A Forgotten Children’s Classic

 

 

“When this story begins, Elizabeth Ann, who is the heroine of it, was a little girl of nine, who lived with her Great-aunt Harriet in a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state in the middle of this country, and that’s all you need to know about the place, for it’s not the important thing in this story; and anyhow you know all about it because it was probably very much like the place you live in yourself.”

The opening of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Understood Betsy hooked me in, and I just wanted to keep reading – and when I’d finished I just wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again. I wish I’d come across it as a child (it is a children’s book, if you haven’t already guessed), but it doesn’t seem to be well-known in the UK, although it may be more popular in America – after all, Canfield Fisher was an American writer. In places it reminded me of The Secret Garden, while the kindly, amused authorial voice is reminiscent of Edith Nesbit, and the description of life in Vermont in the early 20th century is as fascinating and delightful as anything written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I think its a forgotten children’s classic, and it really does deserve to be up there with  authors like Edith Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett, LM Montgomery and Laura Ingalls Wilder – if you like them I’m sure you will love this.

Anyway, in addition to Great-aunt Harriet (who is ‘not very rich and not very poor’), Elizabeth Ann’s household also includes her great-aunt’s daughter Aunt Frances, who gives piano lessons to little girls, and Grace, their ‘girl’, who is nearer 50 than 40, suffers badly asthma, and does all the cooking and housework. They are all very small and very thin, even though get plenty to eat, and Elizabeth Ann has a pale face, with frightened, wistful eyes. Delicate and nervous, she’s cared for by timid Aunt Frances, a spinster who has read all the books on child rearing and wants to give Elizabeth Ann every advantage. But much as she loves the child she only succeeds in passing on her own fears and anxieties. She proudly tells everyone that Elizabeth Ann tells her everything, and so she does – but there are signs that she may not be quite as meek and mild as she appears, because when there is nothing significant to tell she makes things up to keep her aunt happy.

Then Great-aunt Harriet falls ill and Elizabeth Ann ends up a thousand miles away, on a farm in Vermont, with her unknown Putney relatives, about whom she has never heard a good word. She is nervous about meeting them because she remembers being told that they showed ‘such lack of sympathy, such perfect indifference to the sacred sensitivities of child-life, such a starving of the child-heart’. But Uncle Henry, Aunt Abigail and Cousin Ann know exactly how to treat a child like Elizabeth Ann – and it’s not by molly coddling her and wrapping her in cotton wool. They are kind, loving, and wise, but too busy to run around after her and pander to whims and frightened fancies. They encourage, but expect her to look after herself and help around the house and farm – and that’s just what she does. The fact that the Putneys are so casual and off-hand in their belief that she can do things gives her the confidence to do them.

Girl9 (2)
If Betsy wore a ‘middy’ blouse it might have looked something like this, and the hair tied back with a bow is probably right, but I think the skirt would have been fuller, or perhaps pleated.

They call her Betsy, a new name for her new life, and she learns to dress and undress herself, and to do her own her hair (tied back at the nape of the neck with a ribbon, a style she has always admired). She makes butter, apple sauce and maple syrup, lays the table, and learns to sew. For the first time she plays and laughs with other children and forms friendships. And she starts to think for herself, to solve problems, to notice what is happening in the world around her, and to care for others – a kitten, the family dog, a smaller child who needs a friend. She fills out, growing strong and sturdy, acquires a suntan, and loses the nightmares and delicate digestion that have always plagued her. There’s a heart-stopping moment when Aunt Frances writes to say she is coming to take Elizabeth Ann home, but this is a kind of fairy tale so, naturally, there is a happy ending (and, as I’ve said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending, and this is such a happy, transformative story).

I suspect that the book very much reflects Canfield Fisher’s own views on child rearing and education, but she doesn’t preach. I knew she was a supporter of the methods pioneered by Maria Montessori, which involved the development of a child’s physical, social, emotional and cognitive well-being. But until I looked it up I had no idea how new this must have been in 1916 when Understood Betsy was published (the book is also set in that year). So I was surprised to find the small village school so child-centred, with each child assessed in each subject so work can be set according to their needs – Betsy, as we must now call her, is in the seventh grade for reading, the third for spelling, and the second for arithmetic. And the work carried out in school is part and parcel of Betsy’s growth at the farm. I wondered if it was a device used by the author, or if small village schools really did work like that.

