I was first introduced to Sophia Fairclough in 1985 by my new English teacher, the kind who came to lessons without notes and charmed those susceptible to such charm with his raw excitement for good writing. Sophia herself, although fictional, was immediately real to me: a quirky, self-deprecating, parentless artist who took people at face value and made many mistakes as a result. I loved her. I loved her naïvety, her optimism, even her self-destructive behaviour. I wanted to shake her into action but I also wanted to be her. She became an unlikely heroine for me, for though I planned to be a writer when I was older rather than an artist, I was quite prepared to suffer, to be poor, to live off tinned soup, even to fail in love, if these experiences enriched my writing.
I remember my first meeting with Sophia well. As usual we fell silent as Mr Fitzmaurice came into the room. He was still on trial, though I had long since made up my mind about him. He was a small man with big hair; he always wore black but not polo necks, so I don’t think he was an existentialist, despite the constant smell of cigarettes. But he was a teacher who loved his subject and that was all that mattered to me. And then he began to tell us about one of his favourite writers, Barbara Comyns, reading us the first page of Sophia’s story, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths (1950), as a taster.
I was hooked: she was my near namesake, the title of the novel was unforgettable, and the writing was completely different from anything I had read before. After the lesson I went straight to the library and found the novel in its green Virago casing with a grotesque Stanley Spencer woman’s bottom looming out of the front cover. I read it that weekend, cried a lot when it was finished, and over the next few months bought or borrowed all the books by Barbara Comyns that were in print.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the semi-autobiographical second novel of a rather glamorous-looking woman with painted eyebrows and rosebud lips; a black-and-white film star rather than an impoverished writer. From a once rich, then poor family, married first to an artist and later – apparently – to a spy, Comyns travelled, washed plates, bred poodles, painted, wrote and came to the attention of Graham Greene. There is not a great deal else to be found about her, apart from a typically witty five-page autobiographical introduction to the 1980 reprint of a later novel, The Vet’s Daughter, and few people seem to have heard of her. Yet those who do know her writing have, like me, read everything by her in a rather obsessive fashion.
There are two things that are remarkable about Spoons. The first is the story itself, with its unselfconscious fairy-tale theme. Sophia is a kind of Cinderella, having lived in bedsits since she was 17 for reasons not explained. We discover, towards the end, that her father died after swallowing a wasp but we learn little else about her pre-novel life. The story charts her journey towards a state of being ‘not unhappy’, as she tells us on the first page, but this is typical Sophia understatement: at the end of the novel a prince of sorts does come.
Along the way we witness the collapse of her marriage to a deeply selfish and quite probably talentless artist, the birth of her first child, an affair with a man with a ridiculous name, and a variety of sometimes funny, often tragic events. What is odd is that the ending does not come as a cliché, perhaps because there is nothing overly thought-through about the novel, no sense that Comyns has planned each section carefully and deliberately alluded to other literary texts. Jane Eyre gets several mentions but this is not a reworking of Brontë’s story: Jane is simply a character to whom Sophia relates. One might describe Comyns’s approach as artless and there is something very refreshing in this, particularly when so much contemporary fiction seems so clever for the sake of being clever.
Comyns’s writing style in both Spoons and her other novels is also unusual. I have often tried to describe her books to friends and have always found it difficult. On the face of it, there is a simplicity about her writing, a straightforwardness which is almost child-like. This is partly because Comyns is telling the story through Sophia who is herself naïve, particularly about love and the facts of life, exposing, rather poignantly, her motherless state. Each pregnancy comes as a surprise, even a shock; and deaths are often described in asides. But this childlike world-view means that Sophia’s narration is without pretension and allows her to record incidents without the judgement that a more sophisticated narrator would bring.
