A Satire and a Servant Problem: Peter De Vries’s “The Mackerel Plaza” & Winifred Peck’s “Bewildering Cares”

Have you heard of Peter De Vries (1910-1993), the New Yorker staff writer who was the author of numerous satiric novels? I wasn’t crazy about De Vries until I read The Mackerel Plaza, which was a Black Friday special.

This hilarious novel centers on Andrew Mackerel, the intellectual minister of the comically-named People’s Liberal Church of Avalon, Connecticut. Andrew, a recent widower, wants to remarry, but can’t even date, because his parishioners keep dedicating memorials to his late wife.

How can he meet women? Well, easily enough. He meets Molly Calico, an aspiring actress who works at the zoning board, when he files a complaint about a “Jesus Saves” billboard. He tells her he cannot write sermons with this monstrosity in view. Molly agrees it’s tacky, but thinks the common people need an easily comprehensible moral philosophy.  And she wonders what the Apostle Paul would say.  Andrew replies,  “I have no idea, but Oscar Wilde reminds us that while crime is not vulgar, vulgarity is a crime. ”  And that gives you an idea of the witty repartee.

The plot complications begin when he asks Molly out to dinner.  Because his parishioners are watching, they must sneak around bad neighborhoods.  And Hester, his sister-in-law, who moved in to be his housekeeper after his wife died, won’t let him forget her sister.  Andrew is astonished when Molly suggests Hester is in love with him and trying to scare off other women.  Is she right?

I very much enjoyed De Vries’s portrayal of the outrageously funny, conservative Mrs. Calico (Molly’s mother),  who reminds Andrew of Beatrix Potter’s Tabitha Twitchit.   She primly drinks tea and talks about the importance of roots, says the family is coming back (Andrew asks, “Are you expecting relatives?”), and announces, “Poetry went to the dogs under the Taft administration.”

De Vries reminds me vaguely of David Lodge–so funny!

DO YOU HAVE A SERVANT PROBLEM?

I recently read Winifred Peck’s Bewildering Cares, a charming novel in the form of the diary of a vicar’s wife.  It is one of those earnest, slightly comic English novels about a Brave Englishwoman Who Has Only One Servant and Too Many Committee Meetings.

Bewildering Cares is a cross between E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Jan Struther’s Mrs. Miniver. I also kept mixing it up with another cozy novel I read this month, E. M.  Delafield’s The Way Things Are.

In Bewildering Cares, the heroine, Camilla Lacey, describes her life during the spring of 1940.  She tells us her husband, Arthur, is the opposite of the stereotypical bumbling vicar:  Arthur is a tall, dark, clean-shaven, brilliant man who took a First in Greats before World War I. The Laceys live in a manufacturing town, where they deal with people of all classes.

Camilla’s work as vicar’s wife is divided between visiting the poor and sick, lunching with the nouveau riche, committee work—and the women in the committees are  difficult—and managing the enormous cold vicarage.

Camilla divides the housekeeping with her only servant, the loyal Kate.  They share the housework and cooking, but cooking is challenging because it is difficult to find good ingredients during the war.

Camilla writes,

I often wonder if other women who are taking to their own work in war-time are filled with the same stupefied admiration for domestic servants which I feel now. Unruffled, they seem to be able to leave milk on the boil while they answer the Laundry and oblige with 3s. 6 ¾ d., wipe the flour off their hands while they respond to the Rubbish, break off in whipping up an egg to polish and take up the shoes, and keep a kindly eye on the soup even while, at the basement gate, a gentleman is imploring them to view the writing-paper in his attaché-case.

There is a  plot:  when the curate, Mr. Strang, a pacifist, preaches against the war, everyone is up in arms.  The Laceys wish he’d be more tactful, but they manage to soothe ruffled feathers.  Plus Mr. Strang gets dangerously ill—that, in fact, is what saves him from the witch hunt!

This slight novel, published by Furrowed Middlebrow, is very entertaining, and is available as a very cheap e-book.