First Grounded, now House-Bound. I promise it’s a coincidence. Anyway over the past eighteen months, I’ve been very drawn to both fiction and non-fiction about the UK during and immediately after WWII. I think this is because it’s therapeutic to read about a huge global emergency that’s definitely over. Anyway, House-Bound by Winifred Peck falls very much within that category. Upper-middle class Rose Fairlaw, who lives in the most genteel bit of “Castleburgh” (a thinly disguised Edinburgh), has just come back from her attempts to get a maid. During this excursion, she found that – due to a) the war effort and b) Glasgow being a hotbed of feckless socialism* – she can no longer be “suited”. Being very slightly pluckier than the limp and pathetic women around her, she decides to keep her house herself, without help. Are you clutching your pearls in shock yet?
Initially, it takes effort to swallow the central premise of the story. Perhaps people who grew up with a cleaner or an au pair would have slightly more sympathy for Rose Fairlaw and her ilk. For my part, in the early chapters, I found myself rolling my eyes at her so hard that it almost hurt. At this point in history, most women were either doing the hard work of keeping their own homes and families together while the men were away, or doing demanding physical labour in munitions factories/hospitals/the services etc, or both. It is difficult to believe that what Rose is actually proposing is so remarkable. And all the hand-wringing from her many friends and relations when she announces her intention to keep her own home! Her (adult) son protests that he wants his “Mummie” to have hands like a lady’s and always look lovely. I mean, if anyone ever needed a talking to. Even in these unsympathetic early chapters, though, we get a glimpse of what’s really going on under the surface, which is that Rose is desperately worried about her two sons serving in the war, and thinks that real hard work will be the best distraction. (She does not seem worried about her daughter, who drives an ambulance in London and is probably more likely to be killed than her officer class sons). And to do Rose credit, she is fairly clear-eyed about how useless she and her fellow ladies of leisure are, even if the others can’t see it.
“Linda, we’ve got to do something about it, and when you come to think of it were there ever a more utterly useless and helpless and – unproductive sort of woman in the world than people like you or me?
“Darling Rose, you have gone Bolshie and no mistake. Think how we’ve been rocks and props to our husbands, and entertained their friends, and made Home with a capital H.”
“Given lunch parties or dinners to people we like one day in the week, and gone out on the others- that’s all that comes to, my dear hypocrite.”
This is a book that I did not much like, but am very glad I read. I have been thinking about it a lot since I finished it. For all I struggled with Rose’s incompetence (what sort of able-bodied fifty-year-old can’t make vegetable soup?), she is a very real, very human character. If my fascination with books from this time is because I’m looking for some sort of solidarity about trying to carry on with life during a prolonged crisis, this book has it in spades. The banality of Rose’s life is threaded through with grief at what her children and other young adults are losing. Her life becomes a series of endless days, one much like another, broken up only by days when everything suddenly seems much harder for some reason. This is certainly how I have felt for long stretches of the pandemic, especially during the first and third lockdowns (much better when I am allowed to see even one friend), and I doubt I am alone there. Even some of the exact experiences that Rose has are familiar:
She only discovered how far she had wandered into these dark mists of despair when she listened on the wireless, as she did every year, to the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols in King’s College Chapel. Never before had the words of the bidding prayers, the simple stories in the different voices, and the exquisite melodies of the carols failed to bring joy to her heart. […] But this year all those songs and carols and the very story itself seemed only part of the world’s beautiful past, which could have nothing to do with the real world or the future.
As was the case for many people, Christmas 2020 was the first one I’ve ever spent on my own – I’ve been unable to get back to my mum’s in the past, but was able to get to church and have lunch with friends. Although I did a video call with my mum and brother (both also alone) and we had a good time, it’s not what you want from Christmas Day, is it? The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is part of my annual Christmas celebrations, just like Rose’s. It’s normally on in the kitchen while Mum and I prepare the veg for the next day; the solitary chorister singing Once in Royal David’s City is inextricably linked with the start of Christmas for me. When I tried to listen to it last year, I had to turn it off approximately 0.7 seconds in. Thankfully I didn’t experience the bleak despair Rose does, but still. Coming across this precise thing in a book nearly eighty years old reminded me of Karissa’s insightful comment on my Anthropocene Reviewed post – that some of our loneliest experiences are actually the most universal. And then the corresponding encouragement that comes with reading it in hindsight: first, that many of the people having a really terrible Christmas in 1941 subsequently had better ones; but more importantly, that Christmas as a whole was not ruined forever by one bad year, or even the many bad years during and after the war.
