Wednesday, September 10, 2014

WINIFRED PECK, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933)

Winifred Peck's 1942 novel House-Bound was one of the first Persephone reprints I picked up (soon after D. E. Stevenson's Miss Buncle's Book, which had led me to Persephone in the first place), and I was immediately enamored with its tale of a middle-class woman in wartime Edinburgh who dives in to trying to keep her own house, in the absence of any viable domestic help.  It's not riotous humor, by any means, but charmingly subtle human comedy based on believable characters and true-to-life situations.  Although my first instinct, I recall, was to be rather condescending to poor Rose Fairweather—since of course nowadays we mostly all (at least the folks I hang out with) keep our own houses (though it is also true that I, for one, do not need to clean out a coal-burning stove when I stagger out of bed in the morning), Peck soon made me empathize completely with this delightful character who was really sort of daring and remarkable in her own way, and who approached her steep learning curve with optimism and energy and without whining and moaning about it.  And that was that—I fell in love with Rose and stayed in love with her through a second reading of the novel.

Ever since that time, I've intended to read more of Peck's intriguing body of work.  It includes some quite seductive-sounding titles for a middlebrow addict—and for the treasure hunter in me, they are seductively hard to come by as well.  For instance, there's They Come, They Go: The Story of an English Rectory (1937) and what must surely be its sequel, Bewildering Cares: A Week in the Life of a Clergyman's Wife (1940).  There's Peck's memoir of her early life in A Little Learning, or, A Victorian Childhood (1952).  Plus, there's a whole slew of other novels—perhaps The Skirts of Time (1935) would be a favorite?  Or There Is a Fortress (1945)?  Perhaps Winding Ways (1951)?  I hope to find out someday.

But even when I was doing my initial research on Peck a couple of years ago, I somehow completely missed the fact that she had in fact also written two well-received mystery novels.  It wasn't until I was drafting my Mystery List a few weeks ago that I came across that tantalizing fact, and I immediately and quite spontaneously requested the first of these, The Warrielaw Jewel, from the library.

I'm always saying that I'm surprised that this book or that book has not been reprinted.  It's the recurring refrain of this blog.  But I truly am surprised about this one.  Dating from the Golden Age of mystery writing and set a quarter century earlier in Edwardian Edinburgh, The Warrielaw Jewel is told by the wife of an attorney, who by-the-by becomes a crucial witness in a case that includes mysterious disappearances of jewels and people, as well as wholesale murder.  It's not only a completely competent and rather clever mystery (which, rest assured, I will not spoil here), but also a marvellously evocative portrayal of its place and time:

This story of mine is now I suppose historical. My own children apply the term to that period, so far away from modern youth, when King Edward VII lived, and skirts were long and motors few, and the term Victorian was not yet a reproach. Yet as I look back I see no very profound differences in modern youth and my own upbringing. Before I married I lived with a literary father and artistic mother in Kensington Square, and that life seems to me to have changed but little in essentials. But when, after my marriage, I went to live in Edinburgh, I did feel that I had stepped back definitely into history. I am not speaking of the stricter social and ceremonial proprieties, already undermined by the charming youth of the city. It was not these things which surprised me, but a deeper truth, unimagined by a post-war generation. Edinburgh was not in those days a city, but a fortuitous collection of clans. Beneath a society always charming and interesting on the surface, and delightful to strangers, lurked a history of old hatreds, family quarrels, feuds as old as the Black Douglas. Nor were the clans united internally, except indeed at attack from without. Often already my mother-in-law had placidly dissuaded me from asking relations to meet, on the ground that they did not recognise each other.

The novel's main characters, apart from the narrator, Betty Morrison, and her husband John, are an eccentric family of decayed gentlefolk led by a true domestic dominatrix, Jessica Warrielaw, and her meek martyr of a sister, Mary.  Then there are a small array of other relatives, including Cora and Neil, two cousins who have had just a bit too close a relationship.  Especially in describing the two sisters, Peck does a beautiful job of making vividly real their rather stunted lives.  She's particularly skilled at using descriptions of tangible objects to reveal this, as when the narrator describes Mary's room in the creaky, run-down old mansion:

It had been furnished last, like Jessica's, when the front portion of the house was built, in the style we know so well from Leech's pictures in Punch. But the monumental suite of mahogany and the canopied bed were, like Jessica's, dull and tarnished with years and neglect, and the Axminster carpet almost threadbare. In such rooms as those of the two sisters, all over Scotland in the last half-century, families of daughters grew up to lonely and unhonoured spinsterhood, victims to the traditions and extravagance of the past. Outside, the sun was shining again on the budding trees, and the rooks were calling, but within, youth and spring had passed away irretrievably…

And, just a short while later, Peck uses a stereotypically appropriate "feminine" hobby to show the rather sad, desperate emptiness of Mary's existence:

Incredible as it must seem to this generation, not only the Misses Warrielaw, but many of my own contemporaries spent hours over this peculiarly fatuous form of fancy work. With meticulous care we would pierce holes in white muslin and carefully embroider their edges with white thread till the hole was barely visible. My efforts in that direction had been confined to the corner of one handkerchief, still unfinished, but Miss Mary had been working for years, I imagined, at the large, grimy bedspread laid out before me, punctured inch by inch with embroidered holes.

