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.


emilyatheart said...

Linda, I love this post. I specifically choose books as well as films for their glimpses of domesticity. If there are none to be had, I usually do not stay interested. I just finished The Enchanted Barn by Grace Livingston Hill on a friend's recommendation and was duely satisfied. Barbara Pym's books have lots of homekeeping and cooking and eating. I highly recommend the books that Persephone Books has republished. Their entire business is built on reissuing long forgotten women's literature from between the wars. The books are lovely! The films I look to for domestic comfort are Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, all of the Andy Hardy series, Since You Went Away, etc. Contemporary domestic films would include Step Mom, One True Thing, Heartburn.


Tessa said...

I'm a bad housekeeper and most of my books are still in boxes in the garage, but I remember reading about the housekeeping in the lesser Louisa May Alcott novels with great pleasure when I was a girl: Rose in Bloom, Eight Cousins, and, if I remember rightly, An Old-Fashioned Girl. I liked them more than Little Women, and one reason was the way the plots combined household management and female independence.

Gina said...

Thank you for this post. It brought tears to my eyes to remember my mother's domestic activities and the thought of honoring her while she's still alvie with a thank you card, specifically detailing what I remember (the plum jam she made so well, the sewing, cooking, etc.).
Like you, I long for other descriptions of homemaker's days--details, we love the details :)
Sorry I can't offer anything (well, maybe The Cutters, an old sweet book)

Cindi said...

Re-creation by Grace Livingston Hill is a good read.

Anonymous said...

Elisabeth Goudge includes many beautiful details of house and garden in her books.
"The White Witch" (not about a witch at all, but a woman who uses herbs to care for others)has some lovely images about a single woman who's house is a refuge for an undercover priest.
Thanks for all the great posts.
Joan Drennen

Dulce Domum said...

I second Joan regarding Elizabeth Goudge. I know you'll love "The Dameroshay Trilogy" particularly "The Herb of Grace" published as "Pilgrim's Inn" in the USA. Goudge books have a real sense of home and homemaking.

Hmm, also try Barbara Pym's first few books, like a post-war Jane Austen, witty, satirical and with a real sense of women's connections to their homes.

Also, try E M Delafield's Provincial Lady books, and Miss Read's Village School novels, all wonderfully domestic.


PS. Dish cloths went into a boil wash in my gran's house, but were not scalded daily.

Jodi said...

My dear friend Joan beat me to commenting on Elizabeth Goudge. "Pilgrims Inn" is a favorite along with "The Scent of Water". I'd recommend "A Lantern in Her Hand" and its sequel "A White Bird Flying" by Bess Streeter Aldrich.

Linda said...

Thanks for all these comments and the suggestions for reading. I like Elizabeth Goudge a lot also, especially the grandmother in Pilgrim's Inn. White Witch sounds especially good. It is a dream to be a herbalist. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague has fascinating descriptions of being an herbalist.

Nan said...

I echo Miss Read and Diary of a Provincial Lady. Also, a new-to-me author, O. Douglas offers wonderful domestic scenes like warm water and sponge cake before bed. My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell; The Quiet Hills by Iris Bromige; Winter Solstice by Rosemunde Pilcher; Mrs Appleyard's Year by Louise Andrews Kent; Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther; most anything by D.E. Stevenson - are a few that come to mind.