Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dishcloth

Detail from the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin, 1425.

Women, it seems, enjoy reading about other women or girls doing housekeeping chores, even women who do not think of themselves primarily as housekeepers or homemakers. I have loved to read descriptions of women doing housework ever since I read the following lines in Anne of Green Gables when I was no more than 10 years old:

"You haven't scalded the dishcloth in clean hot water as I told you to do," said Marilla immovably.

These lines burned their way into my 10-year-old mind, and I was surprised last week, when I went to hunt for them, how little time is spent in Anne of Green Gables on descriptions of housekeeping. The line falls early in the book, just before Marilla tells Anne that she and her brother Matthew will not be sending Anne back to the orphanage in exchange for the boy they had been promised. But we already know that Marilla is a very clean housekeeper by Anne's encounter with the upstairs of the house: "The hall was fearsomely clean; the little gable chamber in which she [Anne] presently found herself seemed still cleaner."

However, I was not prepared for scalding the dishcloth, something my grandmother and mother, both of whom I considered clean and neat housekeepers, never did.

Ever since, I have always yearned for books that incorporated descriptions of housekeeping. Is this because I would rather read about someone doing housework than do it myself? Or is it because the description in a book shows an appreciation for domesticity that I also share and also my pleasure in basking in such appreciation for at least my tidy intentions?

I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping with eager anticipation, and the first pages on the grandmother did not disappoint: "She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill the wind.... One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, wearing her widow's black, performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith."

For books that luxuriate in domestic description, see the early 20th-century writer Grace Livingston Hill. I loved The Honor Girl the best with April Gold a close second, but I have read less than 10 of Hill's books. For wonderful quotes from many of them, see Neat and Dainty as a Flower.

Or does the description of womanly chores elevate the activity, give it a higher aesthetic and moral value? Surely that is the intent and the effect in Tolstoy's description of Kitty caring for her dying brother-in-law in Anna Karenina (read Chapters 16 through 20 of Part V at the link.)

Do you like to read about housekeeping in fiction? If so, I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Romance of Ironing?

Young Girl Ironing by Louis Leopold Boilly, 1761-1845.
Very few women I know like to iron, and quite a few hate it. So I have found it odd that, relatively speaking, there are a lot of paintings of women ironing--in contrast to the total dearth of paintings of women housecleaning (except for the Dutch). I infer from this that men care more about clean clothes than they do a clean house. Most paintings of women ironing are from France, and this may be because the French laundry was considered in the heyday of the laundry business as the best in the world. In the early 20th century, with the decrease in cheap domestic labor, the laundry came back into the home.

Degas painted quite a few women ironing, as he made a study of laundresses in the 1870s. Here are two such studies, in which these women seem to be both strong and meticulous.

And here are paintings by other artists.
George Luks:

Picasso, 1904, from the Blue Period, a painting Betty Friedan could have used for her diatribes against housework:

Armand Desire Gautier:

Alexandru Ciucurencu, 20th-century Romania:

Mary Whyte, Steam Ironing:

Knitting in Highbridge Park

Knitting in Highbridge Park was painted in 1918 by George Luks. Highbridge Park sits on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River separating northern Manhattan from the Bronx up near 155th to 174th Street, the eastern side of Washington Heights. Judging from the looks of these ladies, at this time, this was an affluent neighborhood, and at this time, Highbridge Park was akin to Central Park further south, although no longer.

Luks called the painting Knitting, but it was soon renamed by the art world as Knitting for the Soldiers, with the assumption being that these ladies were knitting woolens for American boys overseas in World War I. There are five women, who all appear to be of different ages, with two white-haired lady and the perhaps the one on the far right the youngest. It is easy to imagine that these ladies are intent on their work and are speaking only occasionally; knitting is first and conversation second. Then there is a boy who also seems to be intently concentrating and may be knitting (I can't tell).

I just noticed that they are huddling outside in the snow! It is cold. Babies are asleep in the carriages, in keeping with the view that fresh air of all temperatures was best for infant lungs. I know that my mother bundled me up in my carriage for naps on the front porch in December.

Whether knitting for soldiers or not, this painting is an homage to women and their work, a tone set by their bowed heads and the humble head tilt of the lady in the center. Patience, diligence, care, endurance, Luks seems to say, are qualities of these women. I suspect he is right.