Retro Review: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns (Introduction by Emily Gould)

961247_1_12916-woolworths.png_standardPublished in 1950 Barbara Comyn’s slim novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, has been re-discovered for a modern audience. Emily Gould’s name may sound familiar to some of my readers. She wrote the novel Friendship, which I reviewed in 2014. Gould wrote the introduction to Comyn’s novel, and offers some interesting insight to not only Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s but Barbara Comyn’s life as well. Here is my review. Enjoy!

Sophia Fairclough is 21, and struggling artist in 1930s pre-war London. She meets, Charles, another young artist while on the train and they hastily marry, thinking they will live a somewhat glamorous life of bohemians while making money painting. However, like the United States, Great Britain is also in the grips of the Depression. And Sophia and Charles; bohemian glamorous life is one of extreme poverty and struggle. Charles refuses to get a proper job, thinking it will make him a “sell-out,” so it is up to the more practical Sophia to get a job working as a figure model for art classes. Still the few pounds and pence Sophia makes in no way stretches far enough to take care of her and her husband and their household expenses.

Things become even more problematic when Sophia becomes pregnant with their son, Sandro. Sophia’s quite naïve when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth (she is completely clueless that she is in labor when her water breaks), and even more clueless when it comes to the complexity of raising a child. Still, her fierce love of Sandro inspires her to work her hardest to support and raise him, even if he doesn’t have the basic necessities modern parents take for granted.

Now, despite having not only a wife and a young child, Charles refuses to get a proper job. So it is still up to Sophia to bring in the money. Even on his best days, Charles sees Sandro as a burden and as a distraction. An ideal, father, he is not. And to be honest, Charles is not an ideal person. In the modern sense, he is merely a hipster douchebro.

Sophia eventually has an affair with an older man, a local art critic. This affair is a pleasant distraction from the bleakness of her marriage and her daily life. She soon falls pregnant again. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens with that pregnancy.

Though naïve, uneducated and a bit passive, Sophia knows in her heart she (and Sandro) deserve much better. She makes a decision, that may make or break her, but in a time where women, especially poor women, had so few options, Sophia knows has to both survive and thrive. And she through sheer tenacity, a strong work ethic, and a certain weathered optimism, does both.

Did I like Our Spoons Came From Woolworths? Yes, I did. Now I usually detest authors who tell rather than show. But at times, this slim volume, came across like a very personal diary and gathering of the day-to-day details of her life. What she lacks in money, she sure makes up in pluck. And you can’t help but root for her. Sophia sees bright shiny yellow in a world of gritty, grimy grayness of her surroundings.

The narrative of this book is written in a clearly-stated chatty style. It is not pretentious or filled-with navel-gazing self-indulgence that seems to affect moneyed ladies and their high class problems (Eat, Pray, Love—I’m looking in your direction). It is Sophia’s life in particular difficult part in her young years, and never is she mawkish or sentimental. As for lovers of period-based literature, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths will probably appeal to people whose idea of British melodrama is more Call the Midwife than Downton Abbey or Mr. Selfridge.