Tuesday, January 24, 2017

WINIFRED PECK, Tranquillity (1944)


Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while already know that I’m a fan of Winifred Peck. I’ve reviewed several of her books previously, and her 1940 novel Bewildering Cares was my favorite read of 2014 and has subsequently been released on the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Her two mysteries, The Warrielaw Jewel and Arrest the Bishop?, have also been released in Dean Street’s Golden Age mystery series.

But it’s been a while now since I found time to continue exploring Peck’s other novels. There are still a dozen or so of her books that I haven’t read, and it was high time I got back to exploring them. The immediate inspiration this time was the most recent issue of The Scribbler (see my post on The Scribbler here), which discussed Tranquillity, 
which, like Bewildering Cares, is set in wartime, though several years later. And what an interesting contrast!

Set in the titular rest home established by sisters Mary, Paula, and Agnes Brown, primarily for the elderly and infirm whom war has deprived of the servants and caretakers who had hitherto made independent living possible, Tranquillity is a surprisingly somber and meditative novel by comparison with the earlier work. There is little plot to speak of—the nurses and staff interact with the patients and each other and have discussions about the war, religion, love, and aging. 

Some readers might find it a bit too uneventful, in fact, and perhaps the religious content a bit more intrusive than in most of Peck’s other work. And if it didn't completely work for me as a novel, I still found it compelling, and the religious discussion seemed completely sincere, perhaps the result of Peck’s own soul-searching in the midst of the war. Regardless, there is no doubt that the cheerful stiff upper lip of Bewildering Cares has given way to a more fatigued and philosophical trudging along. The horrors of the Blitz have taken place between the earlier novel and this one, and if Bewildering Cares was overwhelmingly life-affirming, Tranquillity is in many ways a novel about death.

The novel opens, in fact, with a discussion among Tranquillity staff members about the relative worth of the elderly and infirm as opposed to the young and vibrant, with one nurse (later proved to be a thoroughly dislikeable person for other reasons) suggesting that many of their patients should simply be put down like animals so that the energies of the staff could be more usefully spent. That theme, of the value of the old or disabled, is then revisited in the novel’s closing pages (I won’t spoil it here, but it works fairly well, I thought). I couldn’t help but wonder if this theme—clearly a central one in the novel—wasn’t also a result of Peck’s own soul-searching, not only as a woman in her 60s, but more generally as a noncombatant in wartime.


The following passage, too, about the nurses keeping busy to keep their minds off the war, is perhaps a bit shocking by comparison to the tone of Peck’s earlier work:

For like all women to-day they could only cling to sanity by fixing their minds on their immediate job and trying to find zest and interest in it. When once those eyes of the mind wandered to the world tragedy they were lost: in one moment their surroundings vanished, and they saw men, half-starved, half-drowned, hanging to rafts, their comrades screaming vainly for aid on burning tankers: they saw soldiers roll over in anguish on rocky crags of African hills or crucified on barbed wire in Tunisian deserts: they saw simple, single-hearted boys fasten themselves grinning into the seats of aeroplanes, who would be but charred skeletons by daybreak: they heard the laughter of bombers' crews like the rattling of the dice of Death. From these horizons everyone must tum to work of some mechanical kind, practical duties which would involve that utter fatigue which alone can give peace and sleep.

But if Tranquillity isn’t nearly as cheerful as Bewildering Cares or Peck’s mysteries, it does have a typically varied and vivid cast of characters. The story of the three sisters, for example, and how they came to own Tranquillity, is a typically double-edged Peck tale of independent women coming up against society’s restraints—in this case to ultimately succeed in their own quiet way:

When the World War began Mary was Matron of a famous London hospital; Paula Sister of a maternity hospital, and Agnes Head Sister of a Clinique for Rheumatism, and they held their posts with heroism while the Blitz raged over London. And then one by one had been summoned from work, success and responsibility by calls which not one of this very old-fashioned family thought of disobeying. Mary went home to nurse her mother, struck dumb and helpless with paralysis. Paula was called to an aunt who had aided the family financially for years and was dying by inches of arterio-sclerosis. And finally Agnes had to give up her work to nurse their little-known Cousin George, just because he was so cruel, miserly and dirty that no hired stranger would stay with him. And strange to say, all these Victorian sacrifices really did meet with the reward which would have been theirs in a Victorian novel. Agnes returned from her mother's funeral to find Cousin George at death's door. Paula, ringing up to say that her aunt's long imprisonment was over, heard that Cousin George had died of heart failure (in an attempt to cross the room and put out the gas stove for economy). A week later, in March 1941, the sisters found themselves free of all responsibilities and Agnes the heiress to a property beyond their dreams of magnificence.

