Tag Archives: 1930’s Literature

Butterfield 8, by John O’Hara

4 stars4/5

BUtterfield 8, set in the 1930s, is the story of New York good time girl Gloria Wandrous who was inspired by real-life flapper-girl Starr Faithful. Don’t Google her if you plan to read the book! The story was also turned in to a film starring the late Elizabeth Taylor which is apparently only superficially based on the book but has already been added on my to-watch list.

Vintage Classics, 2008 paperback edition, 240 pages - book group choice

This is a novel that is definitely helped by discussion as I found out at my latest Riverside Readers group meeting. I can imagine it being an excellent book for a literature course, because there is so much depth to it. The strongest themes are around human relationships, particularly exploring love, sex, friendship and marriage. Gloria enjoys sexual freedom, hanging out in speakeasies, matching the men she meets drink for drink and yet she also has a great platonic friendship with Eddie “one of those plain Californians”, with whom we see her at her most vulnerable. O’Hara’s portrait of her seems honest, yet sympathetic. He seems to have a great understanding of, and respect for women which is expressed in the dialogue of his characters and makes me think that he must have had a great many close female friends.

Because of the liberal way in which women and men’s attitudes to sex are discussed BUtterfield 8 feels modern, but perhaps this is because in the early 1930’s, modernity was indeed clashing with the conservative elements in society.

A newspaper imaged pinched from the Starr Faithfull blog

One of the real strengths of this book is the way that O’Hara represents time and place. He really makes the reader feel the atmosphere, by using specific references whether it be the kind of cocktails that the characters drink, descriptions of the clothing that college-girls wear or of the “Yale boys”, “Mr. Average Man” or by refuting the idea that there can be any real “symbol of modern youth” as imagined by F. Scott Fitzgerald. O’Hara presents society in all its shades of grey. I also loved the way that O’Hara showed how the depression had only really begun to touch the upper echelons of society but gave practical examples of how it was effecting the professional classes such as increased rents. While the depression wasn’t central to the book it did add to the feeling that many people’s lives were ready to spiral out of their normal paths.

While many of the characters in the book are vivid, at times there were just too many of them for me! By the end of the book I was quite confused by who some of the people that meandered in and out of the plot. For me, this is where BUtterfield 8 loses points.

The gorgeous Elizabeth Taylor who played Starr Faithfull in the film of Butterfield 8, photographed by Richard Avedon as seen in Harper’s Bazaar, September 1960

Perhaps this is because O’Hara is trying to represent so many different aspects of society, but it does make for quite a confusing read. Having said that I think if I was to read it again in the future I would get much more from it and be able to piece the relationships together more easily. Again, this is why this book is fantastic for discussion as when I started to talk about it at my book-group I realised that I had actually absorbed a great amount of detail and though I couldn’t always remember who had said certain things, particular points made a strong impression on me.

Knowing now, what happens at the end of the book, I wonder if I would notice different characters much more, and yet I’m glad that I didn’t know the plot before because there is some excellent shock value in how the book culminates. BUtterfield 8 is a difficult book to score. It’s not actually difficult to read, but at times it was frustrating because there were so many strands to it. However, I do think it should be recognised as a true classic because of its originality, the impressive way in which O’Hara presents human relationships, his sympathetic and revealing characterisation of Gloria, and because it is really thought provoking. I actually scored it a 7 (3.5) at my book group, but I’ve made it up to 4/5 because the more I think about it the more I’m impressed by O’Hara’s skill as a writer and the vivid impression of this era that I’m left with. A warning though, BUtterfield 8 isn’t a long book but don’t try to read it in a rush and I would even say it’s worth keeping a notebook handy to remember the different characters and how they interlink. Thanks to Claire of Paperback Reader for the choice!

Interesting links (for if you don’t mind plot spoilers!)

  • A Time article about Starr Faithful here.
  • A blog devoted to the socialite here.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns

3.5 stars3.5/5

It was Stuck in a Book’s Simon who introduced me properly to quirky Barbara Comyns when I joined in the readalong for The Vet’s Daughter (my 5/5 review of which can be found here).

Virago Modern Classics, 1983 edition, 224 pages - Christmas Gift.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is quite a different book, but with the same off-beat writing style and while the main character is named Sophia, it is also quite clearly autobiographical in nature.

The blurb on the book aptly sums up what could be described as the theme of the book – “marry in haste, repent at leisure”. Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the story of a young woman Sophia, who at twenty-one marries an artist named Charles. They barely have a penny to rub together and much to the dismay of their family and their own, Sophia becomes pregnant almost immediately. The couple live a bohemian lifestyle in 1930’s London on a very limited income from Sophia’s odd-jobs. Charles is more concerned with painting than providing for his young family and while there are moments of happiness at the start of the novel, life becomes harder and harder for them.

Because the novel is written from Sophia’s perspective, we never really understand Charles that well. He seems feckless and at times downright cruel, but his actions seemed to be mainly due to immaturity more than anything else, which unfortunately at times results in quite tragic moments. In many ways though, Sophia seems quite accepting of Charles’ failings throughout most of the book and the overall impression is one of extreme naivety on the part of both Sophia and Charles.

What I enjoyed most about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths was the authors unique voice. Throughout the book, Sophia speaks to the reader in such a conversational tone, it is as if you are sitting having a cup of tea together! Her tone is matter of fact, and mostly lighthearted despite the fact that there are some pretty serious moments in which she surely must have felt devastated. It is probably because her descriptions at times seem quite childlike which makes the account so poignant. For example, Sophia describes how she is treated by the hospital staff when her first child is born:

“The nurse was so angry. She said I should set a good example and that I had disgusting habits. I just felt a great longing to die and escape but instead I walked behind the disgusted nurse, all doubled up with shame and pain.”

The beauty of Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is the way that it captures the beautiful moments between the difficult times. One or two particular moments come to mind – like when the milkman accidentally delivers a pint of cream instead of milk “we ate everything simply smothered in cream…”, or when Sophia describes how she had brightened up their bare flat by painting all the furniture with a coat of sea green paint.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is an off-beat and bittersweet book. It’s an easy and enjoyable read while at the same time being really quite sad in parts. Like a bright splash of colour on a canvas, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, paints a vivid impression of 1930’s London through the eyes of a young woman going through turbulent times with beautiful brevity and style.

Do you like quirky books? If so what authors would you recommend?