Tag Archives: poverty

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)

5 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

The current trend of using ‘girl’ in titles continues to rile me. It carries more than a trace of condescension. This novel is the story by a woman in her 80s, hardly a girl. However it was recommended. It does not present as a potboiler, or who dunnit, so I gave it a go. 

The Boston Girl  is the 42ndin the series on Bookword blog about older women in fiction. This novel was recommended to me twice recently: by someone who read my blogs on Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in August, and by my sister, who kindly sent me a copy to read.

The Boston Girl

An 85-year-old woman, Addie Baum, is asked by her granddaughter to talk about how she got to be the woman she is today (in 1985). In reply she narrates the story of her life, lived mostly in Boston. Addie was born in 1900 into an immigrant Jewish family. They were poor and had already lost two children. When Addie begins her story her older sister, Betty, has not long left the family home to live on her own. A second sister, Celia, is frail and much protected by her father. Neither parent finds happiness in Boston and there is little kindness in their household. Addie is the only one born in the new country. She is determined to do well despite their tragedies and their poverty.

Addie does well at school, but the family are so poor that she has to leave after only a year at high school. Things improve slightly for the family when Celia marries a widower, Levine, inheriting his two young sons. But marriage, step-mothering and keeping a household are beyond Celia and she commits suicide.

Gradually the events of Addie’s life improve due in part to her friendships with other young women, which last a lifetime and which sustain and motivate her. There are her failed love affairs and then her meeting with her future husband, a lawyer defending children in employment. Her own employments begin with office work and moves into journalism, and finally to social work in support of children. The author refers to the significance of Abbie’s resilience on her website. But her connections and the necessity of earning a living seem to be as important in determining her decisions.

The final years are swiftly dealt with. The interest is largely in her life before her marriage.

The chief influences are of immigration, Jewishness and being female. This novel is not about an older woman so much as what happened to this older woman before she arrived at the age of 85.

Addie Baum at 85

The granddaughter’s question is not answered in any depth: how Addie got to be the woman she is today. Her Jewishness, her gender and the times she lived in which she lived are hardly credited with being part of the answer. At heart this is a feelgood novel, a young girl finds her way to eventual happiness despite early poverty and some bad experiences. The short chapters make it an easy and enjoyable read.

Reading it did provoke me to wonder how I would answer the same question. 

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant, first published in 2014. I read the edition by  Simon & Schuster. 392pp

Here are some recent additions to the Older Women in Fiction series:

Meet Me at the Museum  by Anne Youngson

Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford (guest post)

Should You Ask Me  by Marianne Kavanagh

The Woman from Tantoura  by Radwa Ashour

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please email me with your email address: lodgecm@gmail.com

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

This might have been a morality tale, a warning of the dreadful things that happen when your marriage turns sour, or when you consider committing suicide. But this is written by Edith Wharton, when her own disastrous marriage was at an end and she had fallen in love with Morton Fullerton and was living in Europe. The year was 1911, and society still found it easy to condemn people who found it hard to remain committed to a bad marriage. Edith Wharton was independently wealthy enough to afford a separation. She writes about people who did not have the means to do anything but stay married.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

The story is set up by an unnamed narrator who is intrigued by what happened to Ethan Frome. The ‘author’ is in the well-named Starkfield, a small town in Massachusetts. 

It was there that, several years ago, I saw him for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but a ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed; it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of lameness checking every step like the jerk of a chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear he was not more that fifty-two. (11)

The narrator is informed that 

“He’s looked that way ever since he had his smash-up; and that’s twenty-four years ago come next February”. (11)

If you are the kind of person who does not want to know how a story ends then perhaps you can just take my recommendation to get acquainted with this book and leave the post here. For others, who do not find their enjoyment spoiled by revealing the story but have other reading interests, please read on.

The ‘smash-up’ is not quite the climax of the story. It begins twenty-four years before the time of the Author’s Introductory Note. Ethan Frome is struggling, as are all the inhabitants of Starkfield, to make a living out of his farm. He inherited it from his parents, and more or less inherited his wife too. His mother was nursed by a cousin, Zenobia, known as Zeena, and Ethan marries her when her nursing duties are over. She is an unappealing woman, although she had been kind enough as a nurse. She is a hypochondriac and a complainer and would have liked to live a more glamorous and stylish life. But although Ethan had hoped to provide this, they are trapped by the smallness of the farm’s income. 

Zeena has a cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with them for she has nowhere else to go.

Zeena took the view that Mattie was bound to make the best of Starkfield since she hadn’t any other place to go; but this did not strike Ethan as conclusive. Zeena, at any rate, did not apply the principle in her own case. (39)

In this novella, both men and women are trapped by social conventions. With no one to provide a roof for her, and with little to recommend her as a servant, Mattie is one step away from prostitution. She must act as an unpaid servant for the Fromes to justify living with them.

Both Ethan and Mattie live lives of drudgery and both suffer from the effects of Zeena’s apparent ill health. Even more, Zeena wishes to hold her head up in Starkfield society, meagre though it is.

Both living in their own lonely worlds, Ethan falls for Mattie, and she for him. When Zeena goes away overnight to consult a doctor the pair enjoy a cosy evening and between them a bond grows. When she returns Zeena ratchets up the tension.

“I’ve got complications,” she said.

