I mentioned in my last post that the end of last year had been a total wash-out blogging-wise, as I lived in total chaos. In honour of that time, I thought I’d look at two books (both lovely Persephones) concerned with domestic order. I should out myself from the start as being most definitely of the Joan Rivers school of housekeeping. If only I could do it with this much aplomb:
Firstly, The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924) which is Persephone No.7. I had hoped to join in with December’s Literary Wives reading of this but it wasn’t to be. You can read more about the Literary Wives group and what they made of The Home-Maker on Naomi’s blog.
I found the start of this book a tough read and I wasn’t sure I could keep going. Eva is a mother to three children and she is abusive, although she doesn’t beat them, she doesn’t starve them, she doesn’t neglect them:
“Her heart swelled with an angry sense of how far beyond criticism she was. Come what may she would do her duty to the uttermost.”
But I do think she is abusive. One of my friends with a… shall we say, complex mother, has recently been doing a lot of reading about narcissistic parenting. I think this is what Fisher is portraying in The Home-Maker. Eva is deeply unhappy; she hates her titular role which women are supposed to accept unquestioningly. This unhappiness expresses itself in a determined perfectionism, and absolutely no interest in who her children are as individuals, only how they appear to others and reflect on her:
“ ‘Good heavens Henry,’ said his father, laughingly. ‘I never saw anybody in my life who could ask as many questions as you. You wear the life out of me!’
‘He doesn’t bother me with them,’ said his mother, her inflection presenting the statement as a proof of her superior merit.
Henry shrank a little smaller. His father hastened to explain what a tragedy was and what a comedy was.”
She also congratulates herself on never criticising her husband Lester, who also works at a job he hates. Yet he manages not to take out this hatred on his children but be a kind and loving father. Of course, both Lester and the children feel the full force of Eva’s unspoken contempt:
“ ‘Oh, that’s awfully good of you, Evie,’ said Lester, kissing her cheek and feeling another ton of never-to-be-redeemed indebtedness flung on his shoulders. He felt them bend weakly under it like a candle in an overheated room.”
The entire household tiptoes around trying to meet Eva’s needs – which they never will – while she martyrs herself on the altar of housework, believing that she is sacrificing it all and making sure everyone knows it. They are all unhappy, and this manifests in physical ailments: Lester has indigestion, Eva has weeping eczema, Henry has vague but severe digestive problems, Helen barely speaks and Stephen is generally seen as an uncontrollable tyrant by all who cross his path.
Eva has talents though. She is hugely respected by her Ladies Guild friends for being dynamic, organised, and having impeccable taste. She has little money but a nice home, including a sofa she reupholstered herself:
“Her children would not have recognised her face as she sat there loving the sofa and the rich fabric on it and thinking gratefully of her friend.”
An unexpected turn of events sees Lester and Eva swop roles. He stays at home and looks after the children, which he loves:
“ ‘I never saw one of my children just living before,’ he meditated. As he lay in bed, a book was usually open before him, but he looked over it at the far more interesting spectacle of his undiscovered little boy.”
Meanwhile Eva goes out to work, which she loves and unlike Lester, is very good at. As Eva became happier and less concerned with rigid perfectionism, my feelings towards her did moderate somewhat. I did feel some sympathy for this woman who had been forced by societal expectation into roles for which she was entirely unsuited:
“There was no sacrifice in the world which she would not joyfully make for her children except to live with them.”
Everyone benefits. All the physical ailments disappear, which Lester still manages to attribute to his wife:
“Wasn’t it all a piece of her bad luck to have had them during that trying period and turn them over to him just as her wonderful cooking and nursing had pulled them through. What a splendid nurse she was!”
And little Stephen’s behaviour completely changes. Fisher has a wonderful way of describing the children’s psychology and emotions, showing deep understanding without being patronising:
“It was as though something that had ached inside him so long that he had almost forgotten about it were melting and running away. He could feel it hurting less and less as the tears fell on his hands. It was as though he were being emptied of that ache.”
