"And as I am trying to do without a library subscription in Lent," I said, "and there are no evening meetings owing to this blessed black-out, I shall just write down for her what the life of a parson's wife is like. Just one week to show her how everything happens and nothing happens!"
If the title weren't enough to give us a pretty clear idea of the subject matter of this novel, set in the early, limbo days of World War II before the Blitz began, this statement, made by the adorable Camilla Lacely to her husband Arthur, the vicar of Stampfield a medium-sized town in the midlands not too far from Manchester, spells it out for us.
Those of you who read my enthusiastic review of Winifred Peck's early mystery novel The Warrielaw Jewel not long ago will hardly be surprised (knowing also as you do my obsessive nature) that I immediately set about acquiring another of her smart, funny, beautifully observed novels. Commenting on that review, Lyn suggested that, judging from my enthusiasm, perhaps it would be a new title for my imaginary publishing venture, Furrowed Middlebrow Books, and indeed I am now worried that I may be about to embark on publishing a shiny new imaginary edition of The Complete (and Feloniously Underappreciated) Works of Winifred Peck.
I also mentioned in my earlier post a few of Peck's other novels, including two that seemed surely to be related—They Come, They Go: The Story of an English Rectory (1937) and Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940)—and I immediately placed interlibrary loan requests for both. That way, I thought, if the latter really was a sequel of sorts to the former, I would have a double-header review all lined up. Sadly, while my online library account kept assuring me that the status of my request for They Come, They Go was "Awaiting Arrival" (I pictured a welcome party eagerly anticipating, checking their watches, wondering what on earth could have become of it, etc.), the status hadn't changed in more than a week when my self control gave out and I had to dive into Bewildering Cares. So, no double-header review, alas and alack. (But I will still report on the other book eventually, assuming that it's much-heralded arrival comes to fruition.)
In some ways, my excitement about these two of Peck's books in particular might seem rather odd. I am not at all a religious person, but somehow I am completely enamored with the world of vicarages and rectories (though I have to admit I'm not completely sure of the difference), and the generally kind-hearted, dedicated people who live in them and often have a rather thankless calling in providing aid, assistance, and moral support for their communities. Of course, I'm a little afraid that this enamoration (it should be a word!) may result as much from my viewing of The Vicar of Dibley and Clatterford and my reading of Agatha Christie, Angela Thirkell, and Barbara Pym as from any concrete experience of how vicars and curates and rectors (oh, my!) live in their natural habitats. But the prevalence of such characters and settings in British fiction and television surely suggests some basis in reality, right?
|Oh, for a different photo of Peck, but this seems|
to be the only one that's readily available
The novel goes very much (but perhaps not entirely) as you might expect from Camilla's own description. The main event of the week in question is the controversy swirling around a passionately pacifist sermon delivered by the curate, Mr. Strang. The outrage and debate gradually runs its course during the week—"It will be a storm in a tea-cup, of course, but then we happen to live in a tea-cup!"—but demands much time and energy (particularly because Camilla inadvertently napped through much of the sermon in question and so rather awkwardly has to avoid all in-depth discussion of it). There's also anxiety about her son Dick, off training with his regiment, the ill health of one of the residents of the local almshouse, who has become a friend, some slight servant woes (interesting precursors to Peck's House-Bound, published two years later), much concern about the sacrifices and rituals of Lent, and a potential middle-aged romance between the church organist and a woman who runs a local shop—all of which require Camilla's involvement and patience, despite her frequent yearnings for silence and solitude. I so thoroughly relate to her theory of talkers vs. non-talkers:
Anyhow, the telephone bell rang, and I found Mrs. Pratt asking, in her rich full contralto, if she might come in to tea this afternoon. As Kate will be overjoyed to find that there is a reason for using her best room this afternoon, and as I really like Mrs. Pratt, I was very glad to consent, though I must confess I should have enjoyed a peaceful solitary tea over a new library book better still. Sometimes I feel that Trappist monasteries weren't really founded in any excess of asceticism, but just to fulfil a felt need, a place where the naturally silent might escape from the born talkers. The Church of England is no home for the former class. Scattered through the length and breadth of our unhappy country are those who are quite convinced that the world can be saved by lectures and meetings, discussions and re-unions. To satisfy their lust for speech there must always be an army of patient, silent listeners, seated perpetually in hard rows of chairs enduring the incessant hose-pipe of earnest addresses and talks and sermons.
