Monday, 23 February 2015

Housebound - Winifred Peck (Persephone)

With an "afterword" by the author's niece,  Penelope Fitzgerald, herself a writer, this is a rather dated but certainly readable book.  It starts funny and ends sad but redemptive and is, I think written for women readers.  Not that a man couldn't read it, but it has insights that lots of women might recognise.  Rose, family woman, one daughter from earlier marriage, one step-son and one son from her second marriage, finds herself at the agency in an effort to hire staff at the beginning of the book.  The year is 1941, the boys all off at war, the girls taking the jobs the boys left behind them.  Her current staff are off to the local armaments factory, and Rose wouldn't know how to wash a potato to save her life (do you use soap?).   There are simply no staff available, sorry.   She can't cook, either.  Her solicitor husband arrives home every night for a bath, a change of clothes, supper and a drink, and then retires to his library, so there's no relying on him then.  Truly, you don't know whether to feel truly sorry for this upper-class woman, or rather to give her a good shake.  But this is exactly what life was like for them - they ran a house, but didn't actually do things; and running it took all day.

Her three children, in their late teens are joining up in various ways - her daughter for ambulance driving, her step-son the RAF and her younger son off to be trained for the army.  Rose and her husband Stuart are living a solid middle-class life - i.e. they don't talk about the important things in life.  They don't discuss the war.  They sleep in separate rooms and the affection between them is the peck on the cheek and see you later darling kind.  Her best friend has already lost a son to the war,  and has to cope with an aged grandmother who knows best - so they seek solace on the phone with each other.  And then one day over a cup of coffee, an American Major enters their (or rather Rose's) life.  Not what it seems - he is not necessarily in love with Rose but he loves to help.  He can cook too, and before she knows where she is he has visited her home, told her what to do, and prepared supper.  Not long after this the agency finds a woman who will "do" for Rose, three mornings a week, so perhaps all her troubles are over now?

This was a republication from Persephone - no. 72.  They do a good job of finding lost gems and presenting them to us in their lovely grey jackets.  Subject matter doesn't  take your interest?  Doesn't matter, I have never read one yet that wasn't worth the read.  I found myself hoping that Rose would get things right; that her daughter (with a very moody constitution) would learn that her mother loves her; that she wouldn't loose any of them to the war, and that generally things would work out for her.  Things do work out, not in the way you might imagine, but you have to take that journey with Rose to find out.  You might find, in this secular western world of the 21st century that there is a little too much sentimentality, a little too much searching for a religious answer, a little too much stiff upper lip.  You might - but then again, like me, you might not.  So if it crosses your radar, give it a go.