Northeast_Texas_Rural_Heritage_Museum_August_2015_17_(1909_Studebaker_surrey)
A surrey carriage must have been quite posh if Uncle Henry used it to collect Aunt Frances from the station, but it must have been pretty scary bouncing up and down in that as it was pulled along by horses, with no walls or doors around you. This one is in North East Teas Rural Heritage Museum. Pic courtesy of Wikipedia.

There’s some nice domestic detail, especially the descriptions of rooms and furniture, and I was intrigued to find Aunt Frances is collected from the station in surrey which, it turns out, is more than a song in a musical – it’s actually a doorless four-wheeled carriage. And there’s a splendid account of Aunt Frances ‘looking ever so dressed up and citified, with a fluffy ostrich feather boa and kid gloves and a white veil over her face and a big blue one floating from her gay flowered velvet hat’. What was that all about? Why two veils? Was one of them the kind of thing that women wore to protect their faces when they wen motoring? And, as befits the occasion, Betsy puts on her new wine-coloured cashmere that Cousin Ann had made her, with a soft white collar of delicate old embroidery that Aunt Abigail had given her out of one of the trunks in the attic. I’d imagined Betsy and the other girls clad in frills, with a white petticoat over the top, but on her first night at the farm we’re told that the kitten plays with the necktie on her ‘middy’ blouse, which is more like a loose sailor top, worn hanging over a skirt.

This is my final book for the Virago Group’s February monthly read over at LibraryThing, which has been focussing on the work of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. It’s not a Virago book, but she is a Virago author, and I read it on the Kindle.

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A Monstrous Mother

Her Sons Wife
My Virago copy features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton on the cover.

Today’s post is by way of being a tribute to Dorothy Canfield Fisher, who was born on this day in 1879, and is one of the Underappreciated Lady Authors being celebrated by Jane at Beyond Eden Rock – you’ll find her explanatory post here.

Mary Bascomb, the central character in Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Her Son’s Wife calls to mind Evangeline in The Home-Maker. She must be one of literature’s most monstrous women. A widowed teacher with a grown-up son she is perfect at everything she does, at home and at work, and she keeps a tight hold on all those she comes into contact with – fellow teachers, pupils, their parents, and her son. Especially her son. She has his future all mapped out: she’s selected his future career (a lawyer, like his father before him) and has a suitable girl lined up to marry him… But Ralph throws a spanner in the works when he writes to say he has just got marrried, and is throwing up any idea of the law so he can get a job as soon as he graduates. To say she is devastated is an understatement; Ralph has been the centre of her universe for some 20 years or so, and the phrase ‘possessive mother’ doesn’t come anywhere near describing her relationship with him.

Now she felt a frightful limitless energy, felt that she could have risen from her chair, and walked forty times around the world, if that would unmarry Ralph and give him back to her as she had had him… as she had thought she had him.

But nothing could now give her back Ralph. The deadly certainty of this was what was being served to her as she sat there straight in her straight chair, her arms laid on her well-polished dining-room table.

She felt the deadly poison of this certainty filling her body. But she did not die. There she sat, Mary Bascomb, who must go on living. By nine o’clock the next morning she must have found have found some way of going on living.

Ralph has warned her: “Lottie’s not your kind, but she’s all right.” Lottie certainly isn’t Mrs Bascomb’s kind.

She stepped into her hall and saw hanging on her hatrack a bright green hat of an eccentric shape, made of very shiny, varnished, coarsely-braided straw, which she recognised as one of the cheap models of that season. Below it, leaning against the wall, stood a bright green cotton parasol, with a thick, bright green tassel hanging from the handle. Mrs Bascomb, gazing at it fixedly, saw that the fibers of the artificial silk had worn off in places and showed the rough jute thread of which it was made. The air was heavy with perfume… the sort of perfume that would go with that hat.

That hat, and the parasol, and the perfume, defines her opinion of her daughter-in-law before she even meets her, and Lottie does nothing to change her view. Poor Lottie has had few chances in life. Her mother died when she was young, she has been given little in the way of love and affection, and values people only for the material possessions she can get out of them. She’s badly educated, silly, flirtatious, and isn’t interested in cooking or cleaning. The reason for the hasty marriage soon becomes apparent, but Lottie is no better at looking after her baby daughter than she is at caring for house and husband – and he is no help because his mother has always done everything for him.

