Domesticity

I am an abject failure in the art of regulating a home.

My failure was yet again revealed to me after returning to my own home after staying 2 nights with Rz in Hobart.  His house is neater, cleaner and tidier, in part out of necessity, but at the same time in the face of the considerable challenge, given that he and his wife have a child who has just started walking. 

I could say that it is because I have too much junk. That cannot be the only reason.  Other people have lots of possessions.

I could also say that it is because I don’t have enough places to put things.

This is partly true, but probably more immediately problematic is my capacity (or incapacity) to put things where they belong.  The shortage of suitable places to put things is merely a minor cause of this.  When Rz embarked upon the washing-up straight after dinner, D gave me a meaningful and implicitly admonitory nudge.

That’s my plight and my confession, though you might ask what I am doing about it, and would be even more likely to ask if you knew the state of the house at the time I am writing this.

A few years I was working in another city.  After I had endured a few months staying on and off in a hotel, I arranged to stay in an apartment, with cleaners coming in once a week.  There was a dishwasher.

It was bliss!  The apartment was uncluttered (all my junk remained in Sydney) and clean, sheets and towels were washed and changed. 

In my formative years, I was taught to consider domestic labour as a feminist issue.  Of course it was and it still is, though the extent to which it was then so was in part a product of the times.  It has also a class aspect.  Given the existence of gay and lesbian relationships, it is not always a feminist issue at all.

One aspect of this was the question of the value of domestic labour.  Only paid domestic labour counts when the standard economic measurements are taken.  This leaves an awful lot out of consideration, which only intermittently emerges to the surface – such as, for example, when contributions by reason of domestic labour are taken into account for the purpose of property settlements when relationships come to an end, though this is very imprecisely considered.

Put that way, it would appear to be a patriotic and rational contribution to Australia’s GDP to employ a cleaner, assuming that the value to me of this was equal to or greater than the price.  But I baulk at that, and in the light of my preparedness to be extravagant in other matters, I cannot claim to do so because of the price.

A few weeks ago I read a review  in the London Review of Books  by Rosemary Hill (whose book on Pugin has since been reviewed in the LRB – is this cosy or what?) of a book about Virginia Woolf and her servants, and particularly Nellie Boxall, her long-term cook.  It captured my attention, and has held it since.

Something of the flavour is caught by the arresting first sentence:

Ann Fleming once remarked that she was so depressed that ‘last night I would have put my head in the gas oven, if I wasn’t too frightened of the cook to go into the kitchen.’

Of Nellie Boxall,

For 18 years she and Virginia Woolf lived together, interdependent in a way they both resented, continually disappointed in one another. Nellie had begun her Bloomsbury career as cook for Roger Fry from about 1912. His house, ‘Durbins’, in Surrey was to his own design, a variation on the Arts and Crafts answer to the Kensington terrace, with a garden by Gertrude Jekyll and a bird bath by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Its ground plan had social as much as architectural implications. The accommodation was arranged over three floors with interconnecting spaces round the characteristic double-height living hall or ‘houseplace’ which brought everyone together. There was a single shared entrance for servants and family, no back stairs, and a frosted glass door replaced the green baize, suggesting at least a semi-permeable membrane between the classes. More interestingly, from Nellie’s point of view, there were radiators rather than open fires, water closets, a dumb waiter and easy-wipe parquet floors. She and the housemaid Lottie Hope found it very convenient. Their transfer to the Woolfs’ establishment four years later was therefore something of a let-down from the start.

Leonard and Virginia had none of the Frys’ enthusiasm for modern conveniences and without them the artistic spontaneity of Bloomsbury life could be hard on the staff. It was no wonder Nellie was ‘rather waspish’ when ‘Mary, Gwen, Julia, Quentin, Geoffrey Keynes and Roger’ all called in for tea on the spur of the moment during her few quiet hours in the afternoon. The Woolfs kept a printing press in the larder, which must have been inconvenient, and Mitzi, their incontinent pet marmoset, also added to the housework. In other ways, modern morals made things easier. Their staff were not expected to wear uniform, to call ‘Mrs Woolf’ ‘Ma’am’ or to wait at table, and they enjoyed an easier and more informal life than most servants. Nellie had a radio in her room and was allowed to borrow the wind-up gramophone. But the life of a live-in domestic was uncomfortable in many ways. She could be ‘lent’ to Vanessa Bell when needed, or transported for six weeks to the horribly spartan country home at Asheham, which the Woolfs rented until 1919, and where there were only oil lamps and the water had to be pumped from a well. When in 1924 economies were made and Lottie Hope was dismissed, Nellie found herself in charge of almost all the household duties, from emptying the chamberpots to making the dinner. Not only was she tired out, she was also, especially in the country, very lonely, sitting by herself in the kitchen night after night. Never once does Virginia Woolf seem to have considered any of this as an explanation for Nellie’s moods and strategic toothaches. Why, she wondered in all seriousness, if Nellie could have her friends to visit should she complain when Virginia had hers? It was egotism dressed as egalitarianism and it was at the heart of her inability either to get on with Nellie or to get away from her.

And (my favourite line): 

 On one occasion she [Nellie] threw Virginia out of her room, demanding to be left in privacy, an irony that seems to have been lost on the author of the recently published A Room of One’s Own.

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