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Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

The world is a little out of kilter at the moment. A novel by Barbara Comyns seemed an ideal choice for the times. But although other books by her have very odd almost magical properties, this one, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, is more straight forward than her later novels.

This is by no means the first of her books that I have reviewed on Bookword. You can find links to the others below.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

The central theme of this novel is poverty and the misery it causes. Here are the opening sentences of the novel, reassuring us that her story is grim but got better.

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. (1)

She frames the book as the story she told Helen, mentioning the importance of Sandro, how she regrets ‘lovely little Fanny’ and remembering ‘Charles’s white pointed face’. 

Having married another artist, Charles, very young and impetuously, Sophie lives in Bohemian London in the 1930s, in poverty. Her husband comes across as a selfish man, putting his own wants above others’, so she has to earn pennies sitting for artists while he stays at home and paints. There is no suggestion he should do the housework and cooking except as a favour. 

Sophie becomes pregnant which means she has to give up her work as a model. It also means that she has to endure childbirth in a charity hospital. The presence of their son, Sandro, puts a great deal of pressure on their finances and on their marriage. Charles’s family say that she is selfish to have a child and expect support from Charles. 

Their relationship, deteriorates and she begins an affair with the sleazy older art critic, Peregrine Narrow. She has a second child Fanny, fathered by Peregrine, but this child dies of scarlet fever just as Sophie leaves Charles and she has to stay in hospital to recover from the disease. This is her lowest point and Sophie only begins to recover when she finds a job as a cook for a farming family. She and Sandro live happily in the country for three years. It is here that she meets Rollo, another artist, and they live happily ever after.

Some of the most shocking passages concern the relatives who look after Sandro during a period of difficulty. They are Charles’s relatives and their strict rules are in contrast to the haphazard way in which he has previously been brought up. It proves hard to rescue him as Sophie rarely has the money for the fare.

In one sense this is a novel about a young woman gaining control over her own actions and decisions.

There is plenty in this novel about the lack of a public health service and the provision for people in poverty, expectations of women in marriage, child care and London in the 1930s.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels and is perhaps best known for Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. 

She knew about poverty and insecurity. There is a strange note on the copyright page:

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

Chapters 10-12 are the ones set in the charity hospital and describe Sandro’s birth. Childbirth was not a subject dealt with in much detail in fiction at the time.

Then I was enveloped in a terrific sea of pain, and I heard myself shouting in an awful snoring kind of voice. Then they gave me something to smell and the pain dimmed a little. The pain started to grow again, but I didn’t seem to mind. I suddenly felt so interested in what was happening. The baby was really coming now and there it was between my legs. I could feel it moving and there was a great tugging in my tummy where it was still attached to me. Then I heard it cry, so I knew it was alive and I was able to relax. Perhaps I went to sleep. (52) 

Emily Gould in the Paris Review (in October 2015) suggests that her writing style was deliberately destabilising. There is a simplicity to her writing, but it has a dark side and more complexity that is largely masked. It was intended to knock the reader off balance. Perhaps it is a suitable book for our time, after all.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns first published in 1950 and republished as a Virago Modern Classic. I used the 2013 edition with an introduction by Maggie O’Farrell. 196pp

Other books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword

Here are links to reviews of some of her other books:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead (1954)

The Vet’s Daughter (1959)

The Juniper Tree (1985)

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The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns

The Juniper Tree was published in 1985 when Barbara Comyns was 78. It was the ninth of her eleven novels. Her early work had involved magical or mystical aspects, such as a strange plague and levitation. For The Juniper Tree Barbara Comyns retold the Grimm tale of the same name. In the original Grimm story the stepmother deliberately kills her stepson and is messily punished by magpies. In the story told by Barbara Comyns it is not the stepmother who is culpable. She retells it with a feminist slant.

The Juniper Tree

Bella is young, rather messed up, scarred and good at letting other people make decisions for her. When the story begins she is drifting after the end of a relationship with a mean young man who was driving when she received the injuries that resulted in her scars.  She has a little money in the bank. 

For a time this money seemed a curse to me, yet I wouldn’t share it with Stephen. It was the insurance money paid for my damaged face. … For some reason Stephen thought we should share it, although he was responsible for the damage. (18)

Bella seems very susceptible to this kind of treatment by people and not to be very decisive herself. She has a daughter by a man whose name she can’t remember. The child, Marline also called Tommy, is mixed race and very attractive. Bella and her daughter are taken up by a couple called Gertrude and Bernard Forbes. They are a well off couple who long for a child

Bella finds a job running a second hand shop and enjoys herself for the first time, but she becomes more and more absorbed into the Forbes’ life especially after Gertrude becomes unexpectedly pregnant. Gertrude dies having given birth to a son. Now Bella is roped in more and more to the housekeeping chores and childcare and eventually Bernard marries her. You probably can guess what is coming.

Bernard takes up another young girl and Bella realises that she has left behind a life that she really loved. Then the little boy is killed accidentally, in a storage chest for some apples. Bdelieving she was responsible Bella tries to hide the death from Bernard. She has a breakdown.

Magpies do appear in this story, together with some details from the Grimm tale, such as the juniper tree, a red slipper and stolen jewellery. But there is no bloody revenge, only some soul searching, including an emerging understanding that because Bella was susceptible Bernard persuaded her to do things against her better judgement. Bella, though malleable, is also a trooper and she learns to trust her own judgement and ends up happily married to someone else.

The most destructive person in Barbara Comyns’s version is Bella’s mother who treats her very badly when she is a child, although they are later reconciled. It turns out that she too has been badly treated by a man.  

The writing style is very even. The sentences follow one from another, regardless of the many mishaps in Bella’s life. Sometimes there are little warning bells hidden inside this evenness. 

… I told him the truth that I was quiet because I felt so happy, and he [Bernard] said, “How extraordinary, people so seldom admit they are happy. Gertrude did and look what happened to her. Take care, dear Bella. Happiness is a very fragile thing, but no one deserves it more than you.” (103)

It was published in the 80s but it felt more like the 60s. Although there is a trademark Comyns surreal feel to everything.

The Juniper Tree by Barbara Comyns, published in 1985 by New York Review Books. 177pp

You can find the Grimm’s version of the story in Grimm Tales for young and old  by Philip Pullman, published by Penguin Books in 2012. 420pp

Books by Barbara Comyns reviewed on Bookword:

Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns (April 2018)

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (March 2019)

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The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns

Many years ago I read Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and earlier this year I read and reviewed Who was Changed and Who was Dead. The Vet’s Daughter  is another novel I have reread. And I am enjoying rediscovering what Graham Greene called the ‘offbeat talent’ of Barbara Comyns. I was also nudged into rereading The Vet’s Daughter when I found it on a list of the scariest books by women, which I found through Twitter (I think). 

The scariness of this novel lies in the evil behaviours of many of the characters. The vet, father of the narrator, is the worst. But there is also the wannabe rapist Cuthbert, encouraged in his assault by Alice’s father’s girlfriend. There are the Gowleys, who keep house for a depressed older woman and treat her with routine cruelty. And there are the many people who would exploit Alice’s naivety and helplessness. 

It’s a strange and macabre novel, well worth the rereading.

The Vet’s Daughter 

The novel is set in Edwardian times, when the motorcar and horse carriages coexisted. The vet, his wife and daughter live in Clapham, South London. The vet is disappointed in his wife, and regards his daughter as worse than an inconvenience. The animals in his care are not well looked after either, the parrot consigned to the toilet, and every week a taxidermist arrives to remove unwanted animals. The vet’s casual neglect provides a backdrop of menace. Here is the second paragraph of the book.

I entered the house. It was my home and it smelt of animals, although there was lino on the floor. In the brown hall my mother was standing; and she looked at me with her sad eyes half-covered by their heavy lids, but did not speak. She just stood there. Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog my father would have destroyed her. (1)

The much-quoted opening paragraph introduces the reader to a random conversation that Alice has with a man on the street, who tells her his wife belongs to the Plymouth Brethren. It establishes her naivety and her gentleness. In this paragraph I notice how things are paired with no obvious connection: home/ animals’ smell; brown hall/mother; and so on. The text, ending with the brutal statement about her father, establishes the lurking danger. As it happens, the crooked teeth are explained later. Their crookedness resulted from the vet’s violence.

Alice’s mother is feeble, ill and dying. She cannot stand up to her husband and recalls to Alice her idyllic childhood in Wales. After her death Alice’s father loses no time in bringing into the house the strumpet from the Trumpet. Alice describes Rosa as having clown make-up and rolling her eyes when she speaks. Rosa puts on a refined accent which slips under any pressure. She encourages a friend called Cuthbert in his attentions to Alice, and engineers the situation in which the girl is almost raped.

Alice is rescued from the hell that is her home by her father’s locum, who arranges for her to be the companion to his severely depressed and suicidal mother who lives on an island in the Solent. With Mrs Peebles life is better for a while. Alice meets Nicholas, who leads her on and then ignores her, behaviour which distresses and puzzles her. When Mrs Peebles is found drowned Alice must return home. 

Alice has discovered that she has a special ability, and when it is revealed to her father he plans with others to exploit her powers for financial gain. Alice has her own form of resistance, but it does not end well. The final scene is horrific.