At one point, Mrs Bascomb moves away, leaving the couple to muddle through as best they can. Eventually she returns, determined to create a better life her grandaughter Dids and to ensure that the child doesn’t end up like Lottie.

Soon everythng in the house is running more or less smoothly, but Mrs Bascomb needs to do somethng about Lottie – and a visit from a quack doctor gives her the opening she needs. Plump, pretty Lottie is a bit of a hypochondriac and is persuads that bed rest will cure her ailments. In reality there is nothing wrong her that wouldn’t be cured by sensible shoes, diet and exercise, but its only a short step from bedrest to becoming a permanent invalid, and Mrs Bascomb softens the pill by ensuring that Lottie has the best everything – the latest books and magazines, the choicest morsels of food, the most fashionable dresses, and the softest slippers. With Lottie confined to her room, Mrs Bascomb has a free hand to bring up her grandaughter as she wants. She does everything in her power to make Lottie’s life pleasant and happy, and to ensure she won’t want to resume normal life. But she is not proud of her actions and stops wearing the locket that contains a photo of her husband.

Aas the book progresses Mrs Bascomb becomes more human and more compassionate. She rebuilds her relationship with her son, and comes to realise that she never let him make decisions for himself or stand on his own feet, and that he felt intimidated by her high expectations. She can say he is frustrated, stuck in a job he hates, and works subtly behind the scenes to help get him a job as a sports reporter – and he turns out to be cery good at it, because spot is his one big passion.

She is still controlling people, but she has managed to find Ralph something that will make him happy, rather than something which makes her happy. And, surprisingly, it turns out that Lottie is perfectly satisfied with he life as an invalid, where she can be the centre of the attention and have all the pretty things she craves without having to lift a finger to get them. Like a small child, she enjoys being petted and fussed by her friends, is adored by her daugher, and likes having Mrs Bascombe to ‘mother’ her.

Even more surprising is the way she treats Dibs, providing love, encouragement and advice, but never imposing her own will on the girl. She has learned from her past mistakes, and the measure of her success is that at the end of the novel Dids is clever, intelligent, compassionate, caring and independent, and is able to set off for college with her friends, to make a life of her own, on her own terms.

cd3c5-dorothyfisher
Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

I think I enjoyed this more than The Home-Maker, and it was interesting to see how a mother’s obsessive love for a child can be a destructive force that can wreck lives – but can also be used for good. There are themes of possessive love, emotional manipulation, and the need for people to find thir own place in the world, doing what they are good at and what makes them (and the people around them) happy. I think this last point was an ongoing concern for the author. And while the characters may not always be very likable, you can sympathise with them and see how they got to be as they are, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher is not afraid to let them grow and develop.

And a word about the cover, which features Nahende, Rue des Belles Feuilles, by Felix Vallotton, Nine times out of ten I think the pictures on those old green-spined books are well-chosen and fit the theme or the feel of the novel. But this is the tenth time, and while I don’t dislike the painting, I think the lady looks too plump and cosy. It needs someone taller and thinner, who makes you feel a little uncomfortable.

House Husband and Working Wife

cd3c5-dorothyfisher
Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Good things always come in threes, and that’s very much the case with American writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher, whose work can currently be celebrated on three different blogs, and I’m trying to join with all of them! To be honest, I’m cheating, because I’m re-posting a piece on The Home-Maker from way back in 2012, which is so long ago I’m sure everyone (including me) has forgotten what I said. I’ve reread it, enjoyed it as much as the first time, and was going to write a new review, but my thoughts are pretty much the same, which may indicate that wonderful though it is, it’s not the kind of the book where you find something different to focus on each time you read. Anyway, here goes…

 

When my brother and I were very young, my mother used to turn the dining room lino into a skating rink, or the frozen Arctic wastes, and we would slide across the floor… it was years later that I realised this not only kept us happy, but also got the linoleum polished with the minimum of effort! And it’s the kind of ploy that Lester Knapp would approve of, for Lester is a house-husband with a highly individual take on housework and childcare.

