Winifred Peck (1882-1962)
by Carol Westron
Winifred Peck was born Winifred Knox, part of one of the most remarkable families of the early 20th Century. Her father became the Bishop of Manchester and her mother was the daughter of a Bishop of Lahore. All of her four brothers were academic high flyers. Their achievements included one being editor of Punch and another was a renowned classicist and code breaker, whose efforts were essential to Britain winning the Second World War. The best known of Winifred Peck’s brothers was Ronald Knox, theologian and writer, who was a writer of detective fiction, one of the original members of the Detection Club and the composer of the Ten Commandments, his rules for writing detective stories. Although Winifred’s older sister, Ethel, was not academically outstanding, Winifred herself was their equal. Booker Prize winner Penelope Fitzgerald was Peck’s niece and wrote a biography of her father, E.V. Knox (the editor of Punch) and his three brothers, The Knox Brothers. Sadly, her talented aunt received little mention, although Fitzgerald wrote in positive terms about her favourite amongst Peck’s mainstream novels, Housebound (1942.)
Betty had been brought up in ‘an artistic atmosphere in London... with a literary father and artistic mother in Kensington Square.’ She has recently married John Morrison, a junior partner in an Edinburgh law firm and they have moved into the house that had previously been inhabited by her husband’s parents. Brides of that era held open days in which visitors came to welcome – and inspect – the new bride and her home, and Betty is struggling to navigate her way through the battlefield of clan and inter-clan quarrels: ‘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.’
This division and dissension is certainly the case with the Warrielaw family. Jessica and Mary Warrielaw are the older generation of the family, the survivors of five sisters. An ill-considered will had left everything to Jessica, with the proviso that Mary would inherit when she died. Neither Jessica nor Mary have children but their three sisters left four children between them, as Betty sums them up, ‘“Neil the Rip and Cora the Siren and Rhoda the Business Woman and Alison the little Beauty.”’ Jessica and Mary Warrielaw live together in a corner of an old, lonely house, quarrelling incessantly, and served by one devoted, elderly retainer, Effie, and Effie’s mentally disabled niece, Annie.
The family dynamics are extremely complicated, with Jessica selling off the family treasures to support Neil, who is an artist, ‘“He holds little exhibitions and wears a black hat with a wide brim and a long cape and side-whiskers”’ and ‘“talks like someone out of Oscar Wilde.”’ Jessica adores Neil but he treats her with casual disrespect. Rhoda has grown hard and bitter because she has had to become a businesswoman to earn enough money to support herself and her young half-sister, Alison, who struggles to keep house for them with very little money. Rhoda quarrels with her aunt Jessica but dominates her aunt Mary. The final cousin, Cora, is an elegant but hysterical woman who is married to a very rich man, but not until after she and her cousin Neil had made themselves the talk of Edinburgh because of their intimacy.
The Warrielaws all have one thing in common, their unusual, gold-green eyes: ‘wide, round eyes of that queer hazel shade which varies between yellow topaz in certain lights, and the dull green of old glass in others. The
colour was not only odd in itself; the eyes were conspicuous because, owing I imagine to some curious defect of vision, they had very small pupils which, I was to learn, rarely contracted or expanded.’
When Jessica decides to sell the Warrielaw jewel and takes the train for London, the simmering hatred within the family finally erupts.
The Warrielaw Jewel is a fascinating book. It tells the tale of a time that has long-since disappeared and of a country that had been full of hereditary hatreds. The narrator, Betty, is a newcomer who can see things with a stranger’s clear vision. It is a book that has the feel of total authenticity, which is not surprising as Peck came to middle-class Edinburgh society, as a bride, at the same time as the story is set, although she came from an academic and religious background rather than an artistic London one. Peck is an excellent writer, with great descriptive powers and a great deal of sly humour in her dialogue and characterisation. Her work has been described as similar to that of E.M. Delafield and I felt I could see several hints of Nancy Mitford in her writing too. However, when one considers the threatening, brooding, claustrophobic atmosphere of a family turned in upon itself, I believe The Warrielaw Jewel stands comparison with the writing of Margery Allingham. In his Mystery File blog, Curt J. Evans observed that The Warrielaw Jewel ‘is notable as an early example of a Golden Age mystery that, in its shifting of emphasis from pure puzzle to the study of character and setting, helped mark the gradual shift from detective story to crime novel.’
