I hate housework! You make the beds, you do the dishes and six months later you have to start all over again. (Joan Rivers)

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!’ 😀 ):

“A Persephone cover is a guarantee of good reading.” (Nicola Beauman, founder of Persephone Books)

After a month of daily posting about novellas I was planning at least a week’s break from blogging, but I couldn’t resist joining in with Jessie at Dwell in Possibility’s Persephone Readathon. Here are two short Persephones that just missed out on being part of Novella in Day in May as they were over 200 pages (but not by much).

Firstly, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson (1937) which is Persephone No.53.

This is the story of a young Scottish heiress from childhood to young adulthood, framed by the visit of three tourists to the estate of Keepsfield.

“This transition to the atmosphere of another world is bewildering to modern personalities. The three strangers were conscious of a nakedness of spirit that made them uneasy spectators of a grandeur which was more than material. The old caretaker had slipped into the background, as caretakers do.”

The caretaker, Mrs Memmary, has been on the estate since she was a girl, and she tells one of the Tourists, Mrs Dacre, the story of Lady Rose. Rose is a child filled with joy, and a passionate attachment to her homeland, so far so that she names her kitten after a mighty clansman:

“Rose went out onto the sun-drenched west terrace, cuddling Rob Roy, who by now wore a small pink silk handkerchief round his head to protect him from the sun.”

She is a debutante and presented to the Queen, who takes a shine to her. It is at this moment, stepping into society for the first time, that she realises what her wealth and position truly mean:

“She was important? She, Rose Targenet aged eighteen, who had done so little but rejoice in the beauty and happiness of life. Of course her importance was not her own quality; it was because of her Papa.”

However, while she is important, she has no power. This is Victorian Scotland, and she must make a good match, securing the future of her lands and providing a male heir. We know that she managed this, as Mrs Memmary tells the tourists early on that all the splendour they see in the home is entailed to the heir, and Lady Rose is seeking a rich tenant to help pay for the upkeep of the estate.

The Victorian marriage market is poked gentle fun at during this overheard conversation between Rose’s mother and a family friend, regarding the Poet Laureate:

“If poor Alfred must write about what he calls love, he might at least explain that it is an emotion to be openly enjoyed by the middle classes.”

Although Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary could be seen as a light novel, it actually has serious points to make about the role and rights of women in the period. (It was written in in the 1930s and was apparently a great favourite of the Queen Mother, which I find fascinating. Makes me see her in a whole new light.)

Rose ends up in a loveless marriage to someone who is not horrible, but just completely cold and repressed:

“She had cried on her bed all the afternoon, realizing bitterly that in 1874 married women had no rights, even if they were countesses. She didn’t cry now, for she had the children, and in any case crying did no good after 10 years.”

Meanwhile, her friend Susan is in no better position having avoided marriage altogether:

“But what have I got? Just a piece of needlework and two disappointed elderly minded parents, and all the time in the world on my hands. If I had my way women would be free to do the same things as men; come and go as they wished, and read and talk, and be doctors and lawyers and financiers, and Members of Parliament, and newspaper writers, Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

So what happens? We know Lady Rose is a strong character who at times is willing to defy authority, and we know she has been abroad for a long time. Mrs Dacre isn’t at all happy with what Mrs Memmary tells her:

 “ ‘You mean – that was the end of Lady Rose’s story? It seems a vague, disappointing ending.’

‘Vague?’ The old woman thought for a moment and said, ‘But in real life things go like that. Our stories have no ending. We come into the light for a little while, and then we move away into the shadows and nobody sees us anymore. It is better that way.’”

A good point, but Mrs Memmary has held something back. I don’t think I’m a great genius in guessing what it was in Chapter 2, but this didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the novel at all. I promise you it’s not a vague, disappointing ending.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is in some ways a romantic novel: the country house and Scotland are both described with ravishing beauty, and it is a novel about being true to yourself and following your heart. But Ferguson also doesn’t shy away from portraying the price that is paid for these things, suggesting the price may be worth it but it can also be a high one.

Secondly, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting by Penelope Mortimer (1958) which is Persephone No.77. Ruth Whiting lives in a commuter town with her husband Rex. Their two sons are away at boarding school and their daughter – whose conception necessitated their marriage – is studying at Oxford. Ruth is not happy:

“In all the years of her marriage, a long war in which attack, if not happening, was always imminent, she had learned an expert cunning. The way to avoid being hurt, to dodge unhappiness, was to run away. Feelings of guilt and cowardice presented no problems that couldn’t be overcome by dreams, by games, by the gentle sound of her own voice advising and rebuking her as she went about the house.”

Rex and Ruth aren’t together very much – he has a flat in London during the week and comes home at weekends.

“For Rex and herself there was no longer any hope or possibility of change; there was no longer any choice to be made. They lay, fully grown, capable of every crime and every greatness, paralysed by triviality.”

Mortimer’s unflinching eye and scathing attitude is cast wider than the intricacies of marriage; it also takes in the other couples in the area:

“The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and below the demarcation line are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from a lack of love; a few have talent, useless to them as a paralysed limb.”

Ruth seems on the verge, if not in the midst of, a breakdown. She is struggling to get out of bed and Rex engages a housekeeper/nurse.  However, what begins as a dissection of suburban 1950s marriage develops into something more political when Ruth’s daughter Angela tells her she is pregnant. The father, fellow student Tony, is selfish and callow:

“It was obviously not going to be necessary to impress on him the seriousness of the situation. He looked like a curate settling down to discuss dry rot in the organ loft.”

So Angela, unlike her mother, does not want to tie herself into marriage to an unsuitable man for the sake of an unwanted baby. The rest of the novel follows the hoops both Ruth and Angela have to jump through in order to secure an abortion. (This  particularly resonated at the time I read it given the recent vote in Ireland). What Mortimer demonstrates is the ways in which women’s lives are circumscribed and the huge fallout this can have: on mental health, physical health, participation in society, participation in our own lives.  Although she is acerbic, and undoubtedly it is a resounding cry for women’s rights to be acknowledged and given their due importance, I think above all, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a plea for kindness.

“He would probably go through his entire life imagining that he was real; but not one person would owe him gratitude, remember his comfort.”

To end, I said when Novella a Day in May was over I’d go back to shoehorning late 20th century pop tunes into posts at every opportunity. So here we go, a 1980s celebration of those beautiful Persephone covers: