Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns

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‘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.

Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton

I’ve always been a fan of Richmal Crompton’s ‘William’ books for children. Liberally peppered with hilarious incidents and cringeworthy escapades, it is hard to think that Crompton could be capable of writing a sentence that was not funny. I was therefore, intrigued to discover Crompton was a prolific writer of adult, ‘serious’ novels. ‘Family Roundabout’ published by Persephone books, is my first experience with Crompton, writing a non-William book and I must say that I rather enjoyed this alternative voice of Crompton too!

Excerpt: This Persephone book looks at the complex relationship between two neighbouring families, the Fowlers and the Willoughbys,  whose outlooks on life, are on one hand in opposition to one another, but on the other hand, find their paths unavoidably intertwined. Both the matriarch’s of the families, keep a close eye on the fates of their beloved families, but employ different styles in guiding them. Mrs Willoughby, has control of the family fortune, and dictates the actions of her family members by way of controlling the money she endows them. Benevolent Mrs Fowler, watches silently, as her children fall in and out of their individual problems. Most of her children appeal for her help when they require it. But despite, however, much the mothers’ try to resolve their children’s problems, new troubles, recur in cyclical events, almost like a roundabout.

  • Title: Family Roundabout
  • Author: Richmal Crompton
  • Published: 1948 by Hutchinson , later published by Persephone Books in 2001.
  • Location of the story: rural England, in the years preceding World War II.
  • Main Characters: the two families: the Fowlers and the Willoughbys.

Family Roundabout, essentially deals with the domestic events occurring in the neighbouring households of the Fowlers and the Willoughbys. At the start of the book, both the patriarchs of the families have died, leaving their wives at the helm of family affairs.

Mrs. Fowler or Millicent has for so many years moulded her personality to suit the requirements of her husband and family, she has forgotten that she has an individual voice of her own. Quite interestingly, in the first few pages of the book we are introduced to the concept of Millicent having a split personality of sorts- that of the muddle-headed, self-effacing, diminutive ‘Milly’ and also that of ‘Millicent’ – a more discerning, quick-witted, astute individual with a sharp intellect.

Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade

We see in the course of the novel, Mrs Fowler, taking judicious steps to guide the progress of her family but always hiding proof of any deliberate intentions under the ruse of the bemused ‘Millie’.

The Fowlers are a large family who live in Langley Place, a country house located in the small village of Hurstmede, three miles away from the country town of Bellington. When Henry Fowler dies, he leaves behind Millicent, and their five children: Matthew (28) (living abroad in Kenya), Peter an architect (26)(married to Belle), Anice (24), Helen (22) and the youngest Judy, a schoolgirl of 16.

Willoughby, the owner of a large paper-mill, leaves his money in its entirety to his wife, Mrs Willoughby who chooses to distribute this money to her children as she sees fit. As a result she has complete control over the movements of her children. Dasg and dash, wedded to dash and dash respectively, respond to Mrs illooghby’s beck and call much to the consternation of their husbands. But household expenses, clothes and school fees are paid for so there is little or no protest. Max, as the eldest son, takes over as the de facto head of the mills. The youngest son, Oliver, has literary aspirations to publish a novel but his ideas are met with strong disproval from his mother and he forced to at least appear to work in the family business.

While Henry  Fowler and Willoughby were alive the two families paths seldom met. They were separated from one another by a vague idea of class difference and contempt for each other’s standing in society.

The Fowlers were of the county, while the Willoughbys were of the town.”

After the death of the two patriarchs Max and Helen decide to marry, thus unavoidably intertwining the paths of the two families.  Cool and calculative Helen  meets with her mother-in-laws approval and is usually consulted regarding all family affairs. The two youngest children of the respective families, Judy Fowler and Cynthia Willougby are close friends and go to school together. They share a shared juvenile obsession for a famous contemporary author.

Slowly, we are introduced into the individual lives of the Willoughbys and Fowlers. We learn that Peter Fowler has an unhappy home that he shares with his neurotic, manipulative wife Belle and their young daughter Gillian. Peter has a close bond with his brother Matthew, who lives in Kenya , but who frequently writes to their mother about his intentions of returning to his family home.

Anise, close in age to Helen, has grown up in her beautiful younger sisters shadow, marries a poor bookshop employee four of  love and lives an unhappy life constantly trying to compete with her wealthy sister Helen. Judy, grows up to be a beautiful young woman, and she and Oliver , the youngest Willoughby fall in love with one another. Mrs Willoughby, disapproves of the alliance, and tries to discourage Oliver from marrying her. Judy, yearning for the city life, cajoles Oliver into forsaking his position in the family business and tries to convince him to live an independent life in the city as a writer, However, timid Oliver finds himself constantly mustering up the courage to make this tremendous leap into financial insecurity.

