House-Bound by Winifred Peck

I am intrigued by the changes in this country, brought by the Second World War, especially in the lives of women. House-Bound is the second of three books, published by Persephone that I recently bought, and I chose it because it looked at the disappearance of domestic servants and the effects on the households they had previous served. In addition, the Persephone catalogue suggested that Winifred Peck wrote with a lightness of touch that made this an interesting and diverting novel. 

House-Bound

It was as she stood in Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants that Rose Fairlaw suddenly realised what a useless and helpless woman she was. Up till that moment she had always assumed vaguely that she was a busy and useful member of society. (1)

Rose lives in Edinburgh (called Castleburgh in the novel) during the Second World War. She is middle-aged and in need of maids and a cook to help her run her house. But it is 1941 and there are none to be had at the registry office. They have been called up or gone to better paid situations. Like many well-off women Rose faces having to manage the domestic duties of her house herself. She is struck by the comment of Mrs Loman.

‘Millions of women do just that.’

She announces her intentions to her friend Laura, and to her husband Stuart.

‘But – but –‘ Stuart plunged among a host of objections striding up and down the room. ‘I can’t have you opening the door to tradespeople.’ (52)

Rose has not had any experience of housework or cooking, and protests at the ‘uselessness of people like me’.

‘But you’re not useless,’ protested Stuart. ‘Women like you uphold the standards of civilisation.’ (53)

Rose immediately becomes quite overwhelmed and exhausted by her new responsibilities for the house is old, and although there is only Rose and her husband, he makes no changes to his routines. The registry office sends her Mrs Childe who instructs Rose on how to clean and comes in ‘to do’ in the mornings. Rose is also assisted in her housework by the advice and practical example of Major Posner, a psychiatrist with the American army. He is full of practical suggestions, and occasionally comes by and fixes a meal.

The courage of Rose in taking on the housework is one theme of the novel. It represents a profound social change, for Rose does indeed feel useless, and unproductive at a time when everyone seems busy with war work. The novel’s title, House-Bound, comes to have a literal meaning.

Everything in a house reminds you of something else you’ve got to do. You start up from the hall, and remember you must carry the laundry up, and when you are halfway you see you didn’t dust the chest on the half-landing. And two steps higher up you remember you left the apples stewing and must run down to take them off. And that reminds you that you must telephone to the greengrocer, and while you are doing that you remember that you ought to fill up the salt-cellars, and when you take them to the dining-room you see the flowers are dead, or you didn’t finish polishing the floor that morning. …And of course … none of these things are of any sort of use to the world at all, and yet I suppose they’ve got to be done!

Not only is the work never done, but it is not of use to the war effort. Rose’s predicament throws up questions about the work and conditions for house servants, and how their employment supported women such as Rose in idleness. There is an appalling old relative, Mrs Carr-Berwick, who appears late in the novel when she cannot manage without help and believes herself entitled to it.

A second, and less successful theme of the novel concerns Flora, Rose’s grown-up daughter. She comes across as a dreadful character: moaning, perpetually jealous, and yet with moments of great heroism when she left home to work on ambulances. It transpires that Major Posner, the US army psychiatrist, knew Flora previously and wishes to help her and the family deal with her, for she is indeed a selfish horror. This theme concentrates on accounting for Flora’s attitude and behaviour, providing psychological explanations.

The war brings untold grief to the family, and the house also suffers. Rose has done much soul searching, about war, sacrifice, the work of women, and how useless her class has been. But through her own suffering and courage she finds her way to first adapt and then make a good contribution to the war.

The tone of the book is light, and there is much humour to be found, especially in the relationships between the various characters, all of whom are well drawn, and in the slow realisation of social change that the war brought to such households. 

While reading this I wondered why the housework consisted of so much dusting. And then I remembered that the rooms were heated by coal fires. Someone has to fetch the coal, remove the cinders and re-lay the fire again. I saw it in my own childhood home. Coal fires create dust, which then gets moved from room to room, surface to surface by the activity called dusting. Housework binds you to its routines and requirements. 

Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck

Born in 1882, Winifred came from a distinguished family of writers and thinkers. She began writing with a biography of St Louis, and went on to write 26 books altogether, and House-Bound was the 15th of these. Among her novels were several crime mysteries. She is relatively unread today, but Persephone has republished this one. 

House-Bound by Winifred Peck, first published in 1942. Reissued by Persephone Books in 2007, with an afterword by Penelope Fitzgerald. 304pp

13 Comments

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13 Responses to House-Bound by Winifred Peck

  1. I have read so many of the wonderful Persephone books and will now add this to my list of more that I want to read!

  2. Jennifer

    The theme of the changes to middle class lifestyles due to the Second World War also appears in One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downs. That was one of my favourite books of last year. The lack of practical skills among this class of women during that time is astonishing. 1950s and 60s Britain was not a golden age, but we may look back in nostalgia for a less pressured and more hopeful era from the perspective of the 21st century.

    • Caroline

      I LOVE that book. It has much more in it too, about the hopes for the post-war period. But you are right (of course) that the lack of staff, domestic and gardeners, is a strong theme. So is the social changes brought by the war.
      Caroline x

  3. This does sound like an appealing Persephone title. As for dust, it’s still a pain – we have single glazing and are surrounded by trees, and the dust is a plague. I hate to think what it would be like if we still had coal fires…

    • Caroline

      Dusting appears to be men’s work now, according to the TV adverts anyway!
      But it was a feature of my childhood. Now I have wood fires, and double-glazing, and someone who I pay to clean my cottage, so I am a very lucky person!

  4. Morag Goldfinch

    Fascinating! I must read this. My grand mother was a 23 year old domestic servant in a similar middle class Edinburgh household in 1921. The head of the house was a 76 year old Widow, living with her sons, aged 41 and 39, a widowed daughter of 43 and a grand daughter of 14. My grand mother had come from a croft in a tiny settlement in Shetland, to domestic service in the city. What a hard life it must have been.

    • Caroline

      This is so interesting. Do you know what she did during the war, your grandmother? And what happened to the family, which seems to be the ‘lady of house’s grown up children for the main part.
      Edinburgh must have been such a contrast to the crofting community your grandmother grew up in, in Shetland. In this novel Rose realises that her servants had a hard life, especially when she tries to take all the work on herself.
      Thanks for sharing this, and let us know if you have more thoughts if and when you do read this novel.

  5. David Heidenstam

    Sadly, House-Bound is not readily available on Amazon. But it may be of interest that one non-crime novel by Winifred Peck is even available in a Kindle e-book edition. That is Bewildering Cares – which again deals with the domestic impact of World War 2 – in this case, the early years, and as viewed by a vicar’s wife.
    Incidentally, it may also be of interest that another novel dealing with the impact of a quite different war on the lives of women – Pat Barker’s first volume in her re-telling of the Trojan War, The Silence of the Girls – is available on Kindle for just 99p, today only, 15th Feb.

    • Caroline

      House-Bound is available through Amazon, like all Persephone Books, but if like me, you try to avoid using Amazon you can get it directly from Persephone Books, and Hive, and Bookshop and lots of independent booksellers as well as the major ones.
      Thanks for the information about Bewildering Cares.

  6. Gosh, I see I read this 13 years ago – I did really enjoy it, and Bewildering Cares, too, actually. Here’s my review which also links to Heaven-Ali’s https://librofulltime.wordpress.com/2010/06/26/winifred-peck-house-bound-persephone/ I really love books written during WW2 when there was no firm idea of what was going to happen – so poignant.

    • Caroline

      I agree that there is a special edge to books written before the end of WW2. Also those written soon after when there were such hopes for peace!
      Thanks for sharing you review as well.
      Caroline

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