Ethan knew the word for one of exceptional import. Almost everybody in the neighbourhood had “troubles”, frankly localised and specified; but only the chosen had “complications”. To have them was in itself a distinction, though it was also, in most cases, a death-warrant. People struggled on for years with “troubles”, but they almost always succumbed to “complications”. (65)

Zeena plans to eject Mattie, and Ethan becomes desperate. Mattie will have to make her own way in the city, which means prostitution. The two feel they have no escape except to toboggan into a tree at speed, killing them both. They set off as if for her train and stop to find the sledge. Then comes the smash-up.

Instead of dying, the lovers are badly wounded. Mattie is confined to a wheelchair and Ethan suffered dreadful injuries. Zeena did not succumb to her complications, and instead the trio live together, tied to each other and to the town where the author meets them after a quarter of a century.

I think Edith Wharton was writing about the damage done by being trapped in a loveless marriage. Ethan and Zeena have very little economic power, but are tied by social convention, and any affection has evaporated between them. 

Edith Wharton had endured twenty-four years of a dreadful marriage with a man who was mentally unstable and who embezzled her money to set up his mistress. The ideas and development of the novella occurred at the time she was leaving him and developing her own passionate affair with Morton Fullerton.

Although Ethan Frome lives in a very different social milieu to Edith Wharton or to the characters in House of Mirth  the themes of the necessity of marriage for women, and of the restrictions of marriage and of marriage conventions are not so far away.

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton was first published in 1911. I used the Virago Modern Classic edition from 1991. (103pp). I bought it for £1 second hand in a National Trust bookshop at Dinefwr while in Wales recently.

You can find The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1906) here

A film of Ethan Frome was released in 1993, with Liam Neeson in the title role and also starring Patiricia Arquette and Joan Allen.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

The Fossil girls have talent and are enrolled by Madame Fidolia in the Children’s Academy of Dancing and Stage Training. The three girls have been adopted by Great Uncle Matthew and left in the care of his niece Sylvia while he goes off on another expedition. He is absent a long time and the money he leaves runs out, so their guardian takes in boarders and the girls find work on the stage. How will this work out for them? Published in 1936, Ballet Shoes  is a classic of children’s literature.

This is the fourth post in the Bookword 2019 Decades Project. One theme has emerged and is continued in this classic. This theme is the absence of parents. A second theme is the economic precariousness of girls’ lives in the inter-war years.

Ballet Shoes

The novel is set in London in the period between the world wars. Three orphan girls are collected by Great Uncle Matthew like fossils (after whom he names them). He leaves them in the care of his niece, Sylvia, who is helped by Nana, Cook and the maid, Clara. Pauline was rescued from a sinking ship, has acting ability and very good looks; Petrova’s Russian parents left her to GUM, and she can act but prefers cars and aeroplanes; Posy’s mother cannot look after her while following her career so she leaves her a pair of ballet shoes and gives her to GUM’s care. Posy is an exceptionally talented dancer.

GUM expected to be away for 5 years, but his absence extends much longer. When the money he provided runs out the girls and their guardians must make difficult decisions. All along they have known how important it is not to show that you are poor, but now they have to face losing their home. The girls find they must decide to do things they don’t want to do, like accept parts they don’t want or approach adults about parts they need.  

Each has lessons to learn about not getting too bumptious (Pauline), or finding ways to follow her interests (Petrova); or to seize every occasion to further her passion (Posy). 

The girls are assisted in their struggles by the boarders that Sylvia takes in: Theo who introduces them to the Dancing Academy and assists with their practice sessions; the two female academic doctors who teach them what they are missing by not being at school; Mr and Mrs Simpson who own a garage and a car and ferry them about from time to time. The sewing skills of Nana are frequently called upon for outfits for classes and auditions.

In the final pages, after several years of penury, taking parts for the money, scrimping and making do, the girls go their separate ways: Pauline to Hollywood with Sylvia, Petrova to learn about aeroplanes with GUM and Posy to Prague to study with a ballet master accompanied by Nana.

Ballet Shoes  reveals to young readers that hard work, loyalty to your aims, not being selfish and willingness to learn are essential to achieving your ambitions.

Ballet shoes in a shop window near Covent Garden

Noel Streatfeild

Noel Streatfeild was another prolific writer, like the others in this series, producing nearly 30 books for children and 16 novels for adults as well as many non-fiction books. She lived from 1895 – 1986. She spent time in the theatre but later turned to writing. She also did war work during both wars. 

Ballet Shoes was her first book for children, and it was an instant success. It has never been out of print. 

Despite what my spellchecker keeps telling me, that is how you spell her family name.

1st edition, 1936

Ballet Shoesby Noel Streatfeild was published in 1936. I used the Puffin edition from 2015. 326pp. Illustrations are by Ruth Gervis, who was Noel Streatfeild’s sister.

The Decade Project in 2019

In 2019, the third year of my Decades Project, I am exploring changing aspects of children’s fiction from the start of the 20thcentury through my monthly choices of a book from successive decades. Next month it will be a choice from 1940-49. Suggestions for decades are welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in this year’s Decades Project, which were 

Five Children and It by E Nesbit (1902)

The Secret Garden  by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911) And just a small note, that at one point Sylvia reads The Secret Garden  to the Fossils in Ballet Shoes

Joan’s Best Chum  by Angela Brazil (1926)

6 Comments

Filed under Books, Books for children, Learning, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project