Until I received Our Spoons Came from Woolworths for this review, I had never heard of, let alone read, Barbara Comyns. Her writing was so unexpectedly intriguing that I immediately read her next two novels. These works were originally published in the 1950s, reissued in the 1980s, and are now living a third life, with The Dorothy Project publishing her third novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in 2010, NYRB Classics reissuing Comyns’s most famous work, her fourth novel The Vet’s Daughter in 2003, and now new editions of Woolworths and The Juniper Tree this year and next, also from NYRB Classics.
Certain elements of Comyns’s characters’ speech and actions may seem dated, and her depictions of medical and social practice do belong to a visibly earlier era, but her capturing of youth is so fresh and accurate that nothing is lost in the passing of decades. There is a modern sensibility at play in her women and their experiences, their attitudes and reactions towards love and sex, marriage and having children, as well as her writing of the rapid maturation of youth. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a testament to how your youth stays with you—what you remember, how you experienced time in the moment and conceive of it now. We see it in how the story’s protagonist, Sophia, conjures up those years of her early twenties from the vantage point of nearing thirty, where there is already a great distance from her twenty-one year old self.
I was further drawn to her the more I read. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead is bizarre and dark in a manner quite different from Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—even banned in Ireland for reasons never made entirely clear, but one imagines the grotesque descriptions of animal and human death by flood and infection had something to do with it. It follows the Willoweed family in their small English village (based on where the author herself was raised) as first they face flood then mysterious murderous madness that possesses and kills dozens of the townsfolk. While we hop between the lives of various characters within and without the family, the heart of the novel for me was the figure of the elder Willoweed daughter, Emma. Amidst mysterious, gross death and cruel, self-obsessed adults, her discovery of love is poignant, naïve and true all at once: “I didn’t know being in love made you laugh. I thought it would make me feel rather solemn, kind of holy. But perhaps that will come after.”
The Vet’s Daughter, a quietly startling novel about a young woman named Alice who suffers greatly at the hands of her father, yet out of this suffering she discovers she can levitate, is Comyns’s most famous work. There is a slight hint of the macabre in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—a ghost is spotted for a brief moment—and here it comes to delicate fruition. After Alice’s mother dies she is sexually assaulted by an acquaintance of her father’s new mistress. The night following the attack she experiences her first unearthly sleep:
In the night I was awake and floating . . . I could feel nothing below me—and nothing above until I came near the ceiling and it was hard to breathe there. I thought, ‘I mustn’t break the gas globe.’ . . . I kept very still up there because I was afraid of breaking other things in that small crowded room; but quite soon, it seemed, I was gently coming down again. I folded my hands over my chest and kept very straight, and floated down to the couch where I’d been lying. I was not afraid, but very calm and peaceful.
Alice’s fate is cruelly determined by her father, and unlike the women in Comyns’s earlier work, her story ends in a tragic and bizarre demise. Still, in her introduction to the 2003 edition, Kathryn Davis insisted, “But for all the exceptional terror of Alice’s position, what her voice and Comyns’s have in common is an authority of address, a powerful and almost spellbound quality that is unique to Barbara Comyns’s fiction.”
This unique quality and authority of voice is already present in her second novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, now coming back into print from NYRB Classics sixty-five years after its first publication. Comyns’s skill is subtle and surprising as she tells the tale of Sophia, a young woman facing down one emotional (and physical) endurance test after another. On the copyright page Comyns has a note that I didn’t notice until after I had read the novel: “The only things that are true in the story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.” The frank bleakness of Comyns’s note almost made me laugh, even as it heightened the tragedy of Sophia’s story all the more.
Sophia meets Charles when they are both twenty, young artists in post-WWI London. Within a year, they have fallen in love and married. What could have been an idyllic, bohemian existence, however, is abruptly curtailed as Sophia quickly becomes pregnant, and Charles’s dismay comes to weigh on the couple.
Perhaps this is a conventional setup for a novel, but Comyns resists the easy formula of a tale of young love and hopes dashed in an artistic milieu of charming poverty. Her words seamlessly lead you from a place of simple love and charm to shocking but realistic darkness. From the beginning there is a particular humor that is quite deliberate, to borrow a word from Emily Gould’s introduction to this new edition, that displays a strong wit and certain clear-headed sensibility on Sophia’s part, even as she is still quite innocent and naïve—in a word, young. When worrying about telling Charles she is pregnant with their first child, she muses, “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.” I both laughed and felt a pang in my chest as I witnessed her naïve absurdity and sadly abrupt maturation. The levity of being young and married and artists continues to wear away as Sophia becomes subservient to all of Charles’s needs and wants, and with no adult in her life to guide or support her, she is not only the primary caretaker of their baby Sandro, but also often the only breadwinner.
The heart of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths are the three chapters highlighted in the copyright notice, which describe Sophia’s labor and delivery in a public hospital. The novel was originally published in 1950, and its traumatic, brutally honest description of her nearly two-week hospital stay, is a testament to the historical realities of mid-century medical practice available to the poor. The staff enforces a cruel and seemingly ineffectual cleaning regimen as Sophia goes into labor, and she is so frightened of angering the nurses that she hurts herself: “The pains got much worse again . . . I longed to cry out, but knew they would be angry, so I bit my hands. There are still scars on them now.” (Rereading this line now, I can’t help but wonder about Comyns’s palms.) She is alone in this because Charles is not allowed near and doesn’t want to be there anyway. It is heartbreaking, more so for the simplicity and directness she maintains in her tone: “I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried. Perhaps your husband would be just outside the door in case you felt lonely.” She isn’t even allowed to see or hold her baby son, until the following afternoon. After this whole ordeal, with Charles being sour because it’s a boy and not a girl, she finally returns home to find their tiny flat a mess and reeking of fish, the subject of Charles’s newest painting.