The effect is both humorous and unsettling. Sophia seriously considers leaving her baby and pram attached to the railings outside her office so she can return to work once the baby is born – an indication of her inability to understand how the world works. More uncomfortable, though, is her graphic description of a painful and lonely labour. Sophia is treated badly, is given no information, and is not allowed to see her new baby for some time. She appears to feel no bitterness towards her husband who never wanted a child, but blames herself for giving birth at all. This sequence of events is made all the more disturbing by an author’s note on the copyright page to the effect that Chapters 10, 11 and 12 (the birth) are ‘true’.
This sense of dislocation from her life, both as a narrator and as a participant, creates a style that borders on the surreal, which is the best word I can find to describe Comyns’s writing. Vicky, the heroine of a later novel, A Touch of Mistletoe (1967), is given a ticket to the Surrealist Exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, a real event in 1936 which featured the work of such artists as Dalí and Miró. Vicky writes that she ‘visited it over and over again and it was as if [she] had been given an extra eye to see with and ordinary objects took on new shapes’.
This surrealism goes further than just the writing style. Comyns creates a world in which magical events are given the same credence as real ones; to me she seems an early magical realist, prefiguring the work of writers such as Angela Carter. Just as Sophia fails to comment on her husband’s infidelity or her constant and acute poverty, she does not express any surprise when she sees her mother’s ghost. Despite being in acute pain, the pregnant Sophia decides not to wake her husband until her dead mother, on the rocking-chair in front of the bed, tells her it is time to go to hospital. The reader is expected to accept the truth of her mother’s presence because when he awakes her husband acknowledges it too. For me, this is a particularly sad passage because it takes a voice from the grave to insist that Sophia assume responsibility for herself.
The unworldly is given a much more dramatic rôle in The Vet’s Daughter (1959). Re-reading all Comyns’s novels together for the first time in about fifteen years, I must conclude – reluctantly and with apologies for my disloyalty to Spoons – that it is also probably her best, rightly listed in the Observer’s ‘Ten Best Neglected Literary Classics’ in 2011. Much more controlled, much barer in style, the novel is a shocking account of the economic and social powerlessness of women in the period before the Second World War. All her novels deal with this theme but in The Vet’s Daughter, Alice Rowlands’s life is so grotesque and emotionally deprived that her only escape is literally to levitate out of her circumstances.
It is also one of the most moving accounts of loss and grief that I have read: my own mother died a couple of years ago, and so for me the description of the death of Alice’s mother was very powerful. Alice is angry, confused, rejected, distraught, wanting it to be over soon because it is so painful for all concerned yet desperate for this period never to end. Mrs Rowlands tells Alice stories about herself, particularly about her childhood, as she lies in bed waiting to die, some sad, some happy; my mother did the same with me. It was one of the hardest times of my life but the shared knowledge of my mother’s imminent departure brought the two of us closer than we had ever been before. In The Vet’s Daughter, Comyns captures that deathbed intensity between mother and daughter perfectly.
And yet, and yet, I come back to Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. I have read it at least ten times; it is my comfort read of choice despite some discomfort along the way; a novel of aspiration and inspiration. It is a reminder of the end of my innocent love of English; the moment when I began to recognize the difference between the superb stories of page-turning novelists such as Monica Dickens and Lynne Reid Banks and the superb and unusual story-telling of literary writers like Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamond Lehmann.
It is also a reminder of the importance of this English teacher to me and of several others who introduced to me similarly life-changing texts: Miss Shadlock who gave the 11-year-old me Jane Eyre; Mrs Babuta who showed me, aged 17, the rose garden in ‘Burnt Norton’. It was because of such teachers that I became an English teacher myself: I wanted to enthuse about my favourite novels and encourage others to fall in love with words; I wanted to teach like these teachers; and, perhaps rather egotistically, I wanted to inspire young readers and writers. Curiously I never quite felt able to teach Spoons; I taught Lehmann’s Invitation to the Waltz and Antonia White’s Frost in May, but I kept Barbara Comyns to myself, sneaking her in only on booklists for my students’ general reading. Until now.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 42 © Sophie Breese 2014