Actually, I’m jumping ahead, because when we first meet Lester, he’s not a house-husband at all. He’s working in the office of town’s big store, where he’s bored, unhappy and badly paid. A quiet, unassuming man, he’s a dreamer, who loves poetry and books, but hates his job, and is not very good at it. He and his wife Evangeline have three children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, and Evangeline is, as everyone is always telling us, ‘a wonder’ but wonders are not always easy to live with.

On the face of it she is the perfect wife and mother. Her house is always in apple-pie order, she produces lovely, healthy meals, runs up fashionable garments from old clothes and fabric offcuts, and even creates stylish furniture from old pieces. Make no mistake, Evangeline is a Domestic Goddess par excellence – but no-one is easy when she’s around. Members of the Ladies’ Guild are a little in awe of her ability, and are uncomfortable in her presence, while her down-trodden husband and children suffer from what used to be called ‘a nervous stomach’, and live on tenterhooks, always fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and worried about not living up to her high ideals.

The_Home-maker_Classic
Persephone’s gorgeous ‘Classic’ edition.

And Evangeline is unhappy as her family. She has eczema, which never improves, and her hair is falling out in handfuls as she slaves away, obsessively cooking and cleaning to keep the house ‘nice’. The book opens with her scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which lead from the stove towards the door of the dining-room.

 

Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

You have to admit, it’s a pretty unusual start to a novel, and over the next few pages we see Evangelin’s iron will, and her feeling of resentment that no-one realises what she has to do. For her, the clock never says ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’ but always ‘So much to do! So much to do! So much to do’. The only person who stands up to Evangeline is Stephen her youngest son,who has a will as strong as her own, and is given to temper tantrums. He is generally regarded as a ‘problem’ by friends and neighbours, who are mystified by his behaviour because Evangeline is such a perfect mother.

Then everything changes. Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide because he can no longer support his family. He falls off a neighbour’s roof while extinguishing a fire and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work. The future looks bleak indeed. But Evangeline, who is a feisty sort of woman, applies for a job at the store, and the owner decides to take a chance on her. She is given a position in the ladies’ wear section and turns out to be a brilliant saleswoman. Not only can she sell well, she’s a quick learner, good at managing staff, the customers love her, and she’s full of innovative schemes to attract customers, increase sales and maximise profit.

ca213-homemaker
My ordinary silvery grey edition – these covers are much nicer in reality than they are in photographs!

While she works her way up to a key position at the store, Lester stays at home with the children and takes on the role of home-maker – where he is as innovative and successful as his wife is in her new role. His solution to the problem of cleaning dirt off the floor is to have it covered with newspaper each morning, and to clear it away each evening, before Evangeline returns home. It has the added bonus that Stephen can paint without making a mess. As Lester and his children tackle the difficulties of cooking and cleaning, they learn about love, responsibility, commitment, how to share things, and how to air their own opinions and make a contribution to family life. Gradually the children become confident as he tells them poems and stories, plays games, involves them in running the house, hugs them, and makes them feel loved and valued – and they, in return, adore him. 

 

The transformation of Stephen’s behaviour is especially touching. There is a key moment when Lester understands Stephen is petrified that Evangeline’s threat of washing his Teddy-bear will be carried out, and that his much-loved, dirty, old toy will be spoiled for ever. Lester has to convince his younger son that nothing will ever be done to teddy that he doesn’t want. And the final turning point comes when Stephen realises that when he goes to school his father will miss him. In one scene Lester, anxious to channel the little boy’s anger into some form of positive action, gives him a rotary egg whisk and asks him to beat a ‘pretend egg’ and turn a bowl of soapy water into froth. Stephen lacks the co-ordination and experience to know how to use the whisk, but he sticks at the task and eventually succeeds.

And what of Evangeline all this time? She comes home from work each day tired, but fulfilled. She’s no longer bitter about the hand life has dealt her, and as she no longer has to do the housework she hates so much, she seems content to spend her evenings relaxing, or playing cards with her family. And, since she is earning good money, they are able to buy luxuries for the first time ever, and she even agrees to Henry having a dog and a bicycle. I may have made her sound unlikable, but she’s not. She’s warm, passionate, quick-witted, intelligent, and has this tremendous vitality, and an urge to do everything to the very best of her ability. I could understand her frustration with the monotony and drudgery of housework, and the fact that once everything is neat, and clean, tidy, people come along and mess it up, so you have to do it all over again… and again… and again. She loves her children – but can’t cope with being with them all the time. And the relationship between her and Lester is quite tender. I think they are such opposites that each is able to give the other what they lack.