Sister Agnes feels an affection for Dr. Lash, but Peggy, the most worldly of the sisters, has also set her sights on him. Then there are the nurses—the terrible Nurse Clegg; Nurse Zedy, “a small, stout, vehement little woman”; “Nurse Prime, a fat, ageing, fluffy blonde, with a terrible capacity for obvious remarks and pointless reminiscences”; “tall, lank, sentimental Nurse Ventnor,” who hails from a maternity hospital; and Nurse Storey, “a pleasant, substantial, middle-aged woman with a pug nose, small dancing eyes, a ready tongue and a great capacity for hard work.”

And this is to say nothing of the patients, which include an aging Colonel, “the ruin of a once smart, soldierly, efficient gentleman,” a kind upper-crust lady who has come to Tranquillity because her servants were all called up, scandalous old Mrs Coppetts, eccentric Professor Alured, recovering from a nervous breakdown after months of obsessive work (and now perhaps to be offered work in a secret government office), Miss Lyon, a passionate social reformer, suffragette, and officer in the WAACs during WWI, now fiercely resisting the decline of her physical powers, and numerous others. With the sad description of Miss Lefever, “so dim-sighted and so deaf that she seemed to pass most of her time in a coma,” we get another taste of Peck’s wry, subtle feminism, her frustration at the limitations of women’s opportunities:

And indeed Miss Lefever's life had been noted for as few virtues as vices. She had worn out her youth in a dull existence with her parents in a dismal mansion in Denmark Hill. She was forty before she had any control of herself or her money at all, and had not the least idea how to begin to enjoy herself when she had finally interred her relatives in another mausoleum in the cemetery. She knew nothing of the careers opening out to women at the end of last century: free to dispose of her life she decided, with health and plenty of money at her command, to enjoy nothing but a Little Ill-health.

There’s surely a touch of Peck’s trademark humor in that paragraph as well, and this is not the only place we find a lighter tone in Tranquillity. But such instances are certainly fewer than in other works. One observation that I enjoyed, uttered by Mrs Arroll though reported to us by Mary, concerns mystery novels (so perhaps Peck was already thinking of returning to that genre?):

She said that if only one had a nose for murder one need never pay rates or taxes, as the first remark of the police officer in command was always that no one must leave the house. If you could stay on in country houses for inquests, and adjourned inquests one after the other, you could manage, she said, without a home at all!

Ultimately, I found Tranquillity to be a touching and rather inspiring portrayal of (mostly) decent, dedicated people carrying on in very dark times. It’s not a perky, "we can take it" type of portrayal, but more of a sad "we’ll do our best for as long as we can" perspective. It’s undoubtedly a bit idealized, intended to be inspirational reading in a particularly difficult period, but it does also face up rather starkly to the realities of death and suffering and old age in a way that not a lot of "light" fiction did at the time. Leave it to dear Winifred to have surprised me yet again with the scope of her quiet observations about life!

I've managed to get my hands on another postwar Peck novel recently, and hopefully I'll get round to that one soon. Frustratingly, however, the one I'd most love to get my grubby little hands on, the follow-up to Bewildering Cares, called A Garden Enclosed, set in a Victorian rectory, seems to have practically ceased to exist. If anyone ever happens across a copy, or if anyone has actually read it, I'd love to hear about it. One for a new Hopeless Wish List, I'm afraid.

6 comments:

  1. Once again, one of your posts inspires in me a strong desire to read the book being described. Tranquility sounds like a fascinating read.

    Jerri

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    1. Thanks, Jerri. It's quite an interesting book, particularly in relation to Peck's other work.

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  2. I was interested to read that religion does seem to appear in most of Peck's novels, as I was quite taken by her musings on religion and God, especially the part about going into a darkened room and seeing a lighted window just above sight line, and on and on. I was so intrigued by it all, and found myself thinking"Ah, yes, that's akin to how I feel." Oh, Scott, I am plugging along with Bewildering Cares, but it is hard going. Sorry. BUT - I do persevere! Tom

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    1. Yes, not being religious at all I would expect to be put off a bit by so much religious content, but Peck is really at heart writing about decent people doing their best in bad situations, and I think that's what comes through.

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  3. This sounds very interesting. The comment about her religious content chimes with a discussion I was having about "The House-Bound" on Northern Reader's blog - I checked back to my 2010 review and found that apparently some readers didn't like the religious/philosophical bits. I was fine with them, as I was with those in "Bewildering Cares", even though I'm not particularly that way inclined myself. Maybe all the philosophy in Iris Murdoch innoculated me against minding!

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    1. Thanks, Liz. Yes, see my response to the comment above. I think it's a testament to Peck's skill at creating characters. I don't really remember much religious content in House-Bound though--perhaps it's time for a re-read?

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