Wednesday, 9 June 2021
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.