But there is a cloud on the horizon for Lester recovers the use of his legs, and although he tells no-one, his wife discovers his secret, and both fear that they must return to their traditional roles – he as a wage earner, and she as a home-maker. Neither feel they can face the censure of small-town America by going against convention and continuing as they are, and in the end it is the doctor who finds a solution that will ensure the continued happiness of the Knapp family.

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The endpapers in the Persephone edition are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced by Warner and exported to America in 1917.

I loved this novel, which is published by Persephone, but it must have seemed pretty outrageous when it was written in 1924, because it featured role reversal and progressive theories about education, both of which threatened the established order of things. More importantly, it highlights the importance of valuing people for themselves, whatever their age and sex, and shows how difficult it can be to stand up against the expectations and conventions of society, and to do what is right for you, rather than being pushed into a role that doesn’t suit you.

There was a certain amount of sentimentality, which is not always to modern taste, but it wasn’t obtrusive, and was in keeping with the characters. Overall, I liked the way it was written, especially the shifting viewpoints, which enable us to see things from the perspective of the various characters – even the children have a voice.

The Virago Group at LibraryThing have selected Dorothy Canfild Fisher as Author of the Month, while Jane at Beyond Eden Rock will be paying tribute on February 17, as part of a year-long Birthday Book of UnderAppreciated Lady Authors (you’ll find the introductory post here). Finally, Jessie at Dwell in Possibility is staging a Persephone Readathon (click here for details).

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Short Story Sunday: A Flawed Treasure and a Good Mother

The Exile, by Betty Miller, is a little odd, and I didn’t really enjoy it, but it was interesting. Here we have the Moores, Edmund and Louis, and his young brother Arthur. They are middle class and well-off, leading comfortable, cosy lives but are made uneasy by the appearance of their new servant. Russian Irina is pale, effacing and reserved, with a ‘surprisingly deep and vibrant’ voice. On the face of it she is perfect. She’s an ‘exquisite’ cook, ‘adept and thorough’ at the housework, ‘incredibly willing’ and a ‘very hard’ worker. She is, as Lois tells everyone, a treasure. A real treasure.

So what is wrong with her you ask? For something must be wrong. And so it proves. Their Domestic Goddess isn’t a murderer, she doesn’t run away with Edmund or Arthur, she doesn’t steal, she’s not a political agitator (I might have preferred the story if it had gone down one of those routes). She doesn’t intrude, or disrupt, or take over, or turn their lives upside down. She simply makes them feel uncomfortable and, since they are not used to being made to feel uncomfortable, they do not like it. It transpires that Irina has a tragic past. She tells her tale, dispassionately, without emotion, unable to move on from what has happened and start living again. She calls to mind The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Sarah Woodruff’s determination to reject the chance of happiness and stick with misery. Personally I’ve always found Fowles’ ending thoroughly unsatisfactory, because it seems out of character – Sarah’s final choice of lifestyle (whichever ending you opt for) is at such a variance with her earlier character. Anyway, Irina could never be accused of lack of consistency.
…it became startlingly obvious that what remained of her life after that time had been blighted: consumed by the past, by those strange, tragic months. She was bound by that past situation: it claimed her, used her up. So that her life in the present was meaningless: she existed, imprisoned in our day-to-day sequence, imprisoned in Time. She was an exile, not only from a country (a geographical area can, after all, be reclaimed), but from her own real life. As a personality she was dead.
The house has never been so well run, but life means nothing to Irina, and her ‘deadly

Betty Miller.

negativeness’ destroys the family’s own joy and pleasure in life, undermining their values and drawing them close to the void. But they never actually fall. Irina is asked to leave, and I assume that they forget their frightening glimpse into the abyss, and their brush with thoughts of death, and that life proceeds as normal.

