I know this will never be a real book that business men in trains will read, the kind of business men that wear stiff hats with curly brims and little breathing holes let in the side. So Phyllis and Nigel hadn't been discussing whether the novel should have more dialogue in it. They hadn't been discussing the novel at all, and they had no significance apart from offering Sophia a chance to regret that her account of her life would never be good enough for business men to read (though I think she is mistaken about the quality of business men's reading choices (and why would she want to be read by businessmen in the first place?)). . One of the things I love about Barbara Comyns' books is the way the titles are like stories in themselves. But perhaps the book that best demonstrates the notion of a story encapsulated in the words of a title is Our Spoons came from Woolworths, especially as it is set in London in the late 1920s when most people, rich or poor, owned cutlery that had been passed on from parents to their children and so had no need to buy any. The word 'Our' told me of a family unit; 'spoons' being mentioned rather than 'cutlery' made me think of a young and naive narrator; the reference to 'Woolworths', a dime store recently imported from the US, implied very reduced circumstances. And there you have it: this book is indeed the story of a very naive young couple, cut off from family and living in dire poverty.
Social surrealism -- and as with Comyns' best works, things can get nonchalantly weird and horrific, blindsiding the reader and then going on as if nothing much had happened. And through those details, those structural rhythms, Comyns has a kind of social purpose.
I love these Virago Modern Classic books. From a note by the author on the title page: "The only things true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty ".
When Sophia talks about what happens to her as she goes into labour, we realise (as readers in the 21st century), the deplorable state of affairs of maternity wards in the 1930s. She is not only treated with rudeness and an uncaring attitude but she is forced to carry her suitcase from one ward room to another whilst in the early stages of labour. As a reader I couldn't help enjoy Sophia's take on life, especially her sojourn in the country, and applaud Comyns for her originality.
Sophia and Charles marry in haste and live a chaotic and ungrounded life. The novel touches on a variety of themes including marriage and love, happiness and fulfilment.
Published in 1950, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is told in the first person by Sophia Fairclough, who meets and marries Charles in the beginning of the book. Charles is an artist, with firmly middle class roots; Sophia is parentless, with a couple of rather uncaring siblings. This is infuriating, because it literally never seems to occur to anyone that a man should not allow his wife and child to starve, especially during a time period which does not allow pregnant women/young mothers of Sophia's class to work. Her marriage is a disaster, her husband is a loser, and their extended family is completely blind to the poverty and hunger that she suffers. She has started a new job and has to walk to work because there is no money in the house. "I was ashamed of myself, too, but felt too tired to apologize, so just went to bed and wished I was dead." It took me some significant contemplation yesterday to figure out why I had such an emotional response to this book, and it was only after I admitted to myself that I felt a strong sympathy for Sophia based upon a bit of my personal history that it made sense. When I was 21, I married my own Charles - a man who was just fine with living off of me while he attended (and ultimately failed to graduate from) law school, as I worked full-time and went to college to support us. My husband was, originally, supposed to move with me, but he had mucked up his final year in law school badly and had to complete an additional term, so I went alone. My entire financial house of cards was built on getting a little bit of money from my husband, a couple of hundred dollars a month, who hadn't worked during our entire marriage, but who was able to work because he only had a couple of classes to finish that term. But reading this book brought it all back - the rage, the helplessness, the sense of confusion, the reality that no one knew that I was married to a child and I was suffering. It was very frustrating to read, and, although Sophia does get a happy ending, Charles did not get run over by an omnibus, nor did he artistically starve to death, which were the two proper endings for him.
There is a happy ending and a second chance at love, but the emotional heft comes in the painful disintegration of Sophia's first marriage. What's special about this book (written in 1950) is that Comyns relates all the truly awful things that happen to the naive heroine with a Brief Encounter style of dry detachment that can, on the one hand, be very amusing - I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said I wont have any babies very hard, they most likely wouldnt come.
On the copyright page of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the italicized comment "The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty." Despite the disclaimer I suspect many dimensions of this novel are autobiographical. It's told in Sophia's voice made infectiously innocent by Comyns.
Like I read in an introduction to my copy it was an account of a marriage dismantled by poverty. Like I wrote earlier, Sophia's innocence took all that sadness at a new level. Sophia's voice was like a song of a little bird in a cage.
With her second husband she lived in Spain for eighteen years.