Tag Archives: childbirth

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 Squire by Enid Bagnold (a second visit)

The Squire deserves to be widely read, for although dated in its setting, the theme of the competent woman is relevant still. The main character is about to become a mother for the fifth time at the start of the novel, but maternity is set in the context of other responsibilities. Although sensually involved in her confinement motherhood is not her destiny.

A version of this post appeared on Bookword in July 2014. The Squire was first published just before the Second World War in 1938, and republished by Virago in 1987 and Persephone Books in 2013.

289-virago-squire

The Main Character

The Squire is a curious title. It jars our class-consciousness, being more associated with the beery form of address, as in ‘Same again Squire?’ And it jars with the feminist consciousness of language, including titles. In Enid Bagnold’s novel the Squire is the main character, and a woman who is managing a large household, the manor house set in a rural village beside the sea.

She who had once been thirsty and gay, square-shouldered, fair and military, strutting about life for spoil, was thickened now, vigorous, leonine, occupied with her house, her nursery, her servants, her knot of human lives, antagonistic or loving. Twelve years married to a Bombay merchant and nearly five times a mother, she was well accustomed to her husband’s long absences, and to her own supreme command. (11)

She has seven staff in the house, two in the kitchen, four children and the birth of her fifth child is imminent. The story unfolds gently. We observe the Squire as she passes through the day’s precedings; during and following her confinement, dealing with domestic problems, finding a cook, managing the lazy butler, spending time with her four children, and conversing with her friend Caroline. The main event is the arrival of the Midwife, a woman of strong opinions. The novel ends with the baby safely born, the Squire taking up the running of the household again after her confinement, the departure of the Midwife and the imminent return of the Squire’s husband.

A plot of contrasts

There is little plot. Events happen: the Squire has to deal with the departure of the cook, an intrusive window cleaner, her butler’s holiday and drunken replacement, her children and a weekly letter to her absent husband on an extended business trip to Bombay. The Squire manages all with serenity.

Caroline, her friend from her more socialite past, is still interested in sex-love. She cannot believe that the Squire does not miss the wilder life of her younger days and the capricious attentions of men but is content with her situation. The contrast between these two is one of the strongest of the novel.

The principles of the midwife are a contrast to ideas current in the late 1930s. The Midwife and the Squire are in tune about how birth should be organised. The midwife would like to ‘palisade’ mothers, creating a secluded and calm environment, and a place for a newborn to emerge and form their character in the first days of life. Eventually mother and newborn son will be integrated into the teeming household.

110 Squire cover

A New Woman writes

Enid Bagnold was ‘an authentic New Woman of dash and speed,’ according to Margaret Drabble. In The Squire she presents maternity as a great satisfaction in her life, but challenges the idea that marriage and motherhood are a woman’s destiny, the high point of her life, and towards which her youthful efforts should be expended. Much of the Squire’s ruminations are to do with the future, when the children no longer need her, and indeed what happens to them after her death.

Such explicitness about childbirth and maternity was rare and waiting to be challenged as this book does. According to Anna Sebba, in the introduction to the Persephone edition, Enid Bagnold once said that

If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it. (xv)

289-enid-bagnold

The writing is ‘intense and passionate’ with ‘sensuous descriptions’ (Margaret Drabble again). A particular charm of this book is the portraits of the children, two in particular. First, little oddball Boniface. He is not the normal rumbustious male child, and his quirky take on the world and delicate relationship with the Squire are delightful. Lucy is the only daughter, and she is both insightful and caring of others, especially of Boniface. The intimacy of Lucy and her mother is delicately drawn.

… Lucy came in and hung over the writing table.

‘What are you doing?’ said the Squire dipping her pen in the ink.

‘Nothing.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘To talk to you.’

‘What about?’

‘Nothing.’

They smiled at each other. (168)

There is much to enjoy in this lovely and pioneering book. We are looking inside a closed and beautiful world. It is not sentimental, but robustly romantic (Anna Sebba).

The Squire by Enid Bagnold, published by Persephone in 2013, with an introduction by Anna Sebba. The glorious endpapers for The Squire are Magnolia, a design for cotton and rayon from 1936.

110 endpaper

Related links

Persephone Books suggests it is the only novel ever written about having a baby. Is this true? Do you know of other books? Is this the focus of this book? What do you think?

Margaret Drabble’s assessment can be found here, written in 2008 on the occasion of the revival of her play The Chalk Garden at the Donmar Warehouse.

The Squire was reviewed enthusiastically by Heavenali in April. You can link to her review here.

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