Monday, December 3, 2012

{review} how to run your home without help

Kay Smallshaw How to Run Your Home Without Help (1949 [Persephone 2005])

All work is coloured by the spectacles worn. Look on it as fearful drudgery and it will never be anything else. See it as a job supremely worth doing, some of it creative, some more humdrum, but all demanding one's best, then running the home without help becomes a challenge and rewarding in itself.
People who think it is romantic to adopt a retro lifestyle (all those lovely clothes, pin-curls, proper stockings, etc.) should perhaps read this household manual to remind themselves that a large number of other less attractive things went along with the rose-bespectacled prettiness: limited rights for women, marriage as a career-ender, rationing, entire days spent doing the family laundry by hand, and the truly insanely Stepfordy Wifey idea that one should 'turn out' every room (EVERY ROOM) once a week. 




Housekeeping may well (as Smallshaw suggests) be a form of "creative work to rank with the best", but there is a hell of a lot of post-war societal brainwashing going on to rebrand (unpaid) "ceaseless toil" in that way. Smallshaw's ideal housewife "has a big job, and one that can seldom be compressed into an eight-hour working day." She is a stay-at-home wife and mother or mother-soon-to-be (working [single] "career" women get a mention, but are not her target audience, despite working herself!). 


The routine, as Christina Hardyment notes in her introduction to the Persephone edition, is "uncompromising". I felt exhausted (as well as uneasy) just reading this book.





Smallshaw sets out ideas for organising the day, what one must do in each room, how much time to allocate to meal shopping and preparation (two to three hours a day - but, given that rationing is still in force at this time, some of this time is spent in the dreaded queuing). Smallshaw is interested in making her housewife more efficient, whether by introducing a smarter layout to the kitchen, better "method", or offering a review of labour-saving devices (the Bendix automatic washing machine, a crippling 65 pounds). 





Fundamentally, however, this is a book about unremitting drudgery from dawn to dusk and well beyond: Chapter 6 "The Daily Round"; Chapter 7 "The Weekly Clean", Chapter 8 "More Weekly Cleaning", Chapter 9 "Spring-Cleaning". Round about this point I think I would have drunk a neat cocktail of Smallshaw's favourite household chemicals: soda, precipitated whitening, DDT (!), paradichlorobenzene and oxalic acid ("useful, though poisonous"; coincidentally, I have recently read Death in High Heels). This however, would likely be classed as letting oneself go, as "[s]ome women will always". Housework makes you slim, ladies! 
Before you call it a day, replace furniture and ornaments, re-hang pictures and mirrors, make up the bed and put up fresh curtains. You can sleep well tonight, knowing that even the Victorian housewife wouldn't have done a more thorough job.
In sum... I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is horrifying, and such a tonic against romanticising the past. I think my mouth started to hang open in shocked awe about midway through chapter 1 and never fully closed again. I do not own a teapot spout-cleaner or an upholstery whisk. I remain wholly puzzled by the concept of stringing currants as a leisure activity at the end of the day. (Do currants have strings?) I cannot think about the delights of "Offal Week" without feeling nauseated. I feel slightly guilty that labour-saving devices have freed up so much time that I happily waste on Pinterest rather than producing something truly and unforgettably creative, but books that are meant to make women feel bad are not going to make me change a single thing about my life of squalor independence... 





If you liked this... the wonderful diaries of Nella Last (for a taste of their wonderfulness, see the review at Stuck In A Book) give a first-hand view of what it is like to try to live up to these expectations.



14 comments:

  1. This is the one of approximately ten Persephone books I own; I've read bits and pieces of it, while chuckling to myself as I do when reading my 1950's Better Crocker cookbook. There's a sense of history we get from these instructional texts, as well as a sense of relief that we don't have it quite so hard. Although often I find myself nostalgic for the past.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Bellezza - I'd like to live in an age with better manners and a greater appreciation of the value of courtesy and kindliness, but I am happy for modern appliances!

      Delete
  2. A string of currants is like a bunch of grapes I think. Stringing them is picking each little berry off its teeny weeny stalk. No doubt fiddly but at least it can be done sitting down.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh, that makes sense, Anne. I googled that one can destring currants with a fork (and it was a fine chore for children), although, somewhat pessimistically, it took about 3 hours to destring what had taken only 1/2 hour to pick.

      Delete
  3. I'm with Joan Rivers. Who can enjoy doing something that doesn't stay done!
    Used to be better until internet addiction cancelled out all the time benefit of labour saving devices.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Séamus! I refuse to start a board on Pinterest for labour-saving household tips... ;-)

      Delete
  4. I think I'd have joined you in that cocktail. Or been horrifyingly eccentric and shunned by polite society. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or run off like Lolly Willowes and become a witch! That's about as useful as a broomstick would be around my house. ;-)

      Delete
  5. Bless you bless you bless you for posting this. This is one Persephone title I've had my eye on for a while. I have an unnatural penchant for books on this or similar subjects and lash myself with wet spaghetti constantly about the appalling state of my abode. Despite the number of books, the situation never gets any better. Too much time is spent reading them I suspect, rather than following the instructions therein. The last cartoon you posted is new to me and made me snicker delightedly. I shall quote it til I die.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Alex! I also have an unnatural penchant in this direction, though generally for complex arrangements of food I wouldn't have a snowball's chance in hell of making! The Persephone by Agnes Jekyll is profitable in this regard.

      Delete
  6. Ohmigoodness, this sounds terrifying. Yikes! I admit that my house is very rarely as clean as it should be. And I am ok with that :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree - I like things to be tidy, but am pretty laid-back about 'clean'.

      Delete
  7. Heavens, no upholstery whisk! However do you manage?

    This review did make me laugh - another one for the Persephone wish list!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Sophia - I feel my life is quite incomplete without one!

      Delete

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