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.