Virago Weekend: Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding & Barbara Comyns’ Our Spoons Came from Woolworths


                   Hanging out on the porch in November.

It’s never fun to have strangers ripping up your walls, and when our tiny house was disrupted during a recent black mold scare, I  stayed home with the cats. We could have gone to a hotel, but the cats prefer their own environment, to the point that I rarely travel and once stayed home with them during a bomb scare.  I did not believe our neighborhood would blow up, nor did it.

The cats are fine after the black mold removal, but I am exhausted.  And so I went on a binge:  a Virago-and-Diet-Coke binge.

My addiction to Viragos started in the 1980s when an eccentric bookshop owner may or may not have been illegally selling British editions of books. My two favorite Virago writers are  among the first I read: Barbara Comyns and  Dorothy Baker.

cassandra-at-the-wedding-baker-e39765fc9b9e7d5873d6f4a9ffba9610The American writer Dorothy Baker‘s masterpiece Cassandra at the Wedding (which I wrote at length about here)  has been reissued both by Virago and NYRB.  In  this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, a suicidal graduate student, drives from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding.   Judith, a musician, plans to marry Jack, a medical student.  Only Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend the private ceremony. Cassandra has been fragile since their mother, a writer, died of cancer. She tries to talk Judith out of getting married:  she says Jack is redundant and the sisters belong together. After Judith disagrees, disaster ensues.

I wish I could say all of Baker’s books were equally wonderful, but they are not, and perhaps that’s why Virago only reissued this one.   Trio is a pulp menage a trois novel, in which a lesbian relationship is threatened by a young man’s attentions to the younger woman: it is slightly reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox.    Young Man with a Horn, reissued by NYRB,  based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, lacks the star quality of Cassandra.  I tracked down a copy of Our Gifted Son, and have attempted to read it twice.  Oh, dear, all I can say is that it’s set in Mexico.  I WANT to love her  books, but why did she write so little?  Why was only one truly great?  What on earth happened to her?

Cassandra at the wedding viragoBarbara Comyns, on the other hand, is a reliable writer.  She didn’t write one great book, but several. Her narrators are charming and original, people you’d want for your  friends, but their lives are not always happy:   they deal with abusive fathers, unfulfilling affairs and marriages, and poverty.  Sometimes there are happy endings, sometimes not.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworth’s is one of my favorite novels.  I put it in the same class as Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle and Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room.  The captivating, gentle narrator, Sophia, tells us the tragicomic story of her first marriage to a self-centered but charming artist, Charles Fairclough, whose selfishness plunges them into poverty and makes her ill.  He won’t work, they are very poor, and the description of poverty is detailed:  we feel the cold.

But they are very happy when they are engaged.   You have to read her comic prose to know how charming this is.

Charles and I were both twenty when we met, and as soon as we were twenty-one we decided to get married secretly.  There was a church next door to the house where I had a bed-sitting-room, so we went there to ask the priest to put the banns up.  We dared not ring the bell at first, we felt too shy.  Charles said they would ask us in and give us a glass of sherry and some funeral biscuits.  We stood on the doorstep rehearsing what to say and the priest must have heard us, because he suddenly opened the door though we hadn’t rung the bell.  He took one look at us with his deepset eyes and said “Banns” in a shouting kind of voice.

Then she gets pregnant, and their little boy Sandro gets some kind of milk allowance from the clinic, but Sophia and Charles don’t always eat.  When she goes back to work full-time at an artists’ studio, she has to leave Sandro with some very mean-spirited relatives of Charles. Then they have a daughter, and  Charles tells her he doesn’t want a family and they must leave.  The consequences are tragic.

And yet Sophia’s gentle, observant tone gives the narrative almost a fairy-tale atmosphere.  We cry for Sophia but she doesn’t cry for herself.  She courageously makes a new life for herself.  There is a slow transformation, after she goes off on her own.  She has to keep going.  She is that kind of person.  And she has second and third chances.


There is a happy ending.

And that is a relief after the black mold week I’ve had.

Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding & Preparing for a Funeral

This weekend I read the selection from  Emily Books, a women’s bookstore that chooses one e-book a month.  You can subscribe as a member and get the monthly selections, or buy the books one at a time.

This month the selection is Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding, which is also available from NYRB.  (I have an old Virago).