Mrs Fowler, silently witnesses the trial and tribulations of her family. She waits in the sidelines, anticipating each wrong turn that her children and grandchildren might make and silently tries to steer them in the right direction. She suffers silently and is often unable to make matters right.

Mrs Willoughby, on the other hand, rules her family with an iron hand. Though she is benevolent and kind to her extended family, several of them poor and aged, she is often dictatorial and uncompromising with her immediate family.

Both women have the well being of their families foremost in their minds, whatever, their methods of dealing with their family problems might be. At the end of the story the two women have a remarkable conversation about family troubles, recurring at cyclical intervals,almost like a constantly moving roundabout.

Family Roundabout by Crompton is a well written, critical observation of domestic drama  and complex familial relationships. Crompton  simultaneously relates the interplay of several plot threads. Each of the characters and their relationships are described with remarkable clarity. Foibles in human character are acutely observed. None of the characters are perfect. Each one of them has their own individual shortcomings and they are remarkably  human. They are prone to make mistakes, and just as their mother’s rush to their sides to offer them assistance, so too do they awaken the sympathy of the reader.

 

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Title: Goodnight Moon

Author: Margaret Wise Brown

Illustrator: Clement Hurd

Published: 1947

Main Characters: a little bunny, an elderly lady bunny.

Short Synopsis of the Story: It is seven o’clock at night and a little bunny in striped blue pajamas is lying in bed in his green bedroom. There are many objects in the green room that are described in great detail- a telephone, a balloon, some kittens and a pair of mittens and also an elderly lady bunny sitting by the fire knitting, willing the little bunny to go to sleep. The large bedroom window is partially draped to reveal a midnight blue night sky with many stars. The bright lights in the green room gradually grow dim, casting light and shadow across the objects in the room, lulling the little bunny into sleep. As we say goodnight to each little object in the room, the bunny gets sleepier and sleepier, the rooms gets darker and darker, the stars get brighter in the night sky and the moon appears like a white lump of cheese. Soon the green room is completely dark except for the light shining in the red doll’s house and the red flames of the fire. The little bunny falls asleep.

Favorite Part of the Story:  This is the quintessential bedtime book. Visually it is a very appealing book. The details of the little objects in the room are captivating. The pairing of the beautiful images with the simple repetitive rhyme of the story lulls us into sleep. The transition of the lighted green room into the darkened green room, illuminated by the starry night sky outside and the doll’s house lights inside is perhaps the most memorable part of the story.

This is a nice book to introduce to children from a very early age as a daily bedtime ritual. It is understandable why this is a timeless classic for children.

September 2015 Favourites : Books, Audiobooks, Bookish Blogposts, Movies, Library Hauls and Much More.

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September 2015 was a slow but good month for new books, audiobooks and movies. It took a little time getting into our normal routine after our month long trip to India. Here is a round up of my September (and a little bit of August) favourites …

In the month of August the only two books I had read from my Holiday Reading List were coincidentally Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (a fantastic read) and Tempestuous April by Betty Neels.  Both of them contained April in the title but here the similarity end. I will leave you to arrive at your own conclusions…

Enchanted April is the perfect read for a summer vacation and found it into my September blogpost that lists Eight Books that Remind Me of Summer. Set in Portofino, Italy, Enchanted April tells of a sort of ‘re-birth’ of four different women who travel to Italy to spend time in a rented medieval castle, to find solace in the beautiful surroundings.

In September we frequently visited our library.

Little M and I are continuing to read from the Time Magazine’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books. Two books on this list are Tuesday by David Wiesner and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.

Tuesday is more of a picture book with terrific illustrations. It tells the tale of a series of animal invasions that strike at a particular time and place, namely Tuesday evening at around eight o’clock in a small suburb. Frogs invade the skies in hundreds of thousands, flying along on lilypad aircraft. They invade backyards, dark sitting rooms where people are dozing off in front of the television. Neither the press nor the police know what to make of it the day after, when the town is strewn with abandoned lilypads. All is well until next Tuesday at the same time… when a shadow of a flying pig is seen eerily set against a barn door…

Owl Moon is another wonderfully atmospheric book. It tells the story of a young child setting out on her very first owling expedition with her father. The night sky glows with the golden glow of a full moon- the best time to view an owl in the deep, snow laden woods. It is a tale of patience and forbearance, excitement and anticipation.

We are really enjoying all the books on the Time Magazine’s list of Top 100 Children’s Books. I cannot recommend them enough. Not on the list but of great entertainment value to Little M, is another installment of the Sofia the First entertainment series (she missed her a great deal whilst in India).

