Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Comedy of Housework

Penelope Fitzgerald wrote in “Neglected Fictions” in the TLS in 1985: “If I could have back one of the many Winifred Peck titles I once possessed I would choose HOUSE-BOUND (now reissued by Persephone).”

Winifred Peck, the aunt of Penelope Fitzgerald, was a popular writer in her day, very gently comical. In HOUSE-BOUND, the warm humorously original musings of the anti-heroine Rose dazzle us and make us laugh and temporize the occasional sentimentalism. This uproarious, charming, canny novel takes place in the first years of World War II, and its ludicrous central problem is Rose’s inability to find a maid or cook at Mrs. Loman’s Registry for Domestic Servants. Things are changing, and work in munitions factories and other war industries have attracted women for better pay and more opportunities. So Rose decides to do hter own housework, inspired by Mrs. Loman’s words to a sour client who says she can’t manage her own house. “I don’t know why...Millions of women do just that!” Rose decides, at age 50, to take over the duties of her cook and maid when they leave to work in a munitions factory.

The class system breaks down with the war. It breaks down on a personal level as Rose humbly learns to clean from her new daily help, the outspoken Mrs. Childs who felt “pitying contempt now for another woman’s ignorance and ineffriciency. If the essence of a lady, in the true sense of the word, lies in the virtues of courage, honesty, and kindliness, Mrs. Childe was a lady already: If the essence of vulgarity is the inability to face life and its vagaries heroically, Rose was at the moment, she considered, as common as she could be.”

The witty novel, told from Rose’s point of view, shows her never quite mastering housework, but in interludes she daydreams or dips into anthologies of poetry. She becomes “house-bound,” the slave of the house, and has little time to read, socialize, or do war work (the last she’d hated anyway). Every object she cleans reminds her to clean another. Her work is never done.

We get acquainted with her family: an unemotional husband who retires after dinne to his library to write a genealogy book; two teasing, loving sons in the military who come home from time to time; and a miserable daughter who has always felt neglected. (The daughter is quite a warped character, one of those people who believe their own hyperbolic stories about their relationships and take no responsiblility). There is so much humor in this novel, and Rose has such good sense. No one escapes the tragedy of the war, however.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

As described, the book reminds me of Mrs Miniver -- written around the same time. Also the books described by Nicola Beauman (in her study of women's fiction from 1919 to 45). Only somewhat better as Mrs Miniver never has to do housework, only find servants.

The husband and situation though sound the same.