Barbara Comyns’s daring depiction of childbirth.
Some books need no introduction because they’re better if you don’t know what to expect, and it occurs to me that Our Spoons Came from Woolworths might be one of those books. Certainly I wasn’t prepared for it the first time I read it, and I don’t think I noticed the first time its tone abruptly shifted from lighthearted and twee to something more like horror. But then it happened again, and I started to pay closer attention. The book revealed itself to be darker and more complex than its premise—young artists secretly marry and begin to feather a bohemian nest in 1930s London, with pet newts and layaway-plan furniture and inexpensive cutlery—seems to promise. A clue to its nature is in a 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.”
Our Spoons was Barbara Comyns’s second published novel. Her first, Sisters by a River, also drew on her remarkable early life experiences, describing a largely unsupervised childhood taking place in the first decade of the twentieth century in a crumbling estate on the River Avon. The eccentric, often appalling family she described, with its alcoholic father and damaged, batty mother, was by all accounts very similar to her own. Published in 1947 and 1950, respectively, these books seem to have been valued at the time for what some critics called their “childlike” qualities; her first publisher not only preserved her misspellings but added additional mistakes to enhance the impression of naive charm. This condescending attitude offended Comyns. Her writing style was certainly untutored—she had almost no formal education except her years in art school, and by some accounts did not encounter published books until moving to London in her late teens, at which point she destroyed all her own early stories and drawings. But she was far from unsophisticated; the destabilizing inconsistency of tone that she cultivates to devastating effect in Our Spoons, for example, is entirely deliberate. Comyns wants to catch her readers off guard, and so charming daffiness runs right alongside frank and understated evocations of what it was like to be young, female, and crushingly poor. Most strikingly, she captures the shock, in the three “true” chapters, of what labor and delivery in a public hospital were like at that moment in the history of medicalized childbirth.
The narrator of Our Spoons, Sophia Fairclough, is taken by surprise when she becomes pregnant almost immediately after her wedding. “I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.” Her husband, Charles, who has a similarly fantastical idea about the definition of “birth control,” nevertheless blames and resents Sophia. “Oh dear, what will the family say? How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram!” He then reassures her by telling her that she might miscarry. Charles’s wealthy family offers the couple nothing but disapproving and useless advice. His painting rarely brings in any money so Sophia supports them by working at a commercial studio until she is fired for being pregnant. She then works as a model, but her meager wages don’t even cover adequate food or heat, and even after moving to cheaper lodgings with a shared bathroom, they fall behind on rent. Charles can’t be bothered to care. “As soon as Charles started to paint he forgot about the cold and money worries. That is how artists should be, but I was only a commercial artist, so I went on worrying. In any case, there was all the work of the flat, and shopping and cooking to do when I returned home in the evening.”
Up until this point in the novel the Faircloughs’ poverty has seemed almost picturesque, but there is nothing romantic about being pregnant and starving. It’s easy for the reader to feel frustrated with Sophia, whose scraps of pride prevent her from being honest with anyone who might help her escape her poverty (and Charles), as on her last day of work at the commercial studio, when she lies that Charles has lots of commissions coming and that she’s looking forward to a rest. But it’s also possible that the subtle shifts in circumstance, from bohemian to broke, are more perceptible in retrospect, and it’s believable that a young and under-informed woman without other experience of marriage would have no idea what the reality of having a child with a wastrel might entail. So, soon we find ourselves at the book’s first horrific peak: those “true” chapters that take place on the maternity ward.
Childbirth, in literature, almost always takes place “offstage,” outside a book’s main action. Even contemporary novels, unless they are specifically about motherhood, birth babies in a sentence or two. What was Comyns up to, then, in devoting three chapters of this short book to Sophia’s labor and delivery? One possibility: the description of Sophia’s labor make the class and sex limbo that threatens her life inescapably clear: she is too middle-class to give birth, as poor people still mostly did in 1930, at home, but she is too poor to give birth, as richer women did, attended by competent doctors in a private hospital.
Instead, she is treated brutally at the public hospital where a thoughtful friend of a friend has managed to get her admitted as a charity case. The fate that awaits her there is horrifying in part because its horror is so commonplace; millions of women shared it, and worse, still do. Even today birth is pathologized and shrouded in mystery in most of the developed world. Comyns, with her knack for defamiliarization that reveals the strangeness of the most familiar, was a perfect observer of the absurdity of the situation in which her narrator—and in which she—found herself. “Besides being very uncomfortable it made me feel dreadfully shamed and exposed. People would not dream of doing such a thing to an animal. I think the ideal way to have a baby would be in a dark, quiet room, all alone and not hurried.”
With these frank and detailed chapters, Comyns elevates what might have been a commonplace melodrama about a girl led astray into much more unusual sort of novel—especially for its time. The particulars of Sophia’s birth are outdated, but the feelings she describes—of shame, helplessness, and terror, wonder at her baby countered by fear for his life—are still far too common in life, yet still far too rare in literature.
This essay appears as the introduction to the new edition of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, out November 10, from New York Review Books. Reprinted with permission.
Emily Gould is the author of the essay collection And the Heart Says Whatever and the novel Friendship. She is the co-owner of Emily Books and lives in Brooklyn.