The lot of the housewife is one assiduously covered in the contempory English novel. Yet often, in such accounts, ‘plot’ demands often mask the housewife’s actual work situation and the blank patches are filled with action or profitable and readable meditations. The writer of the article that follows does not have to encounter such exigencies and presents the role of the housewife as it largely is, a ritual of tedium, subjugation, drudgery and boredom—a ritual the majority of women must encounter.
Perhaps there are far more wives than I imagine who take it for granted that housework is neither satisfying nor even important once the basic demands of hygiene and feeding have been met. But home and family is the one realm in which it is really difficult to shake free of one’s upbringing and create new values. My parents’ house was impeccably kept; cleanliness was a moral and social virtue and personal untidiness, visibly old clothes or long male hair provoked biting jocularity. If that had been all maybe I could have adapted myself to housework on an easy-going, utiliterian basis, refusing the moral overtones but still believing in it as something constructive because it is part of creating a home. But at the same time my mother used to resent doing it, called it drudgery, and convinced me that it wasn’t a fit activity for an intelligent being.
I was an only child, and once I was at school, there was no reason why she should have continued against her will to remain housebound, unless, as I suspect, my father would not hear of her having a job of her own. I can now begin to understand why a woman in a small suburban house, with no infants to look after, who does not enjoy reading because she has not had much of an education, and who is intelligent enough to find neighbourly chit-chat boring, should carry the pursuit of microscopic specks of dust to the point of fanaticism in an attempt to fill the hours and salvage her self-respect. My parents had not even the status-seeking impetus to send me to university that Joe’s had; my mother wanted me to be ‘a nice quiet person who wouldn’t be noticed in a crowd’, and it was feared that university education results in ingratitude (independence).
I married as soon as I graduated, explicitly anti-domestic, and bent on proving to myself that it was possible to combine marriage (an intense personal relationship mainly, but also a family much later) with unprejudiced exploration of literary values often remote from healthymindedness, hygiene and a stable society focused on the family. We went to Strasbourg for a year, Joe as lecteur britannique, me as a research student. We rented a tiny attic above a bombed house in the Alsatian quarter, and since there was no hot water, no cooker and virtually no floor space, housework was almost non-existent. The rent was so cheap that we could afford to send everything to the laundry, and we ate in student restaurants. We made love through the screams of a community of ecstatic cats who ran a brothel in the adjoining attic.