Humour in the darkest places

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
by Barbara Comyns

This partially fictionalised autobiography has me torn. On the one hand it was entertaining, funny and moving; on the other the author’s lack of education resulted in writing that was at times stilted or phrased in ways that I felt could have been improved by better editing.

“Sophia” lives in London, eking a meagre living as an artist in a commercial studio. Aged just 21 she and her artist lover Charles decide to marry. He is from a middle class family who disapprove mildly of his bohemian lifestyle but disapprove far more vehemently of Sophia marrying him and becoming a drain on his scant resources. Given the choice between his allowance and his marriage Charles chooses Sophia, which sounds romantic and indeed at first it seems that way. Comyns wittily describes making do with the little they have, the joy of rare treats, the shared humour of learning to cook and keep house. But when she falls pregnant life goes from bad to worse and abject poverty destroys the marriage and threatens her life multiple times.

It seems amazing, given the content (poverty, abortion, serious illness, the threat of having a child taken away) that I could say this, but this is a fairly light read. Comyns is great fun, with an original turn of phrase and genuine warmth, always trying to see the world in a positive light (or almost always; she has her dark times). In some ways book this functions as a brilliantly strong argument for the changes that society has made since the 1930s setting – maternity leave, child support, access to and information about contraception, and free healthcare would have helped her a lot, obviously, but I also mean the general attitude of the book’s characters that Charles has the right to his lifestyle and she has failed him by becoming pregnant, that he has no obligation to the family he has created.

The section about Sophia’s first pregnancy is the part that has stayed with me most strongly. She is summarily dismissed from her job on announcing the news (which her co-workers had all guessed before her because she has shockingly little knowledge on this front). She relies on charity to get to see a doctor, because she and Charles cannot afford it themselves, which means that her labour takes place in a hideous charitable hospital where she is treated like a wicked schoolgirl and given no explanation of anything. For instance, a bath is run for her and she is left alone to take it, but she is too doubled up in pain from a contraction to get in. When the nurse returns and sees this, she shouts at Sophia for being a “horrid, dirty girl” rather than lending her a hand.

For all of the awfulness that she goes through, I could not call Sophia entirely blameless. I know that she is to an extent a result of a certain culture but she so rarely speaks her mind. She never once berates Charles for not getting a job or for spending money unnecessarily when the family is literally starving. And she does let pride stop her from getting a little help sometimes, despite the extreme poverty she endures. There were a few such moments that reminded me of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, though in other respects the two books could not be much more different.

I am certainly intrigued by Comyns, who wrote further volumes of autobiography disguised to varying degrees, as well as some true fiction, but I do not think, on the basis of this book at least, that she was a great writer.

First published in Great Britain by Eyre & Spottiswoode 1950.

I picked this up after reading this intriguing review on Novel Insights.