Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
New York Review Books, 2015 edition, original 1950
A NYRB book of the month selection, I wasn’t expecting great things from the blurb I had read about this book. The story seemed to mundane – merely a history of a couple meeting, marrying, and evolving in depression era London. In a way that does sum the book up, but it doesn’t do justice to the art of storytelling by which the tale is told.
The tale begins with a few sentences foreshadowing some great tragedy in store, then begins with two young and artistic, yet financially very insecure, individuals meeting on a train and proceeding through courtship and secretive wedding planning due to the groom’s family, particularly the mother, disapproving of the match -in her view, her son is a brilliant artist still in need of total freedom and the bride is trying to steal that from him. Never mind that his paintings aren’t selling, and her more lucrative, if less romantic, job as a commercial studio artist is mainly paying the bills. Soon a child-to-be enters the picture, and we are treated to a historical exposé of the state of family planning and maternity care for those at the bottom end of the economic scale in that timeframe which is based strongly on the author’s direct experience.
As the son grows, the couple grows apart. Having lost her job at the studio when she had the child, the wife turns to some contacts she has in the art community and begins modelling for paintings and sculpture, finding a way to manage childcare in the process. Soon another pregnancy begins, but the husband is adamant that he doesn’t want any more children. They keep it secret, and she has an illegal abortion with complications, the operation paid for by the husband going to their better off friends and telling them that they were about to be kicked out of their flat and needed cash urgently. During her recovery they send the son off to stay with the husband’s relatives in the country where he becomes the playmate of that couple’s slightly older daughter, and once the mother is better they offer to keep the son for a while longer – which the poverty the couple is in and the better situation for the son makes highly agreeable. This allows the wife to once again begin working at a commercial studio, and in the course of time she meets another artist and ends up becoming his mistress.
Eventually they reclaim their son, yet the couple grows further apart. The husband is also having an affair, and when the wife becomes pregnant with her lover’s child she debates telling him, but decided to let him believe it is his. Shortly after the daughter is born and their son is once again off staying with others, she does decide to tell him but he preempts her by telling her about his own affair and that he no longer loves her or the children. She decided to move in with her lover, but finds he is no longer living where they used to meet and obtains another address for him, which turns out to be his house with his wife, where she and her daughter are thrown out on the street. She wanders central London, eventually finding a doorway to sleep in where she is later woken by the police and taken to a station. In a feverish delirium, she realizes that they have separated her from her daughter and eventually finds herself waking up in a hospital, where both she and her daughter are being treated for scarlet fever. She survives, her daughter doesn’t.
The story could have ended here, but instead it opts for a happier ending. Her brother agrees to take her and her son in for a while and help her find a new job as a housekeeper where she can live and also take care of her son. They end up at a farm near a quaint village, and she happens to meet an artist who has based in the village for a few weeks to paint landscapes. They fall for each other, he proposes, she accepts, and she and her son soon find themselves in a comfortable upper middle class existence with an adoring husband / stepfather.