I appear to be going through a phase currently where I am reading a lot of books I don’t expect to like. It’s getting rather dull, repeating how shocked I am/was to enjoy ‘whatever’ novel. It’s true, but anyone who knows me well enough will know I experience happy surprises on the inside and the whole scale of negative emotion on the outside. (You’ve heard me refer to it as bitchy resting face before, I like to think of it as the natural resting pose of my facial muscles.) So not only am I repeating myself, I’m lying slightly about my outward levels of excitement.
I first heard of this Virago Modern Classic when Maggie O’Farrell spoke about Barbara Comyns at the Daunt Books Festival. When, more recently, Sanne vlogged about a set of Comyns books she bought at The Book People, I decided I needed to get them too. It was £4.99 for three books, how could I say no?!
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is not about spoons, or Woolworths. Actually the title is a delightful expression of poverty our protagonist, Sophia, experiences through the majority of the book.
‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure. Sophia is twenty-one years old, carries a newt — Great Warty — around in her pocket and marries — in haste — a young artist called Charles. Swept into bohemian London of the thirties, Sophia is ill-equipped to cope. Poverty, babies (however much loved) and her husband conspire to torment her. Hoping to add some spice to her life, Sophia takes up with the dismal, ageing art critic, Peregrine, and learns to repent her marriage — and her affair — at leisure. But in this case virtue is more than its own reward, for repentance brings an abrupt end to a life of unpaid bills, unsold pictures and unwashed crockery …’ Synopsis from GoodReads.
Sophia was one of those magical protagonists that feel as if they once existed. She reminded me somewhat of Hadley from The Paris Wife or Mrs Hemingway, both in their marriages to poor artists and their more passive natures. She had an air of floaty-ness about her, a sing-song way of telling her story that emotionally detached from the serious problems she faced.
The best thing about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is the discussion of poverty from the position of a woman. A woman who is poor, must work, find child care for her child, forced to have an abortion and loses a child to scarlet fever. As a novel first published in the 1950s and set in the 1930s, this is a big statement to have been making at the time. A statement that is just as important today. Sophia is not only expected to work to sustain her household – her husband Charles devoted to his art – but to look after her child as well. Charles takes a disliking to their son Sandro, and dislikes having to care for him when he wants to paint. Sophia has an affair with an older man, an art critic, an affair that fizzles out once Sophia becomes pregnant and he loses his mystery and allure. Her affair is a reaction to her stifled home life, rather than love. Abortion, affairs and poverty from the position of a struggling housewife are not what I expected from this 50s novel. I can only compare it to Revolutionary Road, which is such a different novel to this one.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel that hands you something you didn’t realise you needed. It made for wonderful reading.