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

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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.

spoons2If 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?

“Definitely Floating”: Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter

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And then in the night it happened again and I was floating, definitely floating. The moonlight was streaming whitely through the window, and I could see the curtains gently flapping in the night wind. I’d left my bed, and except for a sheet, the clothes lay scattered on the floor. I gently floated about the room. Sometimes I went very close to the ceiling, but I wouldn’t touch it in case it made me fall to the ground.

What a strange, and strangely compelling, novel The Vet’s Daughter is! It seems like a grimly realistic story at first, with its details about the sordid life of eponymous Alice, her coarse, brutal father, and her sad mother, doubled up with a pain that only makes her husband despise her the more: “For Christ’s sake, woman, send for a doctor; and, if he can’t put you right, keep out of my sight!” It continues in what seems like a straightforward enough way, with her mother’s decline and death, and then the arrival of Rosa, the wicked would-be stepmother. It’s an unrelentingly dark story with a gothic atmosphere only rendered stranger by the constant presence of the vet’s patients:

At night I was all alone in the house. Although I slept with my head under the bedclothes, I could hear awful creakings on the stairs, and sometimes I thought I could hear whisperings by my bed. I asked Mrs. Churchill if she would stay and keep me company; but she said her husband didn’t like her to be out at night, and she had ‘our Vera’s’ boy staying with her while his mother was in hospital. One night the dogs started barking and yelping and I thought something terrible really had happened. I lay in bed shivering, too afraid to go and see if the house were on fire, or if burglars were creeping through the pantry window. In the morning I found the cage that contained the old cock with the diseased eye had fallen to the ground, and the bird was dead and heavy.

 Things only get stranger, and grimmer, as the novel goes on — and then just when you wonder whether Alice has hit rock bottom, she rises — quite literally — to the top:

In the night I was awake and floating. As I went up, the blankets fell to the floor. 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 glass globe.’ I felt it carefully with my hands, and something very light fell in them, and it was the broken mantle. 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. In the morning I knew it wasn’t a dream because the blankets were still on the floor and I saw the gas mantle was broken and the chalky powder was still on my hands.

It’s possible to move past this moment and assume that, Alice’s own conviction (and the physical evidence) notwithstanding, it was a dream . . . except that it keeps happening: she keeps “floating” above the dreary circumstances that she seems so powerless to change, above the disappointments that follow so bitterly one after another, above the people who fail her or leave her or just don’t love her. Her levitation brings no levity to the novel, though it is darkly comical. For instance, when she asks her one ally, her admirer Henry Peebles, “if it was unusual for people to sometimes rise into the air when they were resting in their beds — particularly in strange beds” he is understandably “very slow in understanding what I meant”; when she decides to show her false lover Nicholas that she “can do things others can’t do” he watches her rise, horrified, and then “in a scared and awful whisper” tells her to “Stop it, stop it, I say!”

Alice can rise above her life but not leave it behind; it seems only fitting that the last indignity she suffers is having her gift used against her, and poetic justice that her final fall should precipitate destruction. The novel has the tautness of a fairy tale and the patness of an allegory. Though it ends up not being a realist novel, though, it’s very specific about Alice’s oppression and her psychic suffering: its critique is perhaps more resonant and devastating because it resorts to fantasy rather than offering restitution or resolution.

The Vet’s Daughter is the first Comyns novel I’ve read and it definitely makes me want to read more (I’ve got Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead in my Virago collection). Her prose is not elaborate or florid but her turns of phrase are remarkably satisfying and often surprising. The very first line of The Vet’s Daughter is actually a good example: “A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else.” Aren’t you immediately curious, both about the man’s business with her and about what she was thinking when he interrupted? I see that the other two novels also have brilliant, irresistible starts: “The ducks swam through the drawing-room window,” begins Who Was Changed, while Our Spoons opens “I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.” The Vet’s Daughter also shows that Comyns can do vivid, tactile description, full of the kinds of little details that make a scene particular, and also scenes full of dramatic action, fear, and pathos — such as the terrible attempted rape, after which Alice — bruised and bleeding, stands in the street and thinks “There is no hope for me — no hope at all.”

The Vet’s Daughter is at once compact and suggestive: it is dense with details that feel meaningful, and meaningfully connected, but whose meaning is not immediately transparent. Why, for instance, is Alice’s father a vet? I don’t mean literally, in terms of the plot, of course: is there something about his meticulous care for animals (his skill as a vet is often mentioned) that helps us understand Alice’s place in the world? Why does Alice call Henry “Blinkers”? What doesn’t he see? How does his mother’s life or death reflect Alice’s situation? What exactly is Nicholas’s role — if he even exists? Does any of it happen the way Alice says it does, in fact? I found myself thinking that it would teach very well: it’s eerie and fast-paced enough to catch students’ attention and puzzling enough to keep it.

The Vet’s Daughter is the latest choice of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. You will find more great posts and discussion of the book at the Slaves of Golconda site!