Saturday 19 January 2019

Forgotten – and Not So Forgotten – Authors

Another book I was given for Christmas was The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler. Forgotten authors are of course meat and drink (and blog fodder) to the likes of me, and I've been happily browsing in its pages at odd moments. It's a fascinating collection of short author profiles (typically two or three pages) interspersed with longer assays on such themes as Why Are Good Authors Forgotten?, The Forgotten Booker Authors, Forgotten for Writing Too Little – and Too Much, and The Justly Forgotten Authors. There are many names here that are new to me, some that rang faint bells, and some that could only by a stretch be called 'forgotten' – Ronald Firbank? (always a cult but an enduring one), Barbara Pym? (forgotten once, but that was a long time ago), Edmund Crispin? (another comeback kid). As for omissions... Well, off the top of my head I'd nominate these once big, now (almost) forgotten names who haven't made Fowler's cut: Hugh Walpole, Compton Mckenzie, Hall Caine, A.J. Cronin, Warwick Deeping, Marie Corelli (and Ouida), Angus Wilson, Howard Spring, Jeffery Farnol, Elizabeth Jenkins of course, and there are no doubt many more. Perhaps there could be a second volume, or an expanded edition...
  One writer who does, deservedly, feature in Christopher Fowler's list is Barbara Comyns (under her married name, Barbara Comyns Carr). I've read and written about two of her novels, and by chance I happened upon a third very recently – Our Spoons Came from Woolworths. This, I have to say, is one of the most misleadingly and offputtingly titled books I've ever come across. The title leads you to expect a charming, frothy, rather twee memoir of a couple setting up home together with insufficient money – poor but happy, coping good-humouredly with their early struggles, etc. The early chapters of Our Spoons do suggest that that is just what we're going to get – but the very first sentence tells another story altogether: 'I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.' This, though it ends happily (as is also revealed in the first paragraph), is a very dark story, in which every up (until the last one) is followed by an almighty down, each one deeper than the last. And yet, most of the time, it reads more as comedy than as tragedy. The tone belies the content almost as much as the title.
  Comyns tells this first-person story in simple language and short direct sentences, reflecting the quirky naïveté of her protagonist, Sophia, 20 years old at the beginning and about to embark on an ill-advised marriage to an egotistical would-be artist. There are parallels with Barbra Comyns's own life story, but, as she states in an author's note, 'The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty'. Chapters 10, 11 and 12 turn out to be a hair-raising account of the horrors, dangers and humiliations of giving birth on a public ward in the Thirties, before the advent of the NHS and the welfare state. These horrors are a foretaste of even worse things to come later in the story, including a descent into abject poverty and privation: no gas, no electricity, no hot water, no fuel but sticks gathered on Primrose Hill, and almost no food.
  It could be argued that the author's tone clashes awkwardly with the material – but it could be equally well argued that it saves that material from becoming simply unbearable and stops the book descending into a misery memoir. It's more a memoir of quite extraordinary resilience and buoyancy in the face of a truly terrible sequence of events. That happy ending is, to put it mildly, hard won and well deserved.
  I wouldn't rate Ours Spoons Came from Woolworths as highly as The Vet's Daughter or Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, but it's a quite extraordinary novel and I'm glad to have found it.

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