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.
In England the next year we had a flat which accumulated fluffy dust balls ankle-deep till a parental invasion was expected. Then we spent a few hours together making it respectable in order to avoid intrusive criticisms.
Carl was conceived unexpectedly that year, and the summer before he was born we moved to another flat. This was a great, rambling old place which we shared with an eccentric poetical colleague. He used to empty his pipe into my buckets of soaking nappies, and leave his part of the flat open to mating couples when he was away. I was shaken out of my cavalier attitude to housework. The baby immediately caught enteritis, and I was shattered by guilt when the doctor attributed this to the dirty flat. The housework proved enormously difficult in itself partly because I was still tired, partly because the place was so large and dilapidated. I was humbled by the discovery that what I had considered work fit only for fools was beyond my capacity. Worst of all, Joe, who had regarded my non-domestication with complete tolerance, suddenly found the dirt and untidiness depressing, and begat status yearnings. As a man with a wife, a son and a salary for the uncongenial job foisted on him by Carl’s appearance, he wanted a clean shirt every day, not just as something practical, but as his right. We were jolted out of our self-sufficiency, and reverted desperately for a while to Mummy’s and Daddy’s standards. If Joe was indignant when the dinner was burnt, I felt he had every right to regard me as a failure. And I sterilized everything that came remotely into contact with Carl, becoming deeply involved in germs. This provoked some passably hysterical scenes with our unfortunate poet, who held a generous communistic view of flannels and toothbrushes.