To a large extent I suspect my reaction to the tale is very similar to that of the Moores to Irina, and I wondered if Miller had, perhaps, banked on that, and wanted people to think about things they had rather not (does that make sense?)  She was the mother of Jonathan Miller, the doctor and director, which is interesting, but has no bearing on this story, and didn’t make feel more kindly about it. I gather that she wrote seven novels, as well as short stories, none of which I feel any desire to read, and a biography of Robert Browning, which sounds more tempting because I like his poetry.
I’ll tell you what, since I am feeling generous, I shall add in my thoughts about the next tale in The Persephone Book of Short Stories, because it is a very short short story, and although I loved it I don’t have a lot to say about it. Themes explored by Dorothy Canfield Fisher in The Rainy Day, the Good Mother and The Brown Suit will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has read The Home-Maker – and if you loved that you will love this.
Here the Good Mother has followed all the instructions in ‘The Happy Child is an Active Child’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

to keep her three children occupied on a rainy day, but they are unaware of what is required of them. Indeed, the only thing little Freddy wants is to wear his brown suit, which has been washed, and is still wet. A battle of wills ensues, and everyone is miserable until the mother’s young cousin arrives, tells a silly story, plays a silly imaginative game and discovers that what Freddy wants is not the brown suit itself, but its holster pocket where he can carry his pretend pistol. Easy peasy, says the student cousin (well, not quite in those words, after all, this was published in 1937). Let’s all sew pockets on our clothes. At which point he rushes off to catch his bus, and the Good Mother comes to the rescue with material so the children can sew ‘queer pockets’ in ‘queer places’ on their clothes. All is sweetness and light, and after lunch they give her the starring role in their play, because she was too busy to join in their earlier version.

Anyone who’s ever watched their offspring ignoring expensive and thoughtfully chose birthday and Christmas presents in favour of wrapping paper, ribbons and boxes, will recognise the truth of the picture drawn here, and sympathise with the harassed mother, who loves her children dearly, but does not always have the time to really listen to them, and cannot always see that you don’t need lots of posh or toys or complicated games, you just need some imagination.

A House-Husband and a Working Woman

When my brother and I were very young, my mother used to turn the dining room lino into a skating rink, or the frozen Arctic wastes, and we would slide across the floor… it was years later that I realised this not only kept us happy, but also got the linoleum polished with the minimum of effort! And it’s the kind of ploy that Lester Knapp would approve of, for Lester is a house-husband with a highly individual take on housework and childcare.

Actually, I’m jumping ahead, because when we first meet Lester, in The Home-Maker, by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, he’s not a house-husband at all. He’s working in the office of town’s big store, where he’s bored, unhappy and badly paid. A quiet, unassuming man, he’s a dreamer, who loves poetry and books, but hates his job, and is not very good at it. He and his wife Evangeline have three children, Helen, Henry and Stephen, and Evangeline is, as everyone is always telling us, a wonder – but wonders are not always easy to live with.

On the face of it she is the perfect wife and mother. Her house is always in apple pie order, she produces wonderful, healthy meals, runs up fashionable garments from old clothes and fabric offcuts, and even creates stylish furniture from old pieces. Make no mistake, Evangeline is a Domestic Goddess par excellence – but no-one is easy when she’s around. Members of the Ladies’ Guild are a little in awe of her ability, and are uncomfortable in her presence, while her down-trodden husband and children suffer from what used to be called ‘a nervous stomach’ , and live on tenterhooks, always fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing, and worried about not living up to her high ideals.

However, Evangeline is unhappy as her family. She has eczema, which never improves, and her hair is falling out in handfuls as she slaves away, obsessively cooking and cleaning to keep the house ‘nice’. The book opens with her scrubbing furiously at a line of grease spots which led from the stove towards the door of the dining-room. “Henry had held the platter tilted as he carried the steak in yesterday. And yet if she had warned him once about that, she had a thousand times! Warned him, and begged of him, and implored him to be careful. The children simply paid no attention to what she said. None. She might as well talk to the wind. Hot grease too! That soaked into the wood so, She would never get it clean.”

