Review by Sylvia D:
Very little seems to happen in The New House (1936). Over one long day a widowed mother and her 30-something daughter move from a large imposing secluded house with beautiful gardens to a much smaller one overlooked by a housing estate. The old house is to be knocked down to make way for yet another of the many housing developments that were springing up during the 1930s.
As she recounts the intricate details of the day and explores the thoughts of the different members of the Powell family, Lettice Cooper gives us a fascinating insight into the lives of middle-class women in the inter-war period, into the way society was changing and into the tensions that existed within the conflicting expectations of the different generations.
Having been petted and spoilt as a girl, the mother, Mrs Powell, is used to getting her own way and can be petulant and demanding. She has already destroyed her elder daughter, Rhoda’s, one chance of getting away by ruining Rhoda’s growing relationship with her only boyfriend, Barry.
Mrs Powell is a snob, has known nothing except a comfortable middle-class existence and is outraged at having to leave the family home,
‘It seemed to her now that Providence ought to interfere to stay the movement of the tide that was sweeping over the city; to keep her alone in the large house with the quiet garden round her, and to stem the rush of red bricks and gimcrack-looking pink wooden windows and doors; to keep behind a barrier the harassed women in cretonne aprons, the screaming children with toy cars and cycles, dashing into the road. She had never been into a slum nor seen the houses that they came from; she had lived within the circle of her own life, the smallest possible world in a very large one’ – (p 110).
Mrs Powell’s unmarried elder daughter, Rhoda, is stuck at home looking after and being companion to her mother. And yet she is on the verge of rebelling. For Mrs Powell the house was the centre of her world and she saw no need for anything else. She and Rhoda would argue about this but Rhoda recognised that,
‘You could not argue with someone who was so entirely conscious of being right that she ruled out reason. It would be the same in the new house as if had been in the old. You changed nothing by changing places. She would want to go for a long walk, and her mother would want the curtains taken down and washed that afternoon. Either she would go out and feel guilty, or she would wash the curtains and feel rebellious’ – (p 156).
Mrs Powell’s younger daughter, Delia, has, though, managed to escape. She epitomises the growing number of single young women who were opting for an independent life in the interwar period and works in a clerical position in a laboratory in London. She is about to marry one of her work colleagues.
Rhoda and Delia have a brother, Maurice, who is struggling to keep the family engineering business afloat. He drops in during the course of the day and his rather cold, materialistic, social climber of a wife agrees very reluctantly to provide all the family with an evening meal.
The plight of unmarried women faced with the limited opportunities available to women at that time is well portrayed through the character of Mrs Powell’s sister, Aunt Ellen, who comes along to help with the move. Brought up not to expect much, Aunt Ellen has spent many years of her life waiting on her parents and is always there to help and to try to cheer people up. She lives in a private hotel and when not helping others,
‘Looked at the morning paper, knitted for a babies’ welcome, mended her clothes, read such novels from the library as seemed to her neither alarming nor indecent, went for little walks, wrote a few letters in a stiff pointed hand, gave up her chair to old ladies and picked up stitches for them’ – (p 276).
And then there are the servants. There used to be five to run the big house. Now there are only two – cook and the maid – and at the new house there will only be one. Again attitudes are changing. Mrs Powell ‘could never quite feel that [servants] were independent human beings’ – (p 101) and yet the maid, Ivy, actually has a more independent life than Rhoda does.
Rhoda is more aware of class distinctions,
‘Here was a woman [the cook] only a few years older than herself, living in the same house with her, full, no doubt, of hopes and fears and sorrows and wishes, and as far apart from her as a foreigner who did not speak English. It seemed absurd’ – (p 101).
Lettice Cooper was a socialist and her views and the changing political world of the inter-war period are reflected through some of the more minor characters, Maurice’s friend, Legard, who wants to put himself on the same fifty shillings a week wage as his workmen and through Delia’s, fiance, Jim, who joins the family in the evening. For Jim, their moving to a smaller house is the sensible thing to do but he privately thought,
‘It was no use saying that the Powells . . . were entitled to live in large houses and lovely gardens just because their grandfathers had built them, and that a world in which they had thirty acres of ground while eight families shared a lavatory was badly in need of removals . . . Any other conception of life was outside their imagination’ – (p 304).
Delia has tempted Rhoda with the suggestion that Rhoda should take over the job in London that Delia will have to resign from when she gets married. At the start of the day Rhoda feels that this would be impossible, that it would be cruel to leave her mother, that it is her duty to stay at home but as the day progresses she debates with herself and observes those around her until eventually she realises she does want to get away. She recognises that the new house will be just as big a trap as the old one but she also wants to save herself, ‘It was Aunt Ellen she wanted to get away from, from being like her, so unselfish and good and devoted . . .’ – (p 201).
Although Lettice Cooper is painting a portrait of just one family’s life, that family is a microcosm of middle-class England in the 1930s. Cooper ably demonstrates the conflicts of the time between tradition and progress (Winifred Holtby’s South Riding comes to mind) and how hard it is to break away from the influence of one’s upbringing. Politics, standards of living and expectations were changing but women were still limited in their educational and career opportunities and many must have faced the same dilemma as Rhoda Powell. I enjoyed the book although I felt it could perhaps have been a little shorter and tighter.