PREFACE BY PENELOPE FITZGERALD
Residents of Blackfriars Street, Edinburgh in the early 1940s
We first read House-Bound by Winifred Peck in 1985 when, in a feature in the Times Literary Supplement, the novelist and critic Penelope Fitzgerald, Winifred Peck’s niece, chose it as one of the books she would like to see reprinted. This was a repeat of the 1977 feature in which Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin both chose Barbara Pym as the novelist they thought most unjustly neglected.
Penelope Fitzgerald wrote: ‘If I could have back one of the many Winifred Peck titles I once possessed I would choose House-Bound. The story never moves out of middle-class Edinburgh; the satire on genteel living, though, is always kept in relation to the vast severance and waste of the war beyond. The book opens with a grand comic sweep as the ladies come empty-handed away from the registry office where they have learned that they can no longer be “suited” and in future will have to manage their own unmanageable homes. There are coal fires, kitchen ranges and intractable husbands; Rose is not quite sure whether you need soap to wash potatoes. Her struggle continues on several fronts, but not always in terms of comedy. To be house-bound is to be “tethered to a collection of all the extinct memories... with which they had grown up... how are we all to get out?” I remember it as a novel by a romantic who was as sharp as a needle, too sharp to deceive herself.’
Penelope Fitzgerald, who died in 2000, agreed in 1998 to write about House-Bound; however, we waited to publish the book, and her Preface, because we wanted a good length of time to elapse between its publication and that of the rather similarly titled The Home-Maker, Persephone book no.7. So the publication of House-Bound is a celebration not only of Winifred Peck but of Penelope Fitzgerald.
Winifred Peck, née Knox, was sister to The Knox Brothers, the title of a 1977 book Penelope wrote about her father Evoe Knox and her uncles Dillwyn, Wilfred and Ronald. It is a pity that Winifred hardly appears in that book and in fact it has been difficult to find out anything about her, bar the fact that she was brillliant, like her brothers, was one of the first forty pupils at the pioneering (and still outstanding) Wycombe Abbey School and went to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford to read History. She married when she was 29 and over the next forty years, as well as having three brilliant sons, wrote twenty-five books, mostly novels.
House-Bound was written during the war and the war is both in the background and foreground: one of the questions that the reader is asked throughout the book is – what is courage? This is another book, like Few Eggs and No Oranges, Persephone book no.9 and A House in the Country, Persephone book no.31, which gives an incredible picture of life during the war as it actually was rather than viewed with hindsight.
House-Bound also contains a more unusual theme: Rose’s daughter Flora is difficult, petulant and horrible to her mother, which is not something often written about in fiction (for obvious reasons, but perhaps Winifred Peck felt able to write about Flora because she had no daughters). Flora finally turns a corner; but it is painful to read about her until that happens.
Winifred Peck is also funny and perceptive about Rose Fairlaw’s decision to manage her house on her own. For years her family ‘had been free of nine or ten rooms in the upper earth, while three women shared the exiguous darkness of the basement.’ But, like Mollie Panter-Downes or Lettice Cooper, Winifred Peck could foresee the future and wrote informatively and amusingly, not complainingly, about the need for middle-class women to run their home without help, the title of one of our books and a key theme of many of them.
Endpapers taken from a 1941 watercolour design by Eric Ravilious for a textile commissioned by the Cotton Board.