The Warrielaw Jewel was well received but Peck returned to writing mainstream novels and did not write her second detective story until 1949, sixteen years and twelve books later. Two of these have been republished and are worthy of a brief mention because they deal with social issues and the changes in society with humour and compassion. Both were written during the Second World War and set in places that Peck knew well: Bewildering Cares (1940) is set in Manchester and House-Bound (1942) is set in middle-class Edinburgh. Bewildering Cares is narrated by a vicar’s wife in a poor parish at the start of the Second World War. It is gentle, witty and yet full of the dark foreboding of that terrible time. As a book describing the early years of the war as they truly were for the middle-aged and middle-class it is invaluable. House-Bound is also set in the Second World War and describes the horror of middle-class ladies who discover domestic servants are no longer available and that they will have to manage their own unmanageable homes. Peck focuses on the struggles of Rose Fairlaw as she deals with such problems as whether potatoes need to be washed with soap and how to deal with the change in her circumstances when, 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.’ House-Bound is full of wit and comedy but, more than that, it is an incisive social commentary. The war is constantly present in the book as is the question ‘what is courage?’ Indeed both House-Bound and Bewildering Cares overtly address this question, and sharpen the reader’s awareness that courage often lies not just in dramatic deeds but in the resolution to carry on whatever life throws at one. Penelope Fitzgerald said of House-Bound: ‘I remember it as a novel by a romantic who was as sharp as a needle, too sharp to deceive herself.’
This Christmas the Bishop’s Palace is full of visitors, church officials and six young men who are to be ordained as deacons and two who will enter the priesthood. One of the young men about to become a priest is Richard Marlin, commonly known as Dick, who had been a deacon at Evelake before the war and, after being wounded in action, had been transferred to Military Intelligence. Dick is on terms of intimacy with the Bishop and his family and is a close friend of the Bishop’s chaplain, Robert Borderer, known to the family as Bobs, who is also recovering from a wound received as a stretcher bearer in France. The only women expected to be present are the Bishop’s sensible, warm-hearted wife and their daughter, Sue. Despite her wealth, Mrs Broome is concerned by the lack of reliable domestic staff. Their long-term housekeeper, Moira, who is suffering from cancer and is lying upstairs waiting to be transferred to hospital for an operation. Mrs Broome has taken on an inefficient butler, Soames, who is always snooping and listening at doors. ‘But, as Mrs Broome pointed out apologetically, the best butlers of the Kensitas advertisement had been dying out for years or going into retirement, and their efficient young successors were swept away by the war. Soames was, she must admit, bad-mannered, under-sized and given to spots, but he had seen service in the war.’
At the moment of his triumphant, sneering entrance Ulder collapses: ‘For a minute he stood looking around him in malevolent triumph, holding out his hand to Mrs Broome. Then suddenly he caught the back of the chair, staggered and groaned. Next moment there was a heavy crash and fall, and before that motionless circle of spectators the parson lay motionless and livid, white lilies from a vase fell, like a grotesque wreath across his chest as the water dripped on his unconscious head... Only the Bishop’s contribution struck Dick a little curiously as theyloosened Ulder’s collar. “Is he dead? Is Ulder dead?”
The words suggested a certain awe and alarm, but also a vast relief.
Ulder is not dead but a doctor who has come to see Moira, the sick servant, diagnoses heart trouble. Ulder is put to bed in the room next to Moira and, during that evening, many people visit his room, most of whom have good reason to wish him silenced. And in the morning he is indeed dead and the circumstances are suspicious, and under his pillow there is a short list of names and amounts of money, presumably the people he was intending to blackmail, all of whom were in the Bishop’s Palace that night.
Unfortunately for the Bishop, Chief Constable Mack is a dour Scot who hates the Anglican Church, a prejudice reinforced by the unfortunate oversight of forgetting to invite the Chief Constable’s wife to the Diocesan Garden Party. Dick realises he will have to investigate the death himself before the Chief Constable fulfils his ambition to arrest the Bishop.
Arrest the Bishop? is a delightful book,. Although Peck obviously gained her knowledge of life and religious ceremonies in a Bishop’s Palace by her early years living with her father, the Bishop of Manchester, the books full of lively characters and irreverent humour. As when Dick comments that he had not believed anybody in he Palace could commit murder:
In conclusion, a short quote from Peck’s humorous and affectionate dedication to her husband at the start of Arrest the Bishop?, which, I think, will strike a chord in my fellow crime writers and those unfortunate enough to interact with them. ‘But you cannot deny that it is partly your work and that it was you who horrified a guest at J- by announcing at breakfast: “Yes, we’ll make it a fatal dose of morphia”, that it was you who sent my terrified housekeeper a message: “Tell Lady Peck we must have an inquest.”
Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.
The Fragility of Poppies