Tag Archives: Barbara Comyns

My books of the year, 2017 – favourites from a year of reading

As I’ve been off the grid for most of last few months, I didn’t get a chance to post a list of my favourite books from 2017. So, in the spirit of better late than never, here it is. Enjoy!

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Like its predecessor, 2017 turned out to be another strong reading year for me. I read fewer books than usual this time (around 70 books, mostly older/blacklisted titles) but the majority were very good. Once again, it proved very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, so I’ve gone overboard with a top fifteen – that’s two more than the baker’s dozen I usually aim for. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

It’s getting to the point where I need to reserve a permanent spot for Barbara Pym, such is the quality of her writing. This year’s slot goes to Crampton Hodnet, a delightful comedy of manners set in North Oxford in the late 1930s (Some Tame Gazelle came a very close second). What a joy it was to return to this author’s territory, a familiar world of charming curates, mildly ridiculous academics, amorous students and gossipy women. Probably the funniest Pym I’ve read to date.

Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood

A series of six interlinked short stories/sketches inspired by Isherwood’s time in the city during the early 1930s. I really loved this book with its striking cast of characters and wealth of engaging vignettes. As one might expect, the author’s portrayal of a Berlin in flux is truly wonderful, capturing the atmosphere of everything from the seedy underground bars and nightlife to the magnificence and glory of the glamorous side of the city. A most evocative read.

The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

Here’s another author worthy of a permanent place my end-of-year lists, Elizabeth Taylor – I just can’t seem to get enough of her work. The storyline in this book revolves around Flora Quartermaine, a beautiful young woman who seems to have the perfect life. While Flora considers herself to be the very soul of kindness, in reality this is far from the truth, her best intentions often causing more harm than good. A novel full of little insights into various aspects of human behaviour – lovers of character-driven novels should enjoy this one.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

My favourite of the collections of short stories I read in 2017 (Saki’s Improper Stories came a close second). Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness. Once again, this will appeal to lovers of character-driven fiction. A superb set of stories, quite varied in style in spite of the overriding theme.

Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

Set largely in the seedy bars and boarding houses of London’s Earl’s Court, Patrick Hamilton’s 1941 novel Hangover Square centres on the tortured existence of George Harvey Bone, a thirty-four-year-old man who is obsessed with a beautiful yet vindictive young woman named Netta Longdon. It is an utterly brilliant portrait of a man on the edge, perfectly capturing the sudden changes in mood and mindset of a lonely and tormented soul, driven to distraction by the heartless woman he so deeply desires. This might just be my favourite book of the year.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

A beautiful and compelling portrayal of forbidden love, characterised by Wharton’s trademark ability to expose the underhand workings of a repressive world. Set within the upper echelons of New York society in the 1870s, a culture that seems so refined on the surface, and yet so terribly brutal, hypocritical and intolerant underneath once the protective veneer of respectability is stripped away. There is a real sense of depth and subtlety in the characterisation here – classic literature doesn’t get much better than this.

School for Love by Olivia Manning

A highly compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem during the closing stages of the Second World War. It’s a brilliant novel, one that features a most distinctive character quite unlike any other I’ve encountered either in literature or in life itself. In Miss Bohun, Manning has created a fascinating individual, one that is sure to generate strong opinions either way. Is she a manipulative hypocrite, determined to seize any opportunity and exploit it for her own personal gain? Or is she simply deluded, predominately acting on the belief that she is doing the morally upstanding thing in a changing and unstable world? You’ll have to read the book yourself to take a view.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

One of several reads featuring a highly distinctive female narrator – in this case, Sophia, a young woman who is looking back on her unhappy marriage to a rather feckless artist by the name of Charles. 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 heart-warming.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim

Enchanted indeed! What a delightful novel this turned out to be – telling, as it does, the story of four very different English women who come together to rent a medieval castle on the Italian Riviera for the month of April. Without wishing to give away too much about the ending, this utterly charming story has a touch of the fairy tale about it as the lives of these four women are altered in various ways by their time at San Salvatore. A truly magical read, guaranteed to lift the spirits.

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. Several threads and encounters come together to form a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric. A little like a cross between Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and an Elizabeth Taylor novel, this was a wonderful discovery for me.

Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith

This novel was published in 1957, two years after The Talented Mr Ripley with which it shares a focus on the psychological – in other words, the motives that drive certain individuals to behave in very sinister ways. Once again, Highsmith encourages us to side with an outwardly respectable man who secretly harbours psychopathic tendencies. The way she does this is so clever; she knows exactly how her readers will respond to each of her characters, thereby creating a situation where we feel sympathy for a murderer and contempt for the woman who has made his life so difficult. A thoroughly delicious read.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I read this in advance of Halloween, and it proved to be a highly appropriate read for the season – atmospheric, unsettling and at times quite humorous in a darkly comic way. What really sets this book apart from so many others is its highly distinctive style, much of which stems from the curious nature of the narrator’s voice, that of young Merricat Blackwood. A novella with much to say about our suspicions, our prejudices and, perhaps most importantly of all, our treatment of people who seem strange or different from ourselves. The sense of being an outsider – or society’s mistreatment of the outsider – is a prominent theme.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Several of the books in translation I chose to read in 2017 were disappointing, but this one really stood out for the distinctiveness of its central character, Doris. A striking young woman whose voice I found utterly engaging right from the very start, particularly in the way it reflected her complex personality – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of the capital city, Berlin. Another very evocative read for me.

The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate

Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party provides a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. Essentially a tale of ‘upstairs and downstairs’, this is a wonderful ensemble piece with a sting in its tail. Fans of L. P Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy this one.

Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy B. Hughes

Dorothy B. Hughes made my 2016 highlights with her classic noir novel In a Lonely Place, the story of a damaged ex-Air Force pilot named Dix Steele. And here she is again in 2017, this time with the existential noir Ride the Pink Horse. Written in a tough, hardbitten style, Pink Horse is a slow burn tale of pursuit, the tough, streetwise guy who comes looking for a final payoff from his former boss before hightailing it to Mexico and the life he envisages there – only things don’t quite go to plan. It’s probably my favourite of the dozen or so crime novels I read last year.

So there we are – a pretty satisfying year of reading all told.

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.