For a second month running we've asked the brilliant team at Persephone Books an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury to guest write our book club review. The novel they have chosen for July is The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
Soon it will be a hundred years since The Home-maker was first published. Yet its themes were radical at the time and are still radical today. The heroine, Evangeline, is efficient, good at dressmaking and bored out of her skull. So much so that she has become obsessive compulsive (the novel opens with her trying to remove a line of grease spots off the floor and that's only the half of it). As a result her three children are unhappy and have psychosomatic illnesses. One day Lester, her husband, has an accident and is left unable to walk or indeed work. Evangeline must become the breadwinner and she is offered a job in a department store, in the dress department. She is so good at her job and loves it so much that significantly she leaves home earlier than necessary every morning and has her breakfast on her own in a cafeteria. Her husband is happier than he has ever been and so are the children. So the question is can this state of affairs survive? Can the man be the home-maker? Can a woman abandon the children to her partner (as he was not called then) and transform herself into a brilliant businesswoman? Can a couple role swop?
This was one of the first Persephone books. For a while it did not sell: the title is old-fashioned and alas no one in the UK has heard of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, a far greater writer than, say, Louisa M Alcott or Willa Cather but unknown this side of the Atlantic. Now it is a steady seller and a few years ago we reissued it as a Persephone Classic (with a picture on the front instead of the traditional grey cover). It is a must read for all working parents and a marvelous present for anyone coping' with work, domesticity, children, and everything else that life throws at one; with the proviso that it is not a book to give the over-meticulous since they may conclude that it was meant as a take-home message and be offended.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958) was a superb novelist, a great supporter of contemporary writers, and an advocate of the Montessori method: Eleanor Roosevelt called her one of the ten most influential women in America. The author herself viewed the novel not as a feminist one but as a children's one not of course a novel for children, though many early adolescents would sympathise and commiserate with the Knapp children, but certainly a novel of children' (Karen Knox in the Persephone Preface). There are very few novels, indeed it is hard to think of any, which describe a domestic situation through the eyes of the parents with the focus throughout on the children, in particular, in this novel, on a five year-old. The portrait of Stephen is among the most memorable in literature and the scene where he explains to his wheelchair-bound father why he had been so angry and upset (his mother had been about to wash his teddy bear) is superb: unsentimental, insightful, an extraordinary insight into the mind of a small child which was deemed by the New Statesman reviewer one of the most moving scenes I have read in a modern novel'.
And our favourite detail in the book? Even though she is out at work, Evangeline cannot let go of her ridiculously high standards and, sadly, makes a fuss if the floor is dirty when she comes home. So Lester and the children put down sheets of newspaper the moment she leaves in the morning and throw them away just before she returns: to reveal an immaculately clean floor. Simple and effective. No wonder Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote towards the end of her life: The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be seen to by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential in every one of us.'
Towards the end of The Home-maker Lester thinks to himself: Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women's work in the house. As for any man's giving his personality to the woman's work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them fiddling foolishness! He was sure that he was the only man who had ever conceived even the possibility of such a lapse from virile self-respect as to do what all women are supposed to do.'
Persephone Books is an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury. It is dedicated to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers. The end papers in each book are printed with a fabric design that was created in the year in which the novel was first published.
Images by Victoria Garcia
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