Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels. The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop. She describes how, ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase. It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent. I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop. Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’. She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’.
The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman. She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and
cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’. After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past. She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios. They soon decide to marry in secret. Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations. I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets. One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm… She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby… Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’ Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents. Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.
As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone. Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable. From the outset, she is a quirky heroine. She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’. She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her. On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.
Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly. Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page. As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down. She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet. It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead. So I cried about that, too.’ Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner. Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.