Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck
Aside from writing two detective novels, one I liked and the other less so, Winifred Peck wrote a further twenty-four books in a literary career that ran from 1909 to 1955. Bewildering Cares was originally published in 1940 and has been reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press. In the days before social media many people jotted down their thoughts, experiences, aspirations and fears in a diary or a journal and there is an established literary tradition of fictional diaries. Bewildering Cares is the story of the week in the life of Camilla Lacely, a harassed, busy vicar’s wife, in a northern town at the start of the Second World War, written ostensibly to demonstrate to her cousin how relentlessly busy her life is.
Using the format of a diary imposes some limitations on the narrative. Events can only be seen from the perspective of the writer and the entries have to be written in the first person. There are compensatory benefits, not least that it is an ideal medium for introspection and for expressing those thoughts and desires that they would hardly dare voice in the open. The book reminded me of E M Dellafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady without the incisive wit, not as cosy or twee, slightly more serious but still managing to achieve a certain frivolity in her style.
The book records a maelstrom of working parties, visits to the poor, myriad committee meetings which, because there is a war on, are made up of the same people who scuttle around the village from one venue to another, answering phone calls that always come at inopportune moments and running a large, uncomfortable home which is becoming increasingly difficult to tame. Rations mean that putting a meal on the table becomes more of a challenge and, although Camilla has a maid, Kate, she is more of a liability than a help, more concerned with meeting and feeding her beaus who is anticipating a posting which never seems to come.
The constant theme that runs through the novel – “a storm in a teacup”, as Camilla describes it, “but then we happen to live in a teacup” – is the sermon her husband’s curate, Mr Lang, gave at church on the Sunday which, with its distinctive and passionate pacifist tones, causes outrage. Although Camilla was at the service, she had taken the opportunity provided by the sermon to catch up on some well-deserved sleep – haven’t we all? – and is unable to give her husband a lucid or coherent account of what the curate actually said.
The sermon sparks controversy and although Camilla and her husband feel obliged to offer Strang their support and hope that the controversy will soon blow over, it is the talk of the town and everyone she meets wants her take on it. It requires all of her skill and diplomacy to maintain a certain neutrality without betraying either her husband, Strang, or her injudicious napping. Strang is attacked and falls dangerously ill, but his miraculous recovery, surprisingly speedy to boot, reunites the townsfolk.
The other major theme running through the book is Camilla’s concerns for her only son, the wry and more worldly Dick, who is in the army. His return with some surprising news gives the book a rather uplifting ending.
The book has some fine moments, some interesting observations, fine quips and insights into a rather mundane but worthy life. Naturally, Camilla’s thoughts stray on to matters of religion and those passages can be heavier going bit on the whole Peck manages to produce an enjoyable read. Perhaps it is one to read at mealtime. After all, as Camilla observes, “there is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time”. We are not exactly in war time, but her words ring true, nevertheless.