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.
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.
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