You have to admit, it’s a pretty unusual start to a novel, and over the next few pages we see Evangelin’s iron will, and her feeling of resentment that no-one realises what she has to do. For her, the clock never says ‘tick-tick-tick-tick’ but always ‘So much to do! So much to do! So much to do’. The only person who stands up to Evangeline is Stephen her youngest son,who has a will as strong as her own, and is given to temper tantrums. He is generally regarded as a ‘problem’ by friends and neighbours, who are mystified by his behaviour because Evangeline is such a perfect mother.

Then everything changes. Lester loses his job and contemplates suicide because he can no longer support his family. He falls off a neighbour’s roof while extinguishing a fire and is confined to a wheelchair, unable to walk or work. The future looks bleak indeed. But Evangeline, who is a feisty sort of woman, applies for a job at the store, and the owner decides to take a chance on her. She is given a position in the ladies’ wear section and turns out to be a brilliant saleswoman. Not only can she sell well, she’s a quick learner, good at managing staff, the customers love her, and she’s full of innovative schemes to attract customers, increase sales and maximise profit.
The endpapers in the Persephone edition of The Home-Maker
 are from Galway, a silk velvet and terry fabric produced
by Warner and exported to America in 1917
While she works her way up to a key position at the store, Lester stays at home with the children and takes on the role of home-maker – where he is as innovative and successful as his wife is in her new role. His solution to the problem of cleaning dirt off the floor is to have it covered with newspaper each morning, and to clear it away each evening, before Evangeline returns home. It has the added bonus that Stephen can paint without making a mess.

As Lester and his children tackle the difficulties of cooking and cleaning, they learn about love, responsibility, commitment, how to share things, and how to air their own opinions and make a contribution to family life. Gradually the children become confident as he tells them poems and stories, plays games, involves them in running the house, hugs them, and makes them feel loved and valued – and they, in return, adore him. 

The transformation of Stephen’s behaviour is especially touching. There is a key moment when Lester understands Stephen is petrified that Evangeline’s threat of washing his Teddy-bear will be carried out, and that his much-loved, dirty, old toy will be spoiled for ever. Lester has to convince his younger son that nothing will ever be done to teddy that he doesn’t want. And the final turning point comes when Stephen realises that when he goes to school his father will miss him. In one scene Lester, anxious to channel the little boy’s anger into some form of positive action, gives him a rotary egg whisk and asks him to beat a ‘pretend egg’ and turn a bowl of soapy water into froth. Stephen lacks the co-ordination and experience to know how to use the whisk, but he sticks at the task and eventually succeeds.

And what of Evangeline all this time? She comes home from work each day tired, but fulfilled. She’s no longer bitter about the hand life has dealt her, and as she no longer has to do the housework she hates so much, she seems content to spend her evenings relaxing, or playing cards with her family. And, since she is earning good money, they are able to buy luxuries for the first time ever, and she even agrees to Henry having a dog and a bicycle. I may have made sound unlikable, but she’s not. She’s warm, passionate, quick-witted, intelligent, and has this tremendous vitality, and an urge to do everything to the very best of her ability. I could understand her frustration with the monotony and drudgery of housework, and the fact that once everything is neat, and clean, tidy, people come along and mess it up, so you have to do it all over again… and again… and again. She loves her children – but can’t cope with being with them all the time. And the relationship between her and Lester is quite tender. I think they are such opposites that each is able to give the other what they lack. 
Dorothy Canfield Fisher

But there is a cloud on the horizon for Lester recovers the use of his legs, and although he tells no-one, his wife discovers his secret, and both fear that they must return to their traditional roles – he as a wage earner, and she as a home-maker. Neither feel they can face the censure of small-town America by going against convention and continuing as they are, and in the end it is the doctor who finds a solution that will ensure the continued happiness of the Knapp family.

I loved this novel, which is published by Persephone, and is the third in my ‘housework’ reading. It must have seemed pretty outrageous when it was written in 1924, because it featured role reversal and progressive theories about education, both of which threatened the established order of things. But more importantly, it highlights the importance of valuing people for themselves, whatever their age and sex, and shows how difficult it can be to stand up against the expectations and conventions of society, and to do what is right for you, rather than being pushed into a role that doesn’t suit you.

There was a certain amount of sentimentality, which is not always to modern taste, but it wasn’t obtrusive, and was in keeping with the characters. Overall, I liked the way it was written, especially the shifting viewpoints, which enable us to see things from the perspective of the various characters – even the children have a voice.