Remember last week when I was talking about how much I’ve enjoyed all the Persephone books that I’ve read? Unfortunately, the streak has ended. House-Bound, while not a terrible book, didn’t live up to the usual Persephone standard. This 1942 novel by Winifred Peck starts out with promise, and I thoroughly enjoyed the first third or so of the novel, but then it takes a turn and never recovers.
The book opens at Mrs Loman’s Registry Office for Domestic Servants. Because the war has opened new doors for women who previously had little choice besides going into service, Mrs Loman is having trouble finding servants for all her clients. Rose Fairlaw is there seeking replacements for her current servants who are planning to leave her to work at a munitions plant. Rose hasn’t been especially happy with the quality of the help she’s gotten in recent years, and listening to the conversations at Mrs Loman’s convinces her that the best thing she could do is to undertake the work of keeping her old, inconvenient house running by herself. Her husband, Stuart, is unconvinced, but she assures him that it’s the right thing to do, even if it’s difficult:
I expect I shall cry a lot, and shed pints of blood, as I shall always be cutting myself. I’m sure of that because unluckily I’m one of the people things don’t like. Knives cut me, kettles burn me, taps won’t turn for me. I know all about the malice of inanimate things! But perhaps I’ll conquer them and put them in their place–I do hope so. Anyhow, it’s a job of work which frees other women, and anyhow I’m quite sure there’ll be no such thing as domestic service after this war, so why not be prepared? Dear Stuart, thing of the mess the world’s in, and the uselessness of people like me, and be sensible!
The chapters that deal with Rose’s struggles to run her household are entertaining and offer some interesting commentary on the changes in class structure that the war brought. In some respects, it reminded me of The Village, but set a bit earlier and thus focusing on the beginning of some of the shift that are played out in Laski’s novel. I had a few minor quibbles with the plot. The existence and behavior of Major Percy Hosmer, an American who becomes Rose’s most helpful counselor, seems altogether implausible. But I could go with it and enjoy myself.
Eventually, however, the book turns from Rose’s trials running her house and toward her challenges managing her family, specifically her daughter Flora. Flora is Rose’s daughter from her first marriage, and they’ve always had a fraught relationship. When Flora was young, her stepbrother Mickey became ill and Rose became devoted to nursing him back to health. Even after his recovery, that devotion never died, and the now-adult Flora never got over the pain of what felt like her mother’s rejection.
The trouble with this storyline is that Flora’s character is poorly drawn. We’re told that she’s selfish and often in a bad temper that disrupts the peace of the home. But we never see that. We can see that she’s sad and hurt, but there’s no clear reason given for Rose’s dislike of her–and Rose does dislike her. The only time Flora’s behavior in the book poses a problem for anyone is when she returns home and takes to her bed instead of helping her mother. Her behavior is somewhat selfish, but Flora has understandable reasons for being in such pain, and no one in her family shows her much sympathy, even if they feel it. I think we’re supposed to see Flora’s selfish behavior at this point as part of a pattern, but I was never convinced she was as bad as she was made out to be. I needed more examples than her tendency to strew her things about the house. And later in the book, when she tries to show concern for her mother, no one accepts it as sincere. As is often the case, a lot of the problems between Rose and Flora have to do with misunderstandings and basic personality conflicts, but I felt little sympathy for Rose in this area (and I think I was supposed to).
Peck tries to do some interesting things with this relationship, and with Rose’s other relationships in the book. She spends a lot of time on Rose’s musings about how she’s been bound in her particular role and in certain patterns of thinking that haven’t done her much good. The house and Rose’s place in it becomes a metaphor for her role in the family and indeed in the world. Perhaps even it’s a metaphor for a whole class of women at this time and the way they’re bound to follow certain patterns. But the book as a whole is uneven and ultimately unconvincing.