Alice’s character is naïve, artless and this makes the cruelty to her all the worse. Her narration of events emphasises her lack of worldliness. She observes odd things, gives wrong attention to some things and none others. She is lyrical in happiness and wretched in misery and has little of the first and much of the second. Here is an early paragraph in which she sums up her typical day and her passivity.

The day was nearly over and it was like most of the days I could remember: all overshadowed by my father and cleaning the cats’ cages and the smell of cabbage, escaping gas and my father’s scent. There were moments of peace, and sometimes sunlight outside. It was like that all the time. (4)

She is shown kindness by several people in the novel, but the abusive neglect of her father makes him one of the most monstrous characters in fiction.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950) and The Vet’s Daughter. Her early adult life was characterised by poverty, and she tried to earn her living by dealing in poodles, upmarket cars, antiques and by renovating pianos. This was her fourth novel. 

You can find my review of Who was changed and who was dead by Barbara Comyns here

Two blogs encouraged me to reread this book: Heavenali and Simon Lavery on Tredynas Days.

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, first published in 1959. I used the Virago edition, with an introduction by Jane Gardam. 159pp

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Who was Changed and Who was Dead by Barbara Comyns

So there’s this odd family, the Willoweeds, who live in a village some time around 1900. Things happen and after that some of them are changed and some of them are dead.

Many readers have enjoyed this short novel since it was published in 1954. I have seen it called idiosyncratic, biblical, quirky, dark, surreal, strange, macabre. Is it a fairy tale? Or an allegory? It’s certainly engaging.

The story of Who was Changed and Who was Dead

The focus of the short novel is the Willoweed family who live in a big house in a village near a river. Grandmother Willoweed dominates the village, although she has taken an oath not to set foot on land that is not hers. This creates a problem when she must attend a funeral, but it is solved by putting her in a boat. The title implies that the reader will see how this family are affected by events.

Here is how the novel opens.

Time: Summer about seventy years ago

Place: Warwickshire

Chapter I

The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night. (1)

So from the start, the world is awry. The time is also awry, for the book was published in 1954, which would put the action in the late 1880s according to the heading. But the novel also takes place in 1911, coinciding with the coronation of George V. Time and place are awry. So is the Willoweed family.

The grandmother has a forked tongue and a nasty, selfish personality. Her son Ebin is disappointed and disappointing, having been sacked from his post as a journalist, cheated on by his wife who then died giving birth to her third child. Ebin is cowed by his mother, and unkind to his children. He ignores Emma, the oldest, takes every opportunity to belittle Dennis, and makes a favourite of Hattie, who is not his daughter. The household also includes a pair of sisters, long-suffering maids and Old Ivor, who owns the ducks and looks after the gardens and is determined to outlive Grandmother.

Following the flood, which causes chaos, kills livestock and changes the appearance of everything, more troubles assail the village. Villagers begin dying, experiencing painful and maniacal episodes before death, symptoms of ergot poisoning, associated with rye flour. In the village various people are afflicted, including the baker’s lascivious wife. One of the maids becomes pregnant, but is able to pass off a miscarriage as an episode of the same illness that afflicts the villagers. At Willoweed House little Dennis succumbs.

After so many goings on, so many funerals, so many escape attempts, so much affliction and falling in love, conversion and boredom, it is rather disappointing that the novel concludes with Emma adopting a conventional and happy life in Kensington. The young doctor who attends the family falls for her and they get married, despite the opposition of the old woman.

Reading Who was Changed and Who was Dead

One of the delights of reading Who was Changed and Who was Deadis the descriptive and imaginative power of Barbara Comyns’s writing. Here are some of the guests at Grandmother’s annual birthday whist drive.

Grandmother Willoweed always declared the clergyman took opium, perhaps because he rather resembled a Chinaman. His mother was a little frightened bird of a woman, who held her twisted claw-like hands clasped near her face as if she was praying. This made it rather difficult for her to play cards and they would fall around her like petals from a dying flower. The three old maids from Roary Court would come on their tricycles. Their pet billy goat would trot behind them as they rode down the village street, and they would tether him where he could be seen from the drawing-room window. (23)

The hostess receives her guests.

Grandmother Willoweed wore a magenta gown trimmed with black lace, and on her head three purple plumes attached to a piece of dusty velvet. The magenta gown was split in several places; but she considered it was the general effect that mattered. (24)

And the story moves on at a good pace. There is no lingering over events, not the butcher’s suicide, the appearance of Doctor Hatt’s splendid new yellow car, the many funerals nor the illnesses in the village.

I experience the events of Who was Changed and Who was Deadas a child might, to whom nothing is strange or remarkable; things happen or don’t and the world just goes on turning. Events succeed events, some are linked and some are not. Some are changed and some are dead.

Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns (1907 – 1992) was brought up in Warwickshire on the banks of the River Avon in Bidford-on-Avon. She wrote many novels, published after the Second World War, perhaps the best known being Our Spoons Came from Woolworths(1950) and The Vet’s Daughter(1959).

Here is the link to the review on HeavenAli’s blog that led me to read this novel.

And here’s another enthusiastic review, this one by Simon on Vulpes Libris.

Who was changed and who was deadby Barbara Comyns, published in 1954. I read the Virago Modern Classic edition, published in 1987, with an introduction by Ursula Holden. 146pp

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Banning Books

Why do people in authority ban a book? They fear the power of the book. They fear the ideas or knowledge within the covers. As so often happens when you ban something it draws attention to it. Remember Mrs Thatcher banning the voices of the IRA on the news. In the recent Banned Books Week some surprising titles were revealed to have appeared on banned lists, especially in US in school districts where they take a different line about things and have different processes.

Banning books to protect children

213 Jenny_Lives_with_Eric_and_MartinFrequently a ban on a book is intended to prevent the corruption of the minds of the young. Or to protect them from ideas that adults believe might be too difficult. Behind the idea of banning books for children is a distrust of their ability to explore their world. I remember schools being banned from using books about living with gay parents. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bosche (1983) was notorious. Local Governments were also banned in 1988 from promoting a homosexual lifestyle and ‘the acceptability of homosexual relationships as a pretended family relationship’ (the notorious section 28). The world had gone mad.

The Scottish Book Trust noted that these books about or for children had been banned somewhere: 213 1940 AnneFrankSchoolPhoto

  • Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • The Diaries of Anne Franks
  • Forever Judy Bloom
  • Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Judy Bloom writes about themes that interest young adults, their relationships with their parents, with people of their own age, fractured families, sexuality, strong emotions. She was one of the first to do so and earned a loyal readership as a result. The idea that childhood is a time of innocence is also challenged in different ways by Alice and by Huckleberry Finn.

Young girls with spirit are notoriously dangerous to those with absolutist beliefs. That must be why The Diaries of Anne Frank appears on the list.

Books that challenge social (sexual) norms

Then there are books that shock a little, intended to push the boundaries of what is discussed, what is known.

213 LolitaThe list begins with Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. It would be hard to read Lolita without noticing that Herbert Humbold is a self-serving monster. It is a tough read because he sounds so plausible. People behave in bad ways and appear plausible. Those who wanted to ban Lolita mistook the messenger for the message. I suspect that many of them had not read Lolita.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by DH Lawrence was completed in 1928. Penguin published it in the UK in 1960 and a court case tested both the book and the obscenity laws. Lady Chatterley was notoriously ‘not the kind of book you want your wife or servants to read’, according to chief prosecutor Mervyn Griffith-Jones. Lawrence’s particular joyfulness at sex challenged assumptions and made explicit the shocking idea that women enjoyed sex, had sexual desires. And it also offended class sensibilities. It was acquitted under obscenity laws in 1960.

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness also from 1928 provoked extreme reactions: ‘I’d rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this book’ fulminated James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express. Its subject, lesbians, were seen to challenge the family values that the Express stood for. The Well also suffered under obscenity laws, although the legal battles over the book increased the visibility of lesbians in both British and American society.

Not about sexual norms but more about decency and a fear that it ‘wallowed in repulsiveness’ Barbara Comyns’s 1958 novel Who was Changed and Who was Dead was also banned. There is an interesting article about it on the PEN America website by Matt Bell. He argues that we should rejoice in its lack of moralising which promotes change ‘including an increase in moral complexity, intellectual range and truest empathy’.

And the political ideas

Banning the books with political themes is mystifying to our modern sensibilities, with exception of the Rushdie. Banned titles have included

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • Ulysses by James Joyce
  • Frankenstein by Mark Shelley
  • Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

213 PerseoplisBut again, the powerful do not like challenges to the status quo. Or do not like readers’ minds being exposed to ideas that might challenge their certainties, even if the challenge is itself a critique of the opposing ideas, as is Animal Farm. And they don’t like books that promote girls and women as active and brave and determining their own futures as Persepolis does. It is graphic novel about a young Iranian girl during the period of the fall of the Shah and after. The challenges to the book’s place in schools and on the curriculum in the US is considered on the Banned Books Week website, Case Study: Persepolis by Maggie Jacoby, September 2015.

Books are good for healthy debate and challenge some questionable assumptions. In the forefront of reminding us about banned books are librarians, fighters for freedom of speech. That’s another reason to support libraries and librarians. And so too is the writer’s organisation PEN, and you can find the English PEN website here. Support them too!

What banned books have most grated with you? Is there ever a case for banning a book? What do you think?

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