Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Swept aside

I have lingered over these details because they formed a part — a most important and honourable part — of that ancient curriculum of house-keeping which, at least in Anglo-Saxon countries, was so soon to be swept aside by the “monstrous regiment” of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen and the linen room, and to substitute the acquiring of University degrees for the more complex art of civilized living. The movement began when I was young, and now that I am old, and have watched it and noted its results, I mourn more than ever the extinction of the household arts. Cold storage, deplorable as it is, has done far less harm to the home than the Higher Education.

Edith Wharton - A Backward Glance (1934)

I caught the tail end of what Wharton meant by the household arts in the fifties. Not the household drudgery as commonly portrayed, but a whole gamut of household arts from growing your own, bottling fruit, making pickles, devising recipes, making economies, collecting home remedies, organising meal times, mending clothes… The list goes on and on.

Of course the list is long because considerable depths of knowledge and experience are involved. Concerning families, education, food, clothing and everything connected with that ancient curriculum of house-keeping. Much of that knowledge and experience are now lost. We do lose knowledge as well gaining it and we do not replace what we have lost via fake country kitchens and back to the soil TV cookery programmes.

The issue seems to be one of drifting into futures which few would have chosen had they known how they would turn out. But we adapt and what we could have seen via foresight is no longer visible.

With hindsight we adopt a number ways to explain why we are where we are, but hindsight is endlessly misleading. Even memories are adjusted under the seductive pressure of a modern consensus or in pursuit of neat and tidy explanations.

As far as Wharton’s observation about house-keeping goes, we are usually presented with narratives about the emancipation of women, economic growth, smaller families, labour-saving domestic machines, birth control and so on. Narratives which may be sound enough but the this future, the one we find ourselves in now, wasn’t chosen. It emerged from an impossibly complex morass of pressures, interests, events and popular lifestyle fantasies.

Take net zero climate change targets for example. Nobody knows how to achieve them, what will happen if they are achieved or what the consequences of not achieving them may be. We are where we were with Wharton and the “monstrous regiment” of the emancipated: young women taught by their elders to despise the kitchen. In one key respect the issue is the same – drifting into a future which will probably turn out to be one that few would have chosen had they been blessed with adequate foresight.


Sam Vega said...

All those tasks involved in running a home were essentially about increasing the amount of familial comfort and choice on a limited budget. They could be done well or badly, and I dare say that many women really didn't find them all that satisfying.

But the women I shared offices and workplaces with from the early 1980s didn't seem to find their work all that satisfying, either. Many of them did little other than complain, usually about other women elsewhere in the organisation.

A K Haart said...

Sam - "But the women I shared offices and workplaces with from the early 1980s didn't seem to find their work all that satisfying, either."

That's what I saw too - careers turned out to be dull jobs. There was probably no choice but it was turned into the myth of emancipation.

Andy5759 said...

My mother was a proper house keeper. She baked bread and cakes, bottled, made jams and jellies, knitted, stitched and sewed, cleaned, dusted and polished. We had fresh fruit and veg from the garden and the allotment. We didn't have expensive foreign holidays, dad didn't have a car, we fetched firewood from the woods opposite. One day I asked my mum why she didn't go out to work. Her reply was simply that the small amount she earned would never pay for the things we got for free or at little cost. My father's wage, never that great was sufficient to pay a mortgage and raise a family. That was then. Something changed and not for the better. Two obscenely high wages for a childless couple is barely enough for an advertising driven lifestyle. Where will we go next? Forward to empty lives forever consuming, or back to a more sensible form of self sufficiency. We are being driven to the former and discouraged from the latter. There are too many forces reshaping humanity for their own ends, too many psychologists in government. There is a relentless psyops campaign against us.

A K Haart said...

Andy - not so different to my upbringing although we didn't have an allotment or the nearby woods. I agree, something did change and not for the better. To my mind, even those psychologists in government are being towed along by the same forces.