The Home-Maker is an extraordinary novel in that it has a lot to say but does so with a remarkably light touch. Fisher challenges gender roles and assumptions via fully realised characters and a simple but effective plot, so it doesn’t feel preachy but still makes its point.
This point is broadened towards the end, showing how gender restrictions are a price paid as part of the materialism that underpins the American Dream:
“That was the real business of life, of course. He had always known it. That was why men who did other things, teachers, or poets, or musicians, or ministers, were so heartily despised by normal people. And as for any man who might try to be a parent…
Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home.”
Both images from www.persephonebooks.co.uk
Secondly, How to Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw (1949) which is Persephone No.62. This isn’t a novel, but a manual for how to manage housework when you’re a middle-class housewife without maids or cleaners because it’s the end of the Second World War and no-one is in domestic service anymore.
“Almost every woman sees herself as a good home-maker. Before marriage she pictures herself in a dream house or flat; a charming hostess, clever housewife and adorable sweetheart all in one.”
Oh dear. None of those descriptors or roles could remotely be applied to me, so it’s a good job I’ve never aspired to any of them 😀
Yet I was really surprised how readable How to Run Your Home Without Help was. I expected to just dip into it and maybe skim a few bits, but I actually ended up reading it through. Although of course I’m not actually going to do any of the activities it outlines because its bloomin’ hard work and I hate housework:
“That mending! When you’re longing to relax with a book it seems like the last straw, but what man doesn’t expect his wife to take it in her stride? Buttons on shirts, darns to socks, patches to curtains, bed-linen, table-linen, kitchen cloths. They all take their share of time. And, of course, there’s always personal sewing, making over and freshening up.”
The book would get priority with me I’m afraid…
It’s written in a chatty, engaging style, and gives a great insight into just how hard post-war housewives worked. Having just replaced several appliances in my kitchen, I had been moaning at the astronomical cost of it all (and why do they all go kaput at the same time?!) No more! Now I thank the gods of white goods for each and every labour-saving device.
The descriptive writing is balanced out with lists as Smallshaw goes through the different rooms and tasks:
“(a) Brooms, brushes and floor mops.
Long handled hair broom, stiff carpet brush, soft brush, long-handled cornice brush, upholstery whisk, blacklead brushes, silver brush, dusting mop, self-wringing mop, long handled scrubber, scrubbing brush.”
Not only do I not own anything like that number of brushes, I haven’t a clue what half of them are?
Smallshaw shows just how versatile housewives had to be. They had to do all the manual labour of cleaning, be creative decorators and cooks, and manage the household finances.
“If meals are taken in the kitchen, do be realistic and use some of your furnishing money on it, rather than only on the bedrooms or lounge, which don’t get nearly as much use.”
Of course this is a period piece, and so much has changed. Yet while she is promoting traditional roles, in another way Smallshaw is taking a feminist standpoint, even though it wouldn’t have been seen as such. By writing the book she highlights how housework is taken for granted and overlooked; how incredibly hard women worked in the home; how much is drudge when you’d rather be doing something else; what a wide variety of skills are employed; and she takes it all seriously.
“The joy of creative work, exhausting though it can be, is that it enriches the personality. Running a home may seem unspectacular and ordinary, but making a success of it, so that the home is a happy one for all who live in it, is creative work to rank with the best.”
I’ve been lucky enough to have had women of that generation in my life who meant a lot to me and I’d always thought they were formidable. After reading this book I realised I didn’t know the half of it.
To end, when I was thinking of 80s pop songs about housework (!) the one that immediately came to mind was Sheena Easton’s Morning Train. But I’ve always hated that song about a woman whose entire life revolves around waiting for her baby to get home while she does the vacuuming. So I thought I’d post the Not the Nine O’Clock News parody of it instead, but I couldn’t find a clip. Here’s the Gerald the Gorilla skit instead (‘Wild? I was absolutely livid!’ 😀 ):