‘Our Spoons Came from Woolworths’ is the story of twenty-one year old Sophia, during the time when she was married to Charles Fairclough. The story is in its entirety, a first person narrative and tells of the harrowing poverty, the ups and downs of the young couple, in a time during which Charles refuses to take any financial responsibility for his household, using his need to practice his art as an excuse to shirk his duties.
The story commences when Sophia and Charles, two art students, meet on a train, are immediately drawn to one another and decide to marry even in the face of severe opposition from Charles’s family, who believe that domestic responsibilities and marriage will hamper Charles’s artistic progress. Charles’s mother Eva, practically falls upon Sophia and accuses her of trapping her son.
Eva said I was not capable of love, only lust, and it was all a trap to catch Charles.
They are married in less than ideal conditions, in a church ceremony, presided over by an impatient priest, a handful of less then enthusiastic friends and relatives and the bride wearing an ugly green wrap-over skirt that had a tendency to unwrap at the most inopportune moments.
They arrange to live in a small flat on Haverstock Hill in London. With the ten pounds that a spiritualist friend gives them for a wedding gift they buy furniture and household essentials.
We had a proper tea-set from Waring and Gillow, and a lot of blue plates from Woolworths; our cooking things came from there, too. I had hoped they would give us a set of real silver teaspoons when we bought the wedding-ring but the jeweler we went to wouldn’t so our spoons came from Woolworths, too.
Sophia earns two pounds a week with which she pays the rent, food and other household expenses. Charles stays at home painting. He sometimes tries to get work at commercial studios but nothing turns up in the face of the Great Depression. He is not troubled by the fact that he does not in any way contribute to the family. Sophia states:
Charles was quite happy just painting away, and as long as I earned two pounds a week and there were a few cheques in the drawer he hadn’t a care in the world.
This happiness is broken when Sophia quite unexpectedly discovers that she is expecting a child. At first she thinks her sickness is a result of eating too many strawberries but a visit to the doctors dispels that idea.
There is a quite memorable passage describing Sophia’s vague ideas regarding birth control:
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. I thought that was what was meant by birth-control, but by this time I knew that idea was quite wrong.
Sophia although eager to be a mother is weighed down with the knowledge that Charles is terribly against being a father because he does believes they will not fit in with the kind of life he want to lead.
As time goes on, the stash of wedding cheques kept in a drawer whittle down and the couple find themselves living from hand to mouth, always guessing where the next few pounds will come from, to pay of their substantial debts. The descriptions of the poverty that Comyns describes are at times quite harrowing. They are told in quite a light manner though so that the reader does not feel excessively weighed down.
Sophia’s loss of job before having the baby signals the downward spiral that the couple find it hard to recover from.
I found the book to be quite compelling reading. The descriptions of Sophia’s child delivery in the hospital were at times quite funny but also shocking. The book quite brilliantly reflects the period that it describes, the hard circumstances of the Depression and the plight of women.
The book is very much a story about women, for women. Even in the depths of helplessness and despair for Sophia we are witness to her great strength and determination.
‘Our Spoons came from Woolworths’ is an exceptional domestic drama and Comyns displays consummate skill as a voluble spokesperson for the downtrodden women of that age.