At this point, we see nothing but further disappointment from Charles. Speaking of their son, Sandro, “Charles still disliked him, 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.” At such moments the reader may feel tempted to become frustrated with Sophia for staying with Charles, yet Comyns keeps us on her side.
The rest of the novel is hardly any kinder to its protagonists. Crushing poverty, Charles’s coldness, and, even once their circumstances change for the better for a while, an abortion he forces Sophia to have when she becomes pregnant a second time. “I don’t feel much like writing about the actual operation. It was horrible and did not work at all as it should . . . eventually I became better. But my mind didn’t recover at all. I felt all disgusted and that I had been cheated from having my baby.” Sophia has proven to be a careful chronicler of the hardships she has experienced thus far, and so her confession, “I don’t feel much like writing about the operation,” hints at the greater depths of her pain, at something too deep to revisit. Comyns’s deftness as a writer is on display here; the authority of her prose makes this novel read not as a fictionalized misery memoir, but a way for us as readers to bear witness to the testing and resiliency of youth, Sophia’s in particular. If Sophia’s narrative is sparse in its language, this is because her experiences and sentiments speak for themselves.
Late in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, a bright spot for Sophia comes in the figure of an older man named Peregrine, the only person who seems to genuinely care for her, and so in the wake of the abortion they begin an affair. Sophia has endured much, but she is still young—not yet twenty-three—and her experience with Peregrine is a moment of growing up and sexual awakening, as well as one that reminds us that she spends most of her time alone with Sandro or around young men:
Some time later, when I realized I had been unfaithful, I didn’t feel guilty or sad; I just felt awfully happy I had had this experience, which if I had remained a “good wife” I would have missed, although, of course, I wouldn’t have known what I was missing. I felt quite bewildered. I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin the whole time. I wondered if there were other women like this, but I knew so few women intimately it was difficult to tell.
But this affair leads to an experience that becomes another tragedy, as she gets pregnant a third time, now with Peregrine’s baby. Charles is more receptive to this pregnancy than the previous two, however, and she doesn’t tell him who the father is, especially when he’s so pleased it’s a girl. This time she gives birth in a private room in a nursing home, which is a far more humane and pleasant experience. “Charles came to see me nearly every day. He seemed to quite like this baby and made some drawings of her asleep . . . When I came home I found Charles had had a charwoman to clean the flat and everything was looking delightful.” But they are soon again in dire financial straits, and with Charles staying away from home with increasing frequency, their marriage unravels. Sophia leaves him to go live with Peregrine, but when she discovers he is back living with his wife she sleeps on the streets. Recounting waking up in a hospital with Charles hovering at her bedside and learning her newborn daughter is dead of scarlet fever, she laments “Poor, beautiful little Fanny! Her life had been wasted because of stupidity and poverty.” Their marriage over, she takes Sandro with her and leaves to live with her brother in the country.
Amid the emotional turbulence that drives the novel’s plot, Comyns still pays careful attention to the seemingly mundane and yet very real part of a couple’s life together—in the beginning of the novel, just as they are about to get married and there seems to be a chance Charles’s family will prevent it from happening, she thinks, “I couldn’t help wondering what would happen to all our beautiful furniture.” A brief hundred and fifty pages later, at the end of their wedded life, that beautiful furniture is quickly gotten rid of. As Charles puts Sophia and Sandro in the train to the countryside, “He seemed to take it for granted that we were going to stay there permanently. I think that was why he sold the furniture in such a hurry, to make sure we couldn’t return.”
They don’t return to London for quite some time. Sophia finds work as a cook with a family near her brother, and lives there for three years with Sandro. Not much happens; time compresses and collapses, only slowing down as she meets the man who will become her second husband, Rollo. We immediately sense the difference of their relationship, as she speaks to him about parts of her past and childhood we’ve never heard her mention. This new love signals her return to London, this time in a manner financially secure and emotionally content.
After the mess of an unhappy marriage and even unhappier pregnancies, that things ultimately work out so well for Sophia might, to Comyns’s readers, feel like an ending that’s far too happy, too neat. Yet we have been rooting for Sophia the entire time, and perhaps she does simply deserve an end to her travails in a way that isn’t wholly unbelievable. Another critic felt similarly and she—Ursula Holden—noted in her 1983 introduction to the novel, speaking of Comyns, “I was struck by her sense of fun. In her work she drives her characters round hairpin bends of disaster and mishap but she says ‘I like people to be happy.’” As Comyns’s own life worked out happily after her first disastrous marriage, it isn’t surprising that she might have wanted the same for her protagonist in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and it doesn’t lessen the impact of what comes before. If anything, the contrast underscores the extent of what a person is capable of surviving while keeping a measure of herself, and coming out whole, though changed, at the end. Perhaps the title Comyns selected for her next book, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead would have, despite telling a drastically different tale, worked just as nicely for the one describing Sophia’s life.
The women protagonists in these novels explore variations on a theme, capturing shades of youth and the female experience with a simple honesty. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths also raises questions of what it means to be an artist and the necessity of providing for a family, and the gender politics at play therein. Kathryn Davis wrote in her introduction to The Vet’s Daughter, “To read Barbara Comyns is to feel the exquisite thrill of discovery, as well as the pride of the discoverer.” I felt this thrill and pride, and I expect as her work continues to be reissued this sense of finding a hidden gem will be shared by other readers, startled and attracted by her talent.
Lauren Goldenberg is Deputy Director of the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at The New York Public Library. She's a lifelong New Yorker with stints in Chicago and Paris.