Home Alone


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The word “domesticity” gives me the vapors. Just the sight of a ball of yarn and knitting needles makes me have to lie down and fan myself for a while. A deeply neurotic part of my brain appears to equate learning how to sew a button with giving up my career, marrying a dentist, and moving to the suburbs to tend to little Basil and sweet Paprika.

I am not afraid of spiders — I am afraid of needle and thread.

It is a fear of turning into the type of woman that Christina Stead’s fictional Letty Fox described as “cave wives”: dull, stay-at-home types whose only topics of conversation are their new knitting projects, their children, or the interesting things their husbands said. I know that these women are mostly fictional stereotypes created by my own subconscious. Yet the fear still exists, and it is powerful.

It was something of a relief to learn that I am not the only woman suffering from this strange phobia. Dorothy Parker was apparently afflicted as well, according to Marion Meade’s biography, What Fresh Hell Is This: “Although she would not admit it, she had an acute aversion toward homemaking,” Meade explains. “So phobic was her reaction to domesticity that she would have starved before boiling herself an egg. Throughout her life, she would eat bacon raw claiming she had no idea how to cook it. The mechanics of laundry would be equally mysterious — when she removed her underwear, she threw the soiled lingerie back into the drawer with the clean and let a maid, if there was one, figure it out.”

While I have not drifted into the squalor that would consume Parker’s various residences, I have my share of quirks. I refuse to do housework until company is coming over, or until I am avoiding a work deadline. (Before writing this column, I did the dishes, scrubbed out the bathtub, and hand-washed some underwear.) Luckily, weekly deadlines and dinner parties have kept my apartment from being condemned. But I am completely reliant on a seamstress to repair buttons, to stitch up a torn pocket lining, and to remove stains.

Conquering my fear is slow going. Daily life is not the same as it was during the reign of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, and that somehow makes its instructions on housekeeping more palatable. First published in 1861, it serves as a reminder of how small women’s lives used to be. (And short. Mrs Beeton died at 28 from an infection after giving birth to her fourth child.) The abridged version, down to a slim 600+ pages, mostly reduces it to a cookery book, although chapters on household maintenance, instructions for the butler, and how to keep up with your social life remain. There is still a lot of information for the contemporary reader — things that are not taught so much any more, like who should sit where at a dinner party, how to polish patent leather with milk, and how to keep your copper pots in good condition. The superfluous information, like the proper way to kill, skin, and prepare a veal calf, will only make you grateful that you are allowed to do things like hold down a career and buy pre-slaughtered meat.

Reading Mrs. Beeton’s cheerful and practical suggestions, I could feel my fear abating a little. I even made my bed one morning by her instructions (an experience that, to be honest, has yet to be repeated). Mrs. Beeton is feisty and has good common sense, as when she rails against white bread as boring and unpractical. She wrote with an educated and lively mind, encouraged a woman’s learning and reading, and offered comprehensive instructions on every aspect of a wife’s existence. She didn’t make it seem claustrophobic; I was even beginning to wish to live in her tidy little world. This is not so bad, I thought. What was it about taking care of my home that I found scary?

Mrs. Beeton also includes sensible instructions on reading, taken from Lord Bacon: “Read not to contradict and refute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.” These were instructions I had to continually remind myself of, because if there was ever a book designed specifically to get me reaching for my smelling salts, it was The Gentle Art of Domesticity. I was expecting it to cover the same territory as Household Management but with a modern twist — you know, how to run a house if you don’t have to catch your own hare for dinner. But instead, it’s all about that frillier side of life at home. Jane Brocket knits and beads and gardens. She writes odes to pink socks, to the shape of a pineapple, to chartreuse green and shocking pink being used as a color scheme. There is a photo spread of Brocket hanging her husband’s shirts to dry on the line. At a few points, I had to snap the book shut and shove it behind my collection of art books. I had to steel myself with a few malicious barbs by Dorothy Parker before I could continue.

The Gentle Art rejects Mrs. Beeton’s definition of domesticity. To Brocket, the cleaning and laundry and cooking are what she calls “domestication”: “Domesticity rises above the bossiness of cleaning products and media exhortations to keep our houses pristine and hygienic, and focuses instead on creativity within the domestic space.” In other words, she would rather spend her time designing a knitted hot water bottle cover than vacuuming, an activity she leaves to her husband.

Brocket is not an unintelligent woman. She has a friendly and engaging writing style, even if her descriptions of the food lie flat on the page instead of evoking memories of eating cookies still warm from the oven as a child. It would make me more comfortable if she added a section on how God created woman to be the man’s helpmeet, but instead she explains her decision to stay home thusly: “[W]hen I realized that a PhD demanded a whole life, I was faced with a major decision. On the one hand, I had Dickens and fairy tales, libraries and conferences, critics and theories, individual fulfillment. On the other, I had domesticity and creativity, baking and making, kitchens and sewing machines and family fulfillment. In the end, I decided to give up my studies and enjoy domesticity in all its glory and chaos.” I had to remember my Lord Bacon and see if I could understand, rather than judge. I was not overwhelmingly successful.

Occasionally the text will wander into an almighty tone, and my immediate reaction was a sarcastic snarl. “Domesticity,” Brocket writes, “gives us the opportunity to express ourselves, and the gentle arts are the most satisfying and achievable means of doing so.” Really? Knitting is a more satisfying form of self-expression than painting? Or writing? Or organizing a protest? Or studying superstring theory? Or presenting a paper on Dickens? And what exactly does that hot pink knitted tea cozy express about you?

She seems to have anticipated this type of reaction, because she fills her book with defensive justifications for the life she chose. “I don’t care that it’s not great feminist thinking,” she tells us, but she says it more than once, leading us to believe that she might care, actually.

It’s not the knitting, or even the staying at home, that bothers me. It’s the idea that the domestic life turns you away from the rest of the world. Brocket offers an extreme example of that. The books, movie, and paintings she prefers all offer reflections of her own lifestyle. She prefers rereading Victorian domestic novels multiple times rather than “spend (waste?) time with unknown and possibly disappointing books.” Her favorite paintings, she tells us, are of women knitting or cooking or sitting with their children. She prefers watching “Cozy Domestic” films starring Doris Day at home to going to the cinema. To limit yourself to your own reflection, to lose that curiosity about the rest of the world, that is what I cannot begin to comprehend. Of course, to think that a rich home life automatically turns you into a cave wife is just part of my highly irrational fear. After all, Mrs. Beeton had a curiosity about how the world worked, whether she was writing about the natural history of fish or retelling a story by Charles Lamb about the origins of her recipe for cracklings.

It is time that I got over my fears. Everyone else has. Third-wave feminism brought out a domestic revival, which I obviously have not embraced. If you ever want to see a large group of women practicing the “domestic arts,” go to a third-wave feminist book group. One woman will be passing out her freshly baked vegan cupcakes while half a dozen others pull their knitting projects out of homemade bags. Hell, Dorothy Parker knitted, even if she couldn’t boil water. So maybe one day, after a long day of work, I’ll turn on a Tivo’d episode of Lost and pull out my embroidery? It seems unlikely, but at least now I know I can turn to Mrs. Beeton’s lovely book when I spill red wine down my shirt. • 17 December 2008