A long time before you could buy Britney’s latest single for £3.99.
Publisher: Virago (Little Brown)
First Published: 1950
Date Reviewed: 28th March 2015
Sophia marries Charles; neither family is happy about it. The couple lives on the poverty line; Sophia becomes a model for art students, Charles tries to make something of his artwork. They aren’t well matched and the conflicts are worsened by Charles’s outspoken relatives.
Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a mostly-autobiographical book about the hard years of a young woman.
It is quite difficult not to look at the way in which this book relates to Comyns herself; the way it’s written suggests it was a therapeutic exercise. It is a long tale told in a short time, spanning several years in 196 pages.
The writing – mainly the grammar – isn’t particularly good, however there is the sense that this is part of the problem the heroine suffers. It’s not that she’s uneducated, rather the writing is a subtle addition to what is actually said. Our heroine is weak, a doormat if you will, but does not really realise it. She takes a lot of flack that women, even in her time, would not have put up with. We are never given a direct reason, but one can assume her wish for a nice life and the death of her parents has much to do with it. The prose reads as though hurried, as though if she doesn’t write it all quickly everything will be forgotten.
Sophia’s problem is her husband, Charles. He blames her when she falls pregnant (her knowledge of contraception was non-existent at the time), he lives his own life, expects her to do everything he says, and his family only add to it. The book provides an incredibly damning portrait of a manipulative, highly selfish person, and at times other people.
So this is by and large a sad story, the cruelty is heartbreaking, but Comyns has the odd laugh. Her jokes are jibes at silly social ideas and customs, of local cultural issues. Because they are in keeping with the written style, they end up sounding somewhat innocent even when they aren’t.
The biggest social issue, then, is of the changing domestic situation of the time. Sophia works. She earns more than Charles ever will and this is simply not correct according to Charles and his family. What Charles wants he should get and so this is as much an issue of adults spoiled as children as it is a married couple not seeing eye to eye. Any children Sophia has will be spoiled only if it suits those looking after them. And as Sophia comes to find, Charles is far from unique.
Poverty is a close second. Charles uses up a lot of money but they would be poor anyway. Comyns shows how hospitals could be awkward for the poor even if they had support. Sophia gives birth and from her story emerges a lack of communication. Perhaps Sophia lacks knowledge, but it’s more likely those in charge simply didn’t bother trying to explain to her what was happening, why they were doing what they did. (The book is told from Sophia’s perspective.) There is a marked difference between this and a later hospital stay during which the character has more money.
What’s interesting about Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is that the story isn’t particularly, well, interesting, but the book manages to utterly captivate. There isn’t even much of an ending; there’s no climax, just happier times. It’s the story of a woman who is poor, has some luck, but lives an average life overall. You’ll learn a lot from this book – it’s so far away from our present day.
This is a book that makes you get involved. It doesn’t ask you to cheer happiness or emphasise with sadness, but it does pull you in and whilst the author may have planned this – who knows? – the character seems oblivious to the effect.
We can’t know why Sophia wrote her book but we can guess why Comyns did, and she succeeds in all she sets out to do. Woolworths may no longer be around but Sophia’s spoons remain and in that fact lies an excellent book.
March 30, 2015, 8:18 am
I’ve been putting this off for ages, as I thought it might be a bit depressing, but certainly your perspective of it as social history makes me rethink — I shall get it off the shelf! (Also I didn’t realise there was no more UK Woolworths – that’s an end of an era)
March 30, 2015, 4:43 pm
I love this book so much! I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed it as well.
It manages to highlight so much social injustice while telling a tale fairly lightly, it’s so good.