reply
  18. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Comyns handles the social commentary aspect very well as it never feels preachy or over the top. It’s just a natural (and rather distressing) part of Sophia’s story. That quote is priceless, isn’t it? Her naivete is by turns both touching and heartbreaking…

      Reply
  19. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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