Novel Readings

“A Real Book”: Barbara Comyns, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

This book does not seem to be growing very large although I have got to Chapter Nine. I think this is partly because there isn’t any conversation. I could just fill pages like this:

‘I am sure it is true,’ said Phyllida.

‘I cannot agree with you,’ answered Norman.

‘Oh, but I know I am right,’ she replied.

‘I beg to differ,’ said Norman sternly.

This is the kind of stuff that appears in real people’s books. 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. I wish I knew more about words. Also I wish so much I had learnt my lessons at school. I never did, and have found this such a disadvantage ever since. All the same, I am going on writing this book even if business men scorn it.

It is very tempting to fit Barbara Comyns’s strange, sad novel of Bohemian poverty and domestic distress into the ongoing literary sparring match between Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner. Just as I was settling in to write this post, for instance, I followed a link from Weiner’s twitter feed to Christian Lorentzen’s New York Magazine review of Franzen’s Purity in which he calls Weiner a “best-selling but subliterary novelist.” If he meant to say Weiner does not write what is commonly (if, for some, controversially) called “literary fiction,” he’s probably right. If he meant that her novels are not “great literature,” he’s probably right about that too. But the term “subliterary” is not just hierarchical, it’s deliberately confrontational: Weiner’s novels are below literature, less than literature, beneath (it surely follows) serious consideration, or certainly the serious consideration that (love him or hate him) Franzen inevitably gets. Weiner’s novels are not “real books”; they are the kind “business men” scorn. (The implications for the readers who have made Weiner a bestseller are no more complimentary.)

All the same, Weiner keeps on writing her books, just as the narrator of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths keeps on writing hers. Both, it seems, have their own bookish mission that doesn’t depend on the approval of men in hats. Does that mean that they both write “women’s fiction“? Is that fiction for women or fiction about  women, or some third thing — perhaps, fiction that feels a certain way, or faces in a certain direction — or is the category an artificial imposition, not a real thing at all, though the label persists — and has its side-effects, many of them undesirable?

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths has many of the qualities often (usually pejoratively) assumed to define women’s fiction: it is undemanding in both scope and style, focused on the domestic and romantic life of its protagonist, Sophia. “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried,” is its unexpected and enticing beginning; that story turns out to be the story of Sophia’s unhappy, impoverished marriage to Charles, a dedicated but unsuccessful painter. The novel follows her through three pregnancies, an affair, a divorce, and an eventually happy remarriage. But if one supposedly defining quality of women’s fiction is a feel-good sentimentality, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths rather confounds expectations. It’s not that the novel is consistently grim or tragic, but the private life it depicts is — uncomfortable, is the best word I can think of.

“Frank” is another word that fits well. I was surprised, for instance, at how bluntly Comyns described the misery of Sophia’s first labor and delivery:

Two nurses came and examined me. I heard one say it would be about two hours before the baby came. Two more hours seemed an awful long time. The pains got much worse again, and I tried saying ‘Lord Marmion’, but they told me to be quiet. I longed to cry out, but knew they would be angry, so bit my hands. There are still the scars on them now. My hands seemed to smell of Grapenuts and I remembered a white dog we used to have when we were children and she kept having puppies all the time — I felt very sorry for her now. They gave me a bowl to be sick in and I managed not to get any on the bed, but without any warning the wicked castor oil acted and I was completely disgraced. The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape, but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.

At least this unpleasantness has a happy ending, but Sophia’s second pregnancy turns into a much sadder tale, as Charles says “he wouldn’t give up his painting for beastly babies” and pressures her into having an abortion:

I don’t feel much like writing about the actual operation. It was horrible, and did not work at all as it should. I couldn’t go to hospital, because we would all have gone to prison if I had. Even the doctor did his best to help me recover, although he was scared stiff to come near me when he saw it had all gone wrong, but 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.

If Charles were an unappreciated genius, his absolute refusal to put his painting anything but first would be, if not forgivable, at least interesting: what price genius, in a prosaic world of bills and nappies? But we never get any hint that Charles excels at anything except being selfish, so when Sophia gets involved with the “tall, dark, sinister” art critic Peregrine Narrow, it seems a pretty reasonable move: for one thing, Peregrine “listened most intently to every word I said, as if it was very precious,” which is certainly an attractive quality.The first time they make love, Sophia “felt quite bewildered” by the experience of pleasure: “I had had one and a half children, but had been a kind of virgin all the time.”

Things don’t work out with Peregrine, but they also don’t work out with Charles, who eventually abandons his family entirely. “I am very fond of you,” he tells Sophia,

but I loath this domestic life. The children are quite beautiful, but they don’t mean a thing to me. I don’t feel like a father and have never wanted to be one. I may be inhuman and selfish, but I must be, life is so short, and the young part of our lives is going so quickly. I must be free to enjoy it and not be weighted down by all these responsibilities.

Sophia astutely diagnosis him with “a kind of Peter Pan complex,” but it’s no practical use understanding his skewed perceptions: she’s still on her own. A particularly sad sequence follows that culminates in the death of her little daughter from scarlet fever. Then things take a turn for the better, though it takes Sophia a while (understandably) to care. The quiet domestic happiness she finds at the end of the novel hardly feels triumphant after the poverty and suffering that has gone before, but the ending nicely conveys the bittersweet pleasure of being happy after being sad: “It was a waste to talk about such distressing subjects on a lovely spring afternoon,” Sophia thinks when her friend Helen asks to know her story — but she answers, and, as she says, bringing us neatly back to where we began, “that is really how I came to write this story.”

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is not a very interesting book stylistically: there’s nothing showy or elegant or poetic or complex about its sentences, which follow one another with a kind of journalistic inevitability: this happened, then this, then this, then this. For me, the interest of its writing lay in its tone, which seemed flat, almost affectless, except for the occasional drift into a kind of wry humor, as when Sophia’s description of Peregrine’s rapt attention doubles back to undo the compliment she initially took it as:

This had never happened to me before, and gave me great confidence in myself, but now I know from experience a lot of men listen like that, and it doesn’t mean a thing; they are most likely thinking up a new way of getting out of paying their income-tax.

I don’t think Sophia is sly or unreliable, but she often gives the sense that there is more to her story than she is telling us — emotionally, not literally. I think that’s because of her retrospective narration. As she tells as at the outset, after all, she’s happy now: “I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try and keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.” Though she’s recalling her unhappy past, she’s also, paradoxically, repressing it, minimizing her feelings about it. The overall effect is unstable or uneasy, then, rather than unreliable. The elements of the book that are most concrete are the material ones: it is extremely specific about, for instance, how far a pound or two does or doesn’t go when you’re trying to house, clothe, and feed a family of three or four. Sophia herself only becomes really distinct as a character at the end of the book. She works as an artist’s model for most of it, which aptly reflects the insignificance of her own perspective and agency in directing her life. Near the end of the novel, she finally looks intently at herself in a mirror. “I looked almost beautiful,” she says, and somehow it seems about time.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is definitely a novel about a woman, then, and about the physical and psychological experience of being a woman. There’s no reason that should be a particularly comfortable kind of fiction (if anything, as history teaches us, it hasn’t usually been a comfortable — or comforting — experience at all) — but if that’s what the label “women’s fiction” means to most people, it definitely doesn’t apply in this case. I kind of think it should apply, though, if only to destabilize the marketing category. The downside would be that if we called it that, men in hats might not read it. They should, though: it’s a real book, though a strange one, and what’s fiction for, if not to be at least sometimes estranging?