Thursday, July 6, 2017

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Whenever I am browsing Kepler's Books for a good read and nothing on the "new" table appeals, I often scan the fiction shelves for a book with the NYRB logo on the spine and give it a try. Nine times out of ten I am quite happy with the outcome. New York Review Books Classics specializes in novels that were well-received in their day but have disappeared from print and still deserve to be read. Many of the best of them are early- to mid-century British novels.

Barbara Comyns's Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a great example. By turns funny and harrowing, and often both, it is the account of a young woman in Depression-era London struggling with poverty, a deadbeat husband, and a sequence of not entirely welcome pregnancies. Published in 1950, it is remarkably frank about reproduction, medicalized births, and even abortion. The writing is spare, unadorned, pedestrian in places, but all the more effective for that. The depiction of Sophia's stay in a working-class London hospital for her first birth is a tour-de-force. In labor, she is brought into a ward where she is shaved, sponged with stinging disinfectant ("This smarted a lot, but it was was almost a relief to have a different sort of pain"), and administered an enema followed by a dose of castor oil.
After this I escaped from the torture chamber and was taken to a room called the labour ward. There were other women there that had not actually started their labour yet, but were expected to have difficult confinements. They were talking quite cheerfully, and it made me feel better to hear them, because all the nurses had been so grumpy and impatient with me. I had begun to think it was a disgraceful wicked thing to do– to have a baby.
Sophia's naiveté and passive resignation to her plainly dreadful marriage are at first frustrating to a modern feminist reader, but objectively speaking her options are limited, and it's not long before her humor and equanimity can be seen as manifestations of deeper strength and resourcefulness. Eventually taking command of her life, as best she can, there is the prospect of a happy ending. If she gets it, it will only be what she deserves; if not, only what she has reason to expect. Which will it be, reader? I urge you to obtain a copy of this gem of a novel and find out for yourself.

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