This 1p Review is provided by Hannah Stoneham, voracious reader, prolific reviewer and friend of The Dabbler. You can read her fine book blog here.
I should say that 1p spent on Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns, is 1p well spent. Charming and funny, touching and direct – this is an outrageously neglected classic and a super introduction to the work of Barbara Comyns. The spoons in question belong to Sophia, a young woman struggling through the fringes of “bohemia” in 1930s London who marries a talented and personable painter called Charles. They are both young and hasty. Sophia’s adventures take in motherhood, unceasing penny scraping work, the crushing breakdown of her marriage and her own transgressions. There is a wonderful sense of place in this novel – from the smog of the streets to the bustle of the Cafe Royale in the days of Augustus John, to the maternity ward and the backstreet abortionist’s bench. She tells her story entirely without sentimentality and with a stark elegance that characterises all of Comyns’ work.
The central theme of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is the development of Sophia, from a young girl of mind-bending naivety to a middle aged woman who is altogether more knowing and more capable than her girlish predecessor. Comyns borrows a lot from the gothic tradition in telling this story – her heroine is a young girl, stranded in the world, who will travel through dark interludes and emerge a changed soul. Sophia is lovable and she does not deserve the misfortunes that befall her. But – reader be comforted – Barbara Comyns believed in happy endings and when Sophia signs off at the end of the book, you will not be too worried about her.
There is in this novel, a constant battle between facade and reality. Sophia tells the reader that her brother: “was one of those nervy people who hate knowing the truth”. In fact, most of the characters surrounding Sophia could be described in this way. She desperately tries to hide her dreadful poverty and deteriorating marriage from those around her until eventually this is impossible. Facade is stripped away it is replaced by a starker reality. There is an equal tussle between trust and duplicity. Sophia finds it much easier to trust men than women. She often trusts on an appearance basis but her judgement does let her down. She trusts and is betrayed. At the same time, Sophia herself becomes duplicitous when she was “quite good” before – she deceives Charles in more ways than one, and her deception will go right to the heart of their life together.
Sophia walks a tight rope between innocence and experience and speaks her tale wholly conscious of the transition. Related to this, her development is shown to us her readers through the tension between romance and practicality. Sophia moves from idealism to cynicism and finally arrives at a place of practical and frankly quite transactional love. She is a character who loves art and beauty and does not want to live a “waddy” conventional life. That having been said, she is increasingly aware that she has to live on something and that comfort has to be created: “He kissed the bottom of my skirt, I said “Don’t do that, the hem is coming down already””. Finally, Sophia struggles with her own strength and subservience. The reader can almost feel her growing off the page, increasingly able to defend herself against the men in her life. Becoming funnier, becoming more aware.
For these reasons this is a special book and a life affirming one. For penny purchasers of lost books, this one is a snip.