The other very apparent parallel to the present time is in the absolute self-righteousness of people who feel that they are better at being at war than everyone else. One of the things I’m most looking forward to about the pandemic being over is the end of people bragging about how good they are at plague. There is a certain type of person who just loves to talk about how they are more locked down than everyone else and wear their masks better and have eschewed all humans outside their own home for eighteen months and are shocked that people are socialising again. As far as I am concerned, these people can take a running jump. I felt much the same when Rose’s Cousin Mary comes into the house and castigates her because she’s reading poetry and snatching a moment of joy in amidst all the horror, rather than doing her duty and reading the news. In fact, I put the book down for a bit at that point, because it was just too reminiscent of what’s been going on this past eighteen months. It’s easy to think that the world has changed drastically since 1941 – which of course it has in many ways – but evidently humans are the same in fundamentals.
It’s certainly interesting to see a contemporaneous view of WWII – this was published in 1942. As Brits, we like to tell ourselves now that previous generations fought because the of the atrocities being perpetrated by the Nazis, and while there is a little of that in the novel (one extremely vague reference to bad things happening in Poland), there is much more focus on keeping the British Empire together. There are also references to hoping the Germans and the Russians will eliminate each other because both sides are foreigners. One of the characters comments that it is Britain’s duty to “exterminate” the Germans – which Rose objects to, but it does give the lie to the idea that everyone was full of noble ideas about equality and democracy. Now, this is primarily in the mouths of characters who have a strong selfish interest in preserving or resuming the status quo. There were certainly people whose motivation for participating in the war was a desire to stop fascism in its tracks – this is apparent in Tolkien’s letters to his sons while they were away fighting, for instance – but it’s a useful check to our national myth-making about the war.
The last third of the book is tied up with some very peculiar and outdated ideas about psychology and psychiatry – things that have subsequently been either disproven or have been shown to actively cause harm. Although I try not to hold books written decades ago to current standards of scientific and medical knowledge, there’s no denying that the plot gets weird in an attempt to justify all these theories. I mean, this is somehow the strangest book I’ve read this year, despite that list including stories about brain surgery that turns people into empaths and a sentient spaceship that makes mind-altering tea for a living. It’s all tied up with Rose’s daughter, Flora, who has been given a bit less attention than her brother Mickie – he was very sick as a child and commanded most of his parents’ attention accordingly. She has developed a truly astonishing level of resentment and entitlement as a result. This didn’t ring true to me. Because of my job, I’ve come into contact with a higher than average number of healthy children with a disabled or unwell sibling, and although there is almost inevitably some jealousy, I’ve never encountered a child (let alone a grown adult) with the level of seething bitterness about it that Flora is shown to have. The plot with Flora is building for most of the novel, and I have to say I think it would be better off without it. It doesn’t seem to tie with with the underlying themes, except in a very clumsy way.
Do I recommend House-Bound? Well, it’s hard to say. It’s definitely a compelling, if alarming, look at British attitudes during WWII in a certain segment of society. It acts as a reminder of how far we’ve come in terms of social mobility (even if we still have some way to go), and the role that things like washing machines have played in that. In fact, when I was talking about this book with my mum, I found out that at least one of her aunts went into service at a big house – but that by the time her own mum (who was the youngest) was an adult, that was already much less common. Although it doesn’t date very well, especially with its attitudes about class, I think it’s the more interesting for that. It captures the time when these changes were happening at such pace. The sections where Rose is allowed to just be a person worrying about her sons, trying to work out where she went wrong with her daughter, or contemplating what it means to have faith during such a difficult time are genuinely engaging. It’s just all so mixed up with long descriptions of sweeping a carpet or using a gas ring – things that almost everyone does these days without wanting a prize for it. A fascinating look at a very specific time and place, but not one I will be reading again.
*I do not know whether Glasgow was actually a hotbed of socialism in 1941, or, if so, whether that socialism was of a particularly feckless variety. There is a lot of anti-Glaswegian sentiment in the first part of this book, but it’s all in the mouths of upper-middle class Edinburgers, so I don’t know that it actually reflects the views of the author.