My third read for All Virago/all August and so far I am really enjoying reading my lovely green VMC’s and having the chance to get to grips with authors I know less well, or as in the case of Barbara Comyns – not at all. Like the last book I read – Devoted Ladies by Molly Keane – this novel also seems to divide opinion a bit. I can see why. There is much misery and things do seem relentlessly grim for most of the novel. The blurb on the back cover of my VMC edition promises the reader – “a very happy ending.” I was surprised to see that in the blurb, before I began reading it, it did seem to be a very slight spoiler. However, with so much abject misery around, maybe the reader needs to know things will turn out ok at last. Strangely though, despite the grimness and misery – this isn’t really a depressing book, though there were some pretty dark moments I did actually enjoy it.
The story is told by Sophia, as she relates the story of her marriage to a new friend. In this way the reader knows right away that Sophia will be ok at some stage, and is able to believe in the promise of a happy ending.
Sophia tells her story in a very matter of fact manner; her voice is simple, naïve, at times almost childlike. She is an eccentric narrator, sometimes annoying, I found her rather endearing. At just twenty one she and artist Charles Fairclough decide to marry against Charles’s parent’s advice. Although they have some support from a child hating aunt of Charles.
“She even liked my newts, and sometimes when we went to dinner there I took Great Warty in my pocket; he didn’t mind being carried about, and while I ate dinner I gave him a swim in the water jug. On this visit I had no newts in my pocket…but when Charles told her the plans for our secret marriage that had somehow gone astray, she was most sympathetic and helpful.”
Neither of them has much money, but to begin with they are excited and positive about the future. Sophia has a job, but Charles just paints and sells virtually nothing. After their marriage they are terribly poor. Charles is only really interested in his painting, while Sophia tries her best to become a good wife, to cook and clean and keep their home nice, but she has little experience and is a bit out of her depth. Occasional visits from Charles’s terrifying mother offering advice don’t help much.
“She cleared her throat once or twice, and said something about poor people should eat a lot of herrings, as they were most nutritious, also she had heard poor people eat heaps of sheeps’ heads and she went on to ask if I ever cooked them. I said I would rather be dead than cook or eat a sheep’s head; I’d seen them in butchers’ shops with awful eyes and bits of wool sticking to their skulls. After that helpful hints for the poor were forgotten.”
There is a good deal of humour in this sometimes dark little story, some real laugh out loud moments and Sophia’s naivety is often charming as well as a bit irritating. Her marriage to Charles goes from bad to worse after the birth of their son Sandro, Charles has little interest in the child, and Sophia has to give up work. They meet the art critic Peregrine Narrow at a party, and Sophia who sometimes works as an artist’s model goes to sit for him, they become friends and she is soon having an affair. Poor Sophia is soon to bitterly regret both her hasty marriage and her adultery. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a hasty marriage between two people who are not any good for one another. It describes with horrible straightforwardness, the realities of poverty in bohemian London, hunger, unwanted pregnancies, illness and the feeling of being trapped in a dreadful situation from which there appears to be no escape. The ending when it comes is something of a relief for the reader, although there is no great surprise in it. There is certain predictableness in such an ending, but in this case I didn’t really mind. I wanted Sophia to be alright.