Cassandra at the wedding dorohty bakerIn this remarkable novel about twins, sexuality, and depression, the narrator, Cassandra, prepares to drive from Berkeley to the family ranch for her twin sister Judith’s wedding.  Judith, a musician, will marry Jack, a medical student, in a private ceremony.   Cassandra, their father, and grandmother, and perhaps a few of their grandmother’s friends will attend.  Their mother died of cancer a few years ago.  She was a writer, often absent.

Cassandra, a graduate student who has written 56 pages of her thesis, has felt suicidal.  She stares out the window of her apartment at

…the bay with the prison islands and the unbelievable bridge across it. Unbelievable, but I’d got to believing in it from looking at it so often,and it had been looking quite attractive to me off and on through most of the winter.  All but irresistible at times, but so was my analyst, and they canceled each other out more or less.

She decides to go home a day early, and on the five-hour drive stops at a bar for vodka and lemon squash.  Cassandra drinks a lot.  She never stops drinking.  And when she looks in the mirror at the bar, she sees her sister’s face.

But I looked again in a moment or two, unable not to, and this time I let myself know who it was.  It was the face of my sister Judith, not precisely staring, just looking at me very thoughtfully the way she always used to when she was getting ready to ask me to do something–hold the stop watch while she swam four hundred meters, taste the dressing and tell her what she left out, explain the anecdotes about the shepherd and the mermaid.

When she arrives, drunk and drinking, she tries to persuade Judith not to get married.  She and Judith are both disturbed by the fact that they have bought the same dress (separately) for the wedding.  Their grandmother thinks it is very funny, because their parents were adamant about their not dressing alike as children.  But Cassandra is devastated.

Cassandra at the wedding viragoThey belong together, she tells Judith.  They are special.  They need to live together in their apartment in Berkeley with their Boesendorfer piano.  Cassandra has had lesbian encounters with a few women, but they have meant little to her.

The next day, Cassandra wakes up and believes Judith has agreed to call off the wedding.  She is mistaken.

Part of the novel is narrated by Judith.  Her voice is likable, balanced, and sensible, and we are relieved that she can separate from Cassandra, and that we can have a break from Cassandra.

Baker’s style is witty, brilliant, and bold, and though this book is not quite a classic–it is a tiny bit overwritten–Baker’s portrait of Cassandra is both richly-colored and convincing.  Cassandra’s voice is wry and often funny, but she is exasperating, sometimes even frightening, when it comes to her relationship with Judith.  Cassandra’s detailed account of the events of her arrival and the following day is harrowing.  She attempts suicide when Judith goes to the airport to meet Jack.

It is a fascinating novel, one you can easily read in a day.  Baker’s husband, Harold Baker, a poet and critic, said that Cassandra and Judith were based on their own daughters, who were not twins, but were astonishingly alike as children.

Is this perhaps the best book about twins?  I did enjoy Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, but it is not in this class.


Photo on 2013-06-09 at 21.11

I can’t wear this to the funeral.

I will go to my mother’s funeral after all.

I am going in her honor.  She went to a lot of funerals.

I will wear matching clothes. Usually my outfits are far from put-together.  A t-shirt and jeans are my normal ensemble.

Today I shopped for funeral clothes.  No, just clothes.  Clothes a woman can wear out of the house.  It took me five minutes to try on ten tops and buy the five most acceptable.

In the morning I will put on whatever seems most appropriate.  Maybe “the matron shirt,” as I call it.  With khakis.  Except my ancient khakis no longer fit. I rummaged through the closet and fortunately found a pair of suitable slacks on the floor.

I will wear sunglasses if I can find a pair. I will literally not be able to see my family if the glasses are dark enough.

I will sit in the back of the church.  No, I’ve been told this is unacceptable.

I will not know when to stand, sit, or genuflect.

I will not know the new (Protestant) end to the Lord’s Prayer that the Catholics added some years back.  “Power and glory something something something?”

I will take some drugs.  No, I don’t take drugs.  Anyway, I have searched the cabinet.  We have:

1.  Vitamin B (always an exciting drug).

2.  Advil (my favorite.  I may chug a couple of those).

3.  Alka-Seltzer Plus.  (It’s a cold medicine.)

4.  Ambien.  (A sleeping pill.)

All right.  Here’s what I’m saying to myself.