There's the obvious comparison here—made more obvious by her being mentioned several times in the book as one of Camilla's favorite authors—to E. M. Delafield's Provincial Lady books, but Peck is not so biting in her humor, and she has her serious as well as zany side. She's not as cynical as Barbara Pym nor as daftly hilarious as Angela Thirkell, who is also mentioned as a favorite, when Camilla yearns for time to dive into Wild Strawberries yet again (she also mentions Winifred Holtby and Dorothy Whipple, so she is clearly a kindred spirit). I would almost go out on a limb and say that Peck seems to me the more "mature" writer, more polished and also more subtle in the points she gets across. Hers is a quietly logical, sane, thoughtful, and genuine voice that I could hear in my head all day long without tiring of it. In fact, I have had to remind myself how many other books I need to be reading, or I might well have slipped back to the beginning of Bewildering Cares and started the whole wonderful experience anew. (It could still happen...)
|Jacket flap description|
Even when Peck occasionally explores the real conflicts and dilemmas of religious life in wartime—a retreat leader who asserts that they should not be praying for victory because they cannot know that it's God's will, or how to make appropriate sacrifices for Lent at a time when rationing is already forcing sacrifices enough—she does so in such a charming and interesting way that I ate it all up. If I had worried at first that it might veer toward preachiness or sentimentality, I needn't have. In addition to Clarissa's alarming tendency to snooze during sermons or let her mind wander to plans for tomorrow's lunch when she's supposed to be engaged in spiritual reflection, her recollections of her son Dick's skewerings of false piety and prissiness also come into play, as when she reflects on tensions with a village woman:
Perhaps what is really at the root of the trouble is that she hasn't approved of Dick, and Dick has described her as an Anglican pussyface, ever since we left the house together, after a croquet party with two of her gay yet serious Anglican nieces, and Dick declared outside the open windows, with an emphasis which must have been overheard, that he believed even the balls and hoops had been baptized by an Archbishop.
There are two marvellous scenes late in the novel that are among the funniest and most enjoyable I've read in ages. The first details a day-long Lent observance, in which Clarissa and a group of other women alternate between periods of silent reflection and periods of discussion of religious and moral themes. I made the mistake of starting this scene while sitting at my desk during a lunch break, and nearly humiliated myself with giggles and guffaws and a few out-and-out snorts. During one of the periods of silence, the women are supposed to make notes on any enlightening thoughts:
By this time I had acquired a pencil and paper from Mrs. Stead, but all I found on the paper afterwards, I regret to say, was:
(1) A drawing of snowdrops under a cedar tree—quite good;
(2) The Problem of Pain. Incomplete: cf. Saint Paul and parable of sheep and goats—Vic; Redempt.;
(3) A sketch of Mrs. Gage's gown—she always calls them gowns and says her maid makes them for her. This I can well believe, as whatever their material they are of a design which always suggests the fashions of 1910 modified by a study of last year's Vogue and a subtle hint of ecclesiastical vestments.
Then there's a cake and candy sale to aid the church, and Clarissa's reflections on church sales generally and the items therein:
At one of these [tables] Miss Boness severely guarded the collection of woollies, night-dresses and work-bags which go the round of all our Sales, and probably date back in origin to the beginning of the century. These hardy perennials owe their existence to the fact that all Church workers have a Bazaar Drawer in which they thrust the unsaleable goods which they buy, out of sheer pity, from other stall-holders, and out of which they extract articles when they are called upon to send offerings to yet another effort. Dick says that at the bottom of my receptacle he once found a pair of what he calls "frillies", with a portrait of Gladstone stamped on one leg and of Lord Salisbury on the other; but this is sheer libel. As none of the articles here can conceivably be described as cakes or candy, I can only imagine that their owners felt a sort of nostalgia to see them on show once again.
At this I had, of course, to add a rather poisonous-looking mauve sugar cake, wrapped up with almost undue anxiety for economy in paper, to my parcel of handkerchiefs, a bag of eggs, and a greyish-white woolly "boudoir-wrap" which by this time could almost find its own way to my bazaar-drawer, I imagine, so often has it returned there to emerge again in the last three years.
If you're not completely charmed by such passages, then I just don't know what to say to you, I'm afraid. And I'm also deeply sorry, because that means you'll probably also be bored by the inevitable reviews of more Peck novels undoubtedly to come. But if you are charmed, then you may well be able to track this book down with just a bit of determination. Happily, it has not completely ceased to exist either in U.S. or U.K. libraries, and copies for sale do not seem to be completely beyond the budgetary pale.
Or, of course, you could wait for the Furrowed Middlebrow Books edition...