The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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June 14, 2013

Persephone no. 72: House-Bound

It's possible that I chose House-Bound, by Winifred Peck, to read this week because I love its endpapers, or because it sounded a little Pym-ish, or both.  It might also have been because my college library privileges (for which I am so grateful) mean that I can read a lot of Persephones, but in spite of that I'd only read one, until now.

House-Bound is set in Castleburgh (Edinburgh) during the early years of World War II.  As it begins, Rose Fairlaw, who thinks of herself as elderly, even though she is in her mid-fifties, has gone to Mrs. Loman's Registry Office for Domestic Servants to try to replace her two maids, who have given notice to work in a munitions factory instead. Finding that there are no servants to be had, Rose is determined, 'useless and helpless' as she is, to manage the housework and cooking herself.  It's just that she has no experience, and almost no knowledge of how to do anything practical {she wonders whether she should use soap when she washes the vegetables), and she lives with her husband Stuart, a tradition-bound lawyer, in a rambling house crafted from an ancient tower and an ugly 'new' Victorian wing.

      'And, oh, Stuart,' she wailed later, 'I'd have managed all right, though you wouldn't believe how many things go on a table at breakfast! (It's like that game when you look at a tray for five minutes and then try to write down what was on it!). But the hyacinths were dead, so I just had to get a bowl of snowdrops from the library, and while I was arranging them on the table the coffee boiled over on all the bacon and all the toast, and it's browned the whole stove, and you must just have sardines for breakfast, if only you can open their beastly tin, for I can't!'
      'But why bother about flowers or all these silver things?' asked Stuart admirable good humor, when Rose rejoined hum, five minutes after her outburst, with Catrine's warmed-up coffee and some quite successful toast. 'If we're going to live like working class let's do it properly, and put away all this stuff.'
      'Well, it all holds hot water or salt or marmalade or something after all,' said Rose, 'and I thought you wanted to keep up our standards. Stuart, this bacon soaked in coffee isn't half bad; perhaps I've made a great culinary discovery --' But Stuart, who was unadventurous, thought it unlikely, and refused to try.

As we see the humor in Rose's attempts to conquer the housework, even with daily lessons from Mrs. Childe, the paragon of dusting and polishing that Mrs. Loman finds to help her, we also learn about the earlier events that have created Rose's family circle.  After a childhood a little reminiscent of Downton Abbey, with a country house and servants, Rose loses her husband n the first world war, leaving her with a daughter, Flora.  Her 'second cousin and greatest friend,' Lilias, comes to stay when her husband is sent to France;  when Lilias dies unexpectedly, she leaves behind a baby son, Mickie, who Stuart can hardly bear to look at. When Mickie is stricken with infantile paralysis, Rose nurses him back to health, leading Flora to feel abandoned and Stuart to decide that they might as well marry. When the book opens, Mickie, Flora and Tom (the son that Rose and Stuart have together) are young adults; the boys, off to fight in the war, are level-headed, teasing and kind, but Flora, who has exhibited tremendous courage as an ambulance driver in the Blitz, is hostile and self-absorbed, hanging on to old hurts.

When Rose has lunch with her friend Linda, after leaving the employment agency, they meet Major Hosmer, an odd little American doctor with a passion for home economics.  He insists on visiting the house, offering suggestions on re-wiring and moving the kitchen upstairs, and teaching Rose how to thicken sauces with a roux and make tea more efficiently.  But when he sees the family photographs in the drawing room, Rose discovers that he has another connection with her family, and he becomes a bracing but troubling figure.

      'Have a drink?' suggested Stuart, for though a guest might be unwanted, and whisky scarce, a Scotsman remains hospitable against his will.     
      Major Hosmer, it appeared, however, was averse to whisky, not because he advocated total abstinence, but because he had seen the evils of rye-drinking in America. 'No, it's just a talk with   you both I want,' he repeated. I've been telling Mrs. great Fairlaw that I am not only Flora's friend but her psychiatrist at the moment, and I feel you two could help me very much in untying some of her knots. Now, see here, we're all three busy people and I may be called away from Castleburgh any minute, so I have a proposition to put to you -'
      'Well, as a matter of fact,' said Stuart, driven to desperation, 'I usually have a bath, and dress for dinner now, and so --'
      'Don't let me interrupt you!' Major Hosmer interrupted, holding up his rather podgy hand. 'I know the value of routine to a busy man. But my proposition is that this lady, who looks to me tired out, should tuck up her toes on the sofa and you go off and dress, and leave me to cook and serve up your dinner. Madam here will tell you I'm as interested in domestic economy as in my job, and there's nothing I'd like better than to get my hands on a stove and do a little practical work for a change. I'll cook and serve it and share it, if I may, and after that we can settle down to a real pow-wow.'
This is funny in places, too, but once he has served mulligatawny soup, and perfectly fried fish, and a savoury, there's no getting rid of him, and along with her fears for her sons and her sense that the world she knows is disappearing, Rose is forced to confront what has happened to her difficult, neurotic, unpleasant daughter.

The novel makes the point that the characters are house-bound literally and metaphorically:  trapped by housework, possessions and family ties, and stuck inside old ways of thinking and looking at the world without being able to see what is outside.  The war means rationing and knitting parties and blackout curtains and bad news on the radio, at least at the beginning, but it becomes part of the  inevitable change that the characters struggle against and learn to endure. Funny and dark at the same time, House-Bound wasn't exactly what I expected, but I did enjoy it!


Lisa said...

Both our library systems here are sadly lacking in Persephones, and I'm afraid to spend too much time on their website because I know I'll end up ordering something (and not just one something). I'll try interlibrary loan first for this!

FleurFisher said...

So that's another book on to the teetering 'must read asap' pile on my bedside table. My grandmother also lost her (one) maid to the war effort and took to doing things herself, and later on being a landlady, with aplomb. The two of them stayed in touch, and became very good friends.

JoAnn said...

Persephone books are pretty rare in my library system, but this sounds like it's worth placing an order... as soon as I finish the few unread items already on my shelf ;-)

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