In a way, the narrator's repeated interest in how different things are now (i.e. in 1933) than they were when the events she describes occurred reminds me a bit of Catherine Aird's A Late Phoenix, another mystery I wrote about fairly recently.  Here, as there, memories of a now-distant way-of-life and set of standards play a crucial role in the mystery, and the changed perceptions of that earlier time are an important concern.  And each little acknowledgement by the narrator of those changed perceptions is packed with wonderful detail of the earlier period, as when she describes how people felt about their automobiles when automobiles were new and exciting possessions:

These were the early days of owner-drivers, and my heart bled for our new, immaculate Albion and its tyres. This generation will never understand the mingled emotions of early motorists, the care and affection we transferred from our horses, the pride of pioneers, and the interest in every other car.

A sentiment she connects up humorously in this comment on the feelings of her and her husband driving away after an evening with the Warrielaws:

Anyone who climbed into our car to-day, and sat, perched over its crude gadgets, in a smell of petrol and an incessant draught, would feel that they had strayed back into the Dark Ages. But upon that evening, I remember, our Albion seemed to me a gay centre of warmth and modernity and civilisation, as we drove homewards and left the gloomy house behind us.

I could quote a dozen more passages that made me smile or pause in my reading to reflect on Peck's vivid images of a time gone by, but I don't want to be giving away anything much about the mystery itself, which, with Betty's charming narration, is too entertaining in its unfolding for me to spoil.  The puzzle, as it's often called, is not the most brilliant I've ever read, but as mysteries go I found it convincing and surprising.  But bear in mind that I have never once guessed "whodunit" when reading a mystery (and sometimes, as I think I've confessed before, I still can't even when reading a mystery for the second or third time!), because I tend to be so much more interested in the characters and settings and descriptions of day-to-day life than I am in who pulled the trigger, tightened the rope, tinkered with the brakes, or flung a poisoned dart across a crowded room without anyone noticing.  So I am perhaps not the best judge.  Your experience may vary, as shady advertisers often put it.  However, if you share my own focus on substance over puzzle, then I can't imagine that you'll be disappointed here.

One rather odd thing about the book, which certainly seems more of a gimmick by the publisher than something Peck herself would have chosen to do: There's a notice on pages 250-251 of the novel (see picture) putting the reader on notice that all of the evidence and clues have now been presented and challenging them to solve the mystery without reading further.  I've never seen such a thing outside of some old children's mysteries I seem to recall reading as a child, but you might either find this notice rather funny and charming or merely a silly distraction, depending on your own readerly predilections.

Needless to say, in response to the publisher's query "Can you do it?" I promptly replied "Certainly not" and went blithely on turning pages, but perhaps you'll be less averse to accepting the challenge?

I have to close with one final, very simple, example of Peck's irresistible domestic humor—one that might almost have been lifted from House-Bound, written nearly a decade later:

I was almost as embarrassed as the two men when Cora began to cry. After all, there are certain things any woman may cry for legitimately, like losing a cook or some teeth or an engagement ring, but not in front of strangers, and not as if her heart was broken.

Of course one might sob at the loss of one's cook.  Just ask Rose Fairweather.


  1. Sounds wonderful, Scott. I also loved House Bound & would love to read more Peck. Maybe another title for your own imprint one of these days?!

    1. I think you're right, Lyn. This book is just too good not to be in print, and it's been a while since I've really strongly felt that about a book. I sense a new list coming on!

  2. Scott, Thanks so much for supporting my view of books. I'm often embarrassed to admit that the characters are way more important to me than a plot. Then you were brave enough to call this dichotomy "substance over puzzle" in a mystery novel, thus throwing down a gauntlet to all those people who are sure the puzzle is the thing!
    Linda Jacks

    1. Oh dear, I didn't even realize I was throwing down a gauntlet! That doesn't mean I actually have to joust with the puzzlers, does it?!?! So I guess I shouldn't confess that sometimes skim over the revelations at the end of mysteries, especially if they're too long and drawn out...

  3. oh Scott, i want this book! ok new author on my list..thank u.
    i also want characters thoughts/feelings, don't care whodoneit. Maybe that's cause i never could figure out whodoneit anyway :)
    But in life even if we know 'whodoneit' in our everyday mysteries of's always more interesting to work w/..'why did they do it' which of course we seldom ever know cause we ourselves seldom truly know why we do things..we only think we know.
    thank u for the long quotes, will savor while i wait to find (can't even find this on online!) but will order what i can find..thank u very much.
    a new fan, quinn

    1. Glad you found me, Quinn! Lovely to hear from you. I'm afraid this book does seem to be one of the least available of Peck's novels (of course!), but worth tracking down if you ever have the chance.

  4. Where did you locate this book please?did you borrow it?


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