Sunday, March 31, 2013

KAY SMALLSHAW, How to Run Your Home Without Help (1949)

During one of my routine Awesome Books searches recently, I came across a ridiculously cheap copy of this Persephone reprint.  I had always been intrigued by it, but it was more of a "should really read someday" than an "I can't wait to read," if you know what I mean.  Despite the insight it seemed to offer into what life was really like for middle-class women in England during the immediate post-war years, I thought a guide to domestic drudgery might seem like—well—drudgery. 

But a $4 pricetag broke down my resistance, and I have to say I'm glad it did.  Apart from the aforementioned insight, and details of day-to-day life that are obviously not described in any depth in most novels, it turned out to be quite readable and entertaining.

Smallshaw, the Martha Stewart of her day, had been an editor for both Good Housekeeping and Modern Woman.  Her book was aimed at a postwar world where the middle class could no longer afford—or even find, in many cases—domestic help, which must have seemed a rather depressing development for a lot of women.  Wartime novels sometimes present characters naively looking forward to the joyous days to come when the war would end and working class women would be driven back into domestic servitude—though numerous writers like Mollie Panter-Downes, Marghanita Laski, and Norah Hoult clearly recognize the unlikelihood of such fantasies.  (For anyone who doesn't know already, the unpreparedness of many well-to-do women for the work required is the theme of another highly entertaining Persephone reprint, Winifred Peck's novel House-Bound.)

All the more reason, then, for Smallshaw's persistently chipper tone:

While nappies are boiling, try to do the breakfast dishes, and perhaps the bathroom and any other wet jobs.  If you can get the beds made, too, you’re a smart worker!

And for any housewife who might think the grass is greener on the other side of the marital bed:

Some of the tasks are dirty, some physically tiring.  But given a little common savvy one can get less grubby working in the home than spending a day in a city office.  As for fatigue, who wouldn’t rather be bodily tired out than mentally exhausted?

Smallshaw makes it all sound like fun:

The rest of the kitchen cleaning will merely be an elaboration of the weekly routine, with all the things that have been left undone throughout the year made good in one glorious orgy of cleanliness.

Who could yearn for any other kind of orgy when there are glorious orgies of cleanliness to be had?!

And, for the fitness fanatic, here's a nice tip:

Bedmaking can be quite a pleasant interlude from the dusting and sweeping.  Also it has the advantage of stretching the muscles without undue exertion.

Endpaper for Persephone edition
All of this is great fun.  I have to admit, though, that while I tend to be obsessive in many ways, hyper-cleanliness is not one of them.  My partner and I keep our apartment tidy.  We make sure the kitchen and bathroom are clean and sanitary.  We keep our bills and papers filed neatly away.  But we have also made a separate peace in the war with the dust bunnies.  We will occasionally herd a few dust bunnies together when they begin to overpopulate and set them free to pursue their dreams in the larger world outside, but by and large we are content to share our home with them.  They are, after all, remarkably independent creatures.  They don't mind being left alone for long hours or the occasional weekends, don't throw wild parties in our absence, couldn't care less about being taken for walks, and they don't poop on the floor or claw the furniture!

So perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed when it comes to passages like the following:

To the casual visitor it all looks charming.  Everything is tidy, the flowers are fresh.  There’s no obvious dust on furniture or floors.  To you, however, your home presents a very different appearance.  Giving the sitting-room the usual swift ‘do’ this morning you noticed that the mirrors seemed dull, that the little chandelier, your pride and joy, didn’t sparkle with its accustomed brightness.

Our mirrors have resigned themselves to dullness, I'm afraid, and my pride and joy, in terms of possessions, is not a chandelier (we don't have room for one anyway) but my bookshelves, and even so, the following advice was rather startling:

With open bookshelves, wipe over the tops of books and round the sides.  More thorough treatment must be reserved for the weekly turnout.

Daily dusting?  Seriously?  My books feel loved and cherished if they're dusted monthly.  (With the possible exception of the Virginia Woolfs—I admit they seem a little discontented and downtrodden sometimes, but they're learning to cope.)

Original cover
Ultimately, however, it's genuinely hard for me to believe that anyone ever actually engaged in this much cleaning.  Here's Smallshaw's summary of the daily work:

Let’s see how the day is going.  1-2½ hours for the daily tidying; 3-4 hours for shopping, cooking and washing-up, and 2-3 hours for house-cleaning, washing and other big jobs.  That’s good enough as a starting point, but exactly how the time is allotted between the three groups must depend upon individual cases.

I know that there are some differences to consider between then and now.  I know that wood or coal fires generated more dust than most homes are likely to have now.  And I know that in England it was common to leave windows open much of the time, even at night—good luck with that in San Francisco, by the way, where about 355 days of the year you would a) freeze, and b) asphyxiate on smoke from the neighbors' wood-burning fireplaces!  But even so, Smallshaw's obsession with dust seems extreme—here is her suggestion for minimizing work related to breakfast:

If, however, you want breakfast as soon as possible after scrambling out of bed, do plan your living so that you either eat the first meal of the day in the kitchen, or else in a room that you can make ready overnight.  If you choose the latter, a quick dust will be all that is necessary before the meal, providing you’ve set the table ahead, and covered it with a cloth that can be just whipped off.

Dusting is necessary even though the table (and settings, presumably) have been covered?  You're kidding, right?

But don't forget, in the midst of all this obsessiveness, to stay upbeat:

Once you’ve registered, be a cheerful shopper!  You’ll fare much better, and find that, with its human contacts, shopping is a pleasant interlude in the daily round, not the dreary chore some people make it.

I imagine myself at Safeway, gazing pityingly at other shoppers who don't appreciate the pleasant interlude of buying toilet paper as much as I do…

But keep in mind:

If you work this way, a care-free evening with sewing and the radio, or time for a home beauty treatment night won’t be too hard to accomplish.

Who wouldn't be pleased to do a week's worth of endless labor if one is rewarded with a care-free evening of sewing or home perming to look forward to?!

All kidding aside though, Smallshaw's book was surprisingly fascinating reading.  However hard it might be to believe that anyone ever lived up to her standards, the point of interest is that she was presenting an ideal that many women apparently genuinely aspired to—much like Martha Stewart in recent years?—and that in itself sheds fascinating light on the novels of the time.  Did Dodie Smith's heroines feel insecure because they could only dream of keeping up with Smallshaw's daily cleaning schedule?  What about D. E. Stevenson's?  Most of Rumer Godden's would have had other things to focus on, and Pamela Frankau's might still have been able to afford servants to invisibly perform the work.  Regardless, I'm not sure any of them would have wholeheartedly agreed with Christina Hardyment's assessment in her introduction to the Persephone edition:

For in my heart of hearts I agree with Smallshaw rather than the feminists who rubbished housework so comprehensively in the 1970s. ‘Running a home may seem unspectacular and ordinary, but making a success of it, so that the home is a happy one for all who live in it, is creative work to rank with the best.  Exhausting though it may be, it enriches the personality.’


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