My reading in September was slow. I’ve started The Land Where Lemons Grow  by Helena Attlee which is a history of the introduction of citrus fruit in Italy. In great detail it researches how this fruit  has invaded the Italian imagination, from Calabria’s Diamante citrons, the blood oranges of Sicily, to the bergamot thriving on narrow strips of coastline. There is a bit of everything in this part history, part horticulture, sociopolitical culinary book offering.

I finished the latest installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh series featuring philosopher Isabel Dalhousie called ‘The Novel Habits of Happiness’. As usual the book has a little bit of everything that I love, scenes from a Scottish city, romance, a light mystery, memorable characters and very large doses of reflection. It is the first book I reach for when I come back from our holiday.

Another book that I have started is a ‘cozy’ post-WW1 mystery set in Leeds called ‘Dying in the Wool‘ by Frances Brody. Speaking of mysteries, September marked the 125th Birth Anniversary of Dame Agatha Christie which I celebrated with my blogpost ‘An Ode to Agatha Christie: Celebrating Her 125th Birth Anniversary with Eight Memorable Books’.

I bought an audiobook from Audible in September called ‘In and Out of the Kitchen’ by Miles Jupp and cannot recommend it enough. It is a BBC 4 radio drama about a ‘cookery writer’ Damien Trench and his writing and domestic struggles.The writing is so very funny in a wry sort of way… really enjoying it.

As the mother of a 3 year old I find it impossible to visit the cinema nowadays and watch ‘non-princess themed’ movies. One of the bonuses of the Emirates flights to and from India was the excellent selection of current movies . On the way to India I watched ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ which I loved and has inspired me to give this favourite Hardy a re-read. On the way back to the US, I was lucky enough to watch the dramatized version of Vera Brittain’s poignant WW1 memoir ‘Testament of Youth’ which was epic. I cannot recommend these two movies enough.

Lastly, the whole family watched not one but two dramatized versions of C.S. Lewis’s classic -The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe… and Aslan made it into my art journal.

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Hope you had a wonderful September. See you in October xxx.

Preparing for a trip to Martha’s Vineyard, a Library Haul (week 25, 2015) and my obsession with stationery

My brother of Budgettraveller.org fame is visiting us this week. We will be going on a mini-holiday with him to the island of Martha’s Vineyard. As usual, it’s more about preparing for the trip for me. I like to plan, make lists of things I would like to do, see and eat on the trip… and there is one thing you should know about me. I love stationery. Notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers, rulers, pencil pouches- I love them all. This is the first trip on which I will be using my Midori Traveler’s Notebook or MTN for short. It looks like this.Processed with VSCOcam with t1 preset

Basically, its a piece of beautiful dark brown leather that can house several small notebooks that you can take on your travels with you or use at home. One of the three notebooks I have inside has a long list of things to do in Martha’s Vineyard. Of course there’s a section devoted to the bookshops and public libraries on the island ( typical of me and my priorites in life).

Something else that I am planning are the art supplies that I want to take with me.

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Here’s what I am thinking: my mtn, the hobonichi for journaling which I have neglected in the past week, a moleskine sketchbook and a Winsor and Newton pocket paint palette. Oh, and the little orange suitcase is a tiny receptacle for holding paint water!

Something else that I am currently obsessed with is my summery watermelon pouch, immortalized forever in my art journal.

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I am planning to take Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence with me. I am reading a chapter a month throughout this year and have April, May and June to catch up with. It’s the perfect book to take on travels.

Here is the library haul for this week.

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Sometimes books on my ‘to be read ‘ list are very much pre-meditated. Sometimes, though, visiting the ‘New in Fiction’ book shelf at the library can be a very dangerous place for me. Especially if the blurb on the back seems interesting, and the front cover is appealing- you will find the book quickly disappearing into my library book bag. The Awakening of Miss Prim by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera- had me in two seconds. Briefly the book is about Prudence Prim, a young woman who accepts a position as a librarian in the village of San Ireneo de Arnois and quite unexpectedly finds love. A young woman, a rural foreign setting, mentions of tea, cake and libraries – it was all more than I could resist. Can’t wait to start this book.

I have been on the waiting list to read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo since the beginning of this year. I was requester number 556 on the long list and this week my luck changed and it was my turn to take the book home. I’m not really in the mood for spring cleaning at the moment but I will give the book a quick lookover, given the great popularity that surrounds it at the moment.

Inspector Lewis is a great detective series that I thought we could watch together in the evenings at Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve not seen or heard anything about Clatterford, but it is a BBC production and therefore in my eyes can do no wrong.

Tangled- well it is a great favorite of Little M’s especially since she has a Rapunzel or ‘Funzel’ nightdress now. The poor DVD spends more time at our house than on the library shelves!

Till next week, when I will hopefully bring back travel tales, farewell friends!