Persephone Books has recently reissued The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in their classics format and I am delighted as this gives me an excuse to write about it again. It is my favourite title from this wonderful publisher and I have read it at least once a year ever since I first aquired it.
Its author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was an educational reformer and was responsible for introducing the Montessori Method of child rearing to the United States. As well as adult books she also wrote for children, one of the most well know being Understood Betsy portraying a school run on Montessori lines. This method is based on the observing of young children, learning about their characteristics and needs, and emphasising the uniqueness of each child while recognising that children are different from adults in the way they develop and feel.
At the beginning of the story we meet Eva, the Homemaker, caught in a never ending cycle of housework, cooking and cleaning. She is quick witted, fiercely intelligent and creative, depressed and bored and totally unable to bring about any change in her circumstances. Her husband, Lester, also suffers, being deeply unhappy in his work, hating the world of commerce in which he is involved, and dreaming of writing poetry. Quiet and gentle he is the antithesis of the fiery Eva. On first reading one wonders just how two such disparate personalities ever married. They have three children who suffer in their own way from the tensions in the marriage: Stephen, the youngest, throwing tantrums and in a state of permanent warfare with his parents, Henry with a weak stomach and Helen, nervous and lacking in self confidence. Neither Lester nor Eva has any time to devote to their children and to view them as anything other than a worry and a burden.
Two square pegs in a round hole.
Lester loses his job and in a vain attempt to kill himself suffers a crippling accident and is reduced to leading an invalid life in the home. As he gets better and finds himself in the position of homemaker he realises 'he had never watched his children grow before'. After being at home for some time alone with his youngest child, Stephen, he realises that something is deeply troubling him. When he finally confides in his father Lester discovers that Stephen is terrified that his mother 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 agonizingly 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 no 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. 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? At the start of the book we found her almost at screaming pitch and on the verge of a breakdown. While 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. Once Eva has found the opportunity of fulfilling her potential her problems, both physical and mental disappear. Like Lester, she has found her correct place in the scheme of things.
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 norhing hurt Stephen at all, there was no ache anywhere.....he felt so different, so light! so washed! so clear"