As we all know by now, Persephone Books was founded for the purpose of 'republishing new and rediscovered 20th century fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women'. These elegant books with their grey covers and beautiful end papers chronicle the lives of women between and during the World Wars and as, with a few exceptions, the books are written by women and because of their time frame, it is inevitable that most of them will have a strong domestic background.
The never ending drudgery involved in the day to day living in stories such as Hostages to Fortune by Elizabeth Cambridge and the Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher seems unbelievable to a modern woman and the Fisher title, my most favourite Persephone of all, is a perfect illustration of a woman trapped and suffering in this daily grind. Dorothy Canfield Fisher was an educational reformar and was responsible for introducing the Montessori Method of child rearing to the US. As well as adult books she also wrote for children, one of the most well known being Understood Betsy, portraying a school run on Montessori lines. Their method is based on the observing of young children, learning about their characteristics and needs and emphasizing the uniqueness of each child.
We meet Eva, the Homemaker of the title, locked in a never ending cycle of housework, cooking and cleaning. She is quick witted, creative and intelligent and resentful of her restricted life. Her husband, Lester, is a man deeply unhappy in his work, hating the world of commerce and dreaming of being a poet. They have three children who suffer in their own way from the tensions within the marriage: Stephen, the youngest, throwing tantrums and in a state of permanent warfare with his parents; Henry, nervous and prone to violent stomach upsets and Helen, unsure and lacking in self confidence.
Lester loses his job and after an abortive attempt to kill himself as his sense of failure as a provider is so overwhelming, ends up crippled and in a wheelchair, forced to stay at home taking on the role of Homemaker while Eva goes out to work. It is only when both of them are free from the shackles of their hated roles that both of them begin to blossom and expand. Lester discovers that 'he had never watched his children grow before' and gradually realises that something is deeply troubling Stephen and when he finally confides in his father, Lester discovers that his small son is terrified Eva is going to take his beloved teddy away and wash it.
"don't let him be washed father. Don't let him!" he raised his streaming eyes agonisingly towards his father, his whole face quivering'
Lester is horrified to find himself in a position of total power over another human being, one who had not appeal against any decision he might make. No matter how many times I read this book, I find this episode incredibly moving especially when Lester realises 'what a fathomless blackness of uncertaintyy' his son must have felt. The worst aspect of all is that neither he or Eva had ever given a thought to Stephen's feelings. With the encouraging presence of their father the children's strained nerves slowly relax and their characters expand and blossom and Lester begins to know his children and to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, traits which need to be curbed, talents encouraged.
And what of Eva? In the first chapter of The Homemaker she is at screaming pitch and on the verge of a breakdown. Whilst Lester is at home, all unknowingly becoming a Montessori father, she is out in the world making her own voyage of self discovery. A saleswoman in the department store which Lester so loathed, she is a woman transformed, busy and vital, has found her niche and is full of energy and vigour.
And then it appears that Lester may get well and immediately he and Eva are thrown into the most dreadful mental turmoil. Both of them know if they go back to the way they were before it will kill them "She couldn't! She stood stock still in her prison cell and wrung her hands in revolt. She simply could not. After having known something else, she could not go back to the narrow, sordid round of struggle with intolerable ever renewed drudgery..."
"Could he do any better than before his miserable, poorly done detested work? Could he hate it any less? No he would hate it more ........it kept him from his real work, work that meant the salvation of his children....it wasn't that Eva had not tried her best. She nearly killed herself trying. But she had been like a gifted mathematician set to paint a picture"
I know others who have read The Homemaker are critical of the ending, saying it is far fetched and unworkable and they are probably right. It needs a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader, but I think this outcome, whether you like it or not, emphasises the roles that men and women had to play in a small American town at this time. There was no possibility of Lester staying at home with the children once he regained his health, he would be despised and mocked by his colleagues and neighbours and Eva could not stay at work as she would be seen as abandoning her children. The role reversal was only possible when circumstances made it acceptable.
I was glad to have an excuse to read this book again, not that I really needed one, I do pick this title up on a regular basis, and each time I read it, I find more and more in it to admire. First time round, it can seem a cosy read and so it is. Second time, you begin to see there is more there - perhaps it is a feminist novel? Third time and then more and more, one begins to see the layers unpeeling, the understanding of the psychological pressures on Lester and Eva with the resultant physical manifestations in themselves and their children, their illnesses and nervous strain. The most joyous part of this book for me, is the unfolding of Stephen's character, how his tense unhappiness gradually melts away under the influence of his father's love and kindness:
"Stephen's eyes overflowed.... but he was not crying, he knew that. It hurt to cry and this did not hurt, it helped. The water ran quietly out of his eyes and poured down his cheeks. It was though something that had ached inside him so long that he had almost forgotten about it were melting and running away. He could feel it hurting less and less as the tears fell on his hands. It was as though he was being emptied of that ache.....and now northing hurt Stephen at all, there was no ache anywhere.....he felt so different, so light! so washed! so clear"