House-Bound

House-BoundRemember 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.

House-Bound Endpaper

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15 Responses to House-Bound

  1. Jeanne says:

    Fiction sometimes has assumptions in it, like that so many examples are enough to establish that a person is “bad and selfish” when that is based on idiosyncratic experience. And as in non-fiction, an assumption the writer is not aware of can be enough to wreck the train of thought. I’ve seen this in conversation, especially comments on Facebook (a kind of conversation, isn’t it?), where one speaker will expect others to agree that such-and-such establishes that a thing is bad, but the other speakers don’t see that at all.

    • Teresa says:

      You’re definitely on to something here, and as Jenny suggests, what constitutes bad behavior is going to vary from person to person. The universal opinion among people in the novel was that Flora was difficult to be around, but one of Flora’s behavior seemed that terrible to me. I think there was an assumption that cheerful, upbeat people are more pleasant and nicer people and because Flora wasn’t cheerful, people in the book assumed she was bad-tempered. Perhaps she was, but I didn’t see enough evidence of that to be convinced.

  2. Jenny says:

    Jeanne’s quite right. Obviously for Peck, “leaving things around” is going to communicate “axis of evil” — she probably spent far too much time picking up after others. But would Rose have had a better relationship with her daughter if a servant were doing that picking up and she (Rose) were less resentful because of it?

    • Teresa says:

      Leaving things around, as well as not being gregarious seemed to be Flora’s biggest flaws, which perhaps reveals more about Peck than about the characters she created.

      And I realize I wasn’t clear about the fact that Flora is no longer living at home and hasn’t lived at home since there were servants. She just comes to stay after a relationship comes to a bad end, and her selfishness in taking to her bed and not helping is remarked on. Rose never had to pick up after her when she was younger.

  3. heavenali says:

    ooh dear I have this TBR – still I am looking forward to it, wonder what I will think

    • Teresa says:

      I looked up some other reviews after I wrote mine, and my opinion seems to be in the minority, which is a good sign for you! I didn’t see many other reviews, but only one other tended toward the negative.

  4. Lisa says:

    I’ve noticed the “Flora” effect when authors want us to take a character on trust – because we’re told he or she is this type of person – rather than showing us or taking the time of build up the character in a convincing way. When it doesn’t work, there’s a definite feeling of something being off-balance.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes! I’m not generally a fan of “show don’t tell” as a rule for writers. Sometimes telling is the most efficient way to get something across. But when it comes to characters and especially relationships at the dramatic heart of a book, it’s really important to show at least as much as you tell. And there was a lot of talk about how difficult Flora was, but very little showing her being difficult.

  5. Susan says:

    This is one of the Persephones I own but have yet to read and I’d been dying to know what had caused you to give it two stars over on Goodreads!

    I can’t bring a title to mind now as a clear example, but I know I’ve come across some British lit from the mid to early 20th century where the (cultural? generational?) assumptions of the characters have left me totally flummoxed. No doubt the author thought what they were referencing was so universal they could even take some shortcuts in describing it, but their expectations didn’t hold true.

    • Teresa says:

      Goodreads lists two stars as “it’s OK” which pretty much sums it up for me. It wasn’t terrible, but in the end, I couldn’t muster up much affection for it.

      I think you could be right that there are some cultural assumptions at play. At one point, Flora is called introverted, which makes me want to be on her side, but I wonder if people understood the term differently in the 40s; perhaps it meant having a tendency to be self-absorbed and go into pouts for no good reason, rather than just needing to be alone. Or maybe her need to be alone was woefully misunderstood by everyone in the book, including the author.

      • Jenny says:

        I wonder if these expectations were different especially for women, who were meant to be sort of social and domestic lubricators — The Angel in the House and all that. If you needed a room of your own, tough luck, unlike the men, who had a study or even a club to retreat to. Sometimes being an invalid was the only retreat left for real introverts.

        On the other hand, sometimes you have Judith and (pre-makeover) Elfine, from Cold Comfort Farm! It can go too far. :)

  6. Jenny says:

    I was going to say almost exactly what Lisa said! The disconnect between what an author thinks the reader will feel about a character and what the reader actually feels can be an absolute killer.

  7. Stefanie says:

    You jinxed yourself! But there was bound to be at least one Persephone book you ended up not liking sometime. Too bad, it sounds like this one had some interesting potential. If Flora had been drawn better or the focus hadn’t shifted. From what you say I think I’d be inclined to feel rather sorry for Flora.

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