Monday, 27 February 2012

Our Spoons came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

This was Comyns's second novel, published in 1950, and it appears to be based on the outlines of her life as far as I can gather from Wikipedia and elsewhere.
The Virago edition that I read has an introduction by Ursula Holden which is useful and non-spoiling because it really gives you the impression that the faux-naivete that some characterise her voice as; most of her novels are told in the first person, may not be faux. Sophia protagonist and narrator is an innocent at large essentially good though terminally heedless. Though she knows who is for and who is against her she seems unable to resist their bullying.

Ursala Holden writes:"She was one of a large family, brought up in the country by a river. Her mother led an invalid life and became deaf at an early age which meant that Barbara and the children had to learn sign language. This handicap may well have contributed towards her starting to write as a compensation. The family mixed with few other children. They spent long hours in boats, fishing and playing and were educated mainly by governesses."

When the novel opens, in the 30's she tells us that events of the novel are behind her as she has been explaining to Helen her confidante. She is much happier now and though it is a relief to tell her tale at the same time she half regrets doing so.

I wish I hadn't told Helen so much; it's brought everything back in a vivid flash. I can see Charles's white pointed face, and hear his husky nervous voice. I keep remembering things all the time.

Now she tells us the story that she has just told Helen but with the information that we have that everything turned out all right we will be able to cope with the misadventures of Sophia trying to keep her family from falling into severe destitution during the great depression. The Charles is the 21 year old artist that she has married, the same age as herself. Both their families are appalled. His mother who is a perfect portrait of self absorption regards her as the wrecker of the artistic future of her son but in fact Sophia supports them both with her work in a colouring studio whatever that is. Precise practical details are not given. It's probably colouring photos.

After two months of marriage living in the flat which they decorated themselves:

We redecorated the flat ourselves. Because the room was rather dark we painted the walls a kind of stippled yellow, lots of black hairs from the brush got mixed up with the paint, but they looked as if they were meant to be there almost.

she discovers that she is pregnant, the thinking very hard about not being pregnant not really being a form of birth control as she thought. Charles who shares the monstrous egotism of his family is irritated and in every possible way is no support whatsoever.

This is prior to the National Health Service so a charity hospital maternity case is treated with the casual contempt for the indigent of that era. Much as Esther Waters had to do she must get a reference to attend a hospital when her time comes. She gets this and lets them know at work:

I told my boss I was expecting a baby, and he said I had better leave at Christmas. I did not like to tell him how much we depended on the money I was earning or he would have thought Charles wasn't a good artist, but it was rather a blow to know I was leaving at Christmas. I had hoped they would let me stay till the baby came and perhaps let me come back after and leave it in a pram by the railings while I was working.

Through all of this she remains loyal to Charles modelling for other artists and scraping along. The lying in hospital, such an antique name seems appropriate, is a vile institution. When baby comes along, a boy, what shall it be called. Charles suggests Pablo. Not suitable in the England of the day. Sandro or Augustus then. Eventually she had him registered as Sandro Thomas Hardy Fairclough.

I added Thomas Hardy because he was my favourite author at the time. I was not sure if Charles expected Botticelli after Sandro or not, but left it out because of spelling difficulties.

Thomas Hardy is appropriate as the sadism which he inflicts on his protagonists is mirrored in this tale of la vie bohéme.

It's difficult to communicate the beyond quirkiness aspect of Comyns's narrator. Does anybody here remember self-assertiveness and self-assertiveness classes? It's that blue layer in Devonian self-help. She has none. Everyone imposes on her and her self abnegation brings out the bullies in battalions.
Horror accumulates:

Charles seemed pleased to be with me but he kept looking at the baby with disgust. He said the thing that made him dislike it most was the resemblance to himself.

When we arrived home the first thing I noticed as we came up the stairs was the frightful smell of fish, and when we reached the living-room I saw the reason. Charles was in the middle of painting a picture of some herrings on a newspaper, and they had gone most high. He said they must not be thrown away until he had finished the painting. Already they had changed colour considerably, so we had to sit in the bedroom, and you could still smell them there.

But it all works out in the end even if like a old rubber ball she latterly begins to lose her bounce. An excellent tragi-comedy. I am now looking forward to reading The Vet's Daughter when I get hold of it.

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