Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The Home-Maker of this novel is first of all, domestic machine and mother of three, Evangeline (Eva) Knapp, a fierce, grafter of a woman who rules her home with a rod of iron and keeps it not only clean and tidy but stylish, respectable and completely stifling. Her husband reflects to himself that she is "like a Titan forced to tend a miniature garden ."

By the middle of the novel it is Eva's husband, Lester Knapp, who is home-maker when he is unable to continue working at the town drapers and homeware emporium.

It is not really a spoiler to say that Eva takes on her husband's position as the family breadwinner by working in said store and taking the eye for detail and relentless energy that was suffocated by housework and childcare and applying it to business with great success.

Lester, on the other hand, who has always hated his job, settles down into domestic bliss with Saturday morning cooking-bees, stories and time to get to know the children who were hitherto little strangers to him.

I expected to finish this book all fired up with feminist outrage and it is depressing how little some things have changed. I'm ashamed to say that it still surprises me to see a man out by himself with a pram (why should I feel so proud of him, he should take his baby for a walk!) and although we now know such creatures exist, how many fully fledged house husbands do we know in 2010?

I did not feel this inequality to be the central message of the book, however, more an outside event that helped to shape the plot. At the centre of the book is the idea that to be happy, you cannot fight against your nature and must be allowed to be yourself. Eva is too exacting and impatient to spend all day long with a preschooler, however much she loves her youngest son Stephen and Lester is too dreamy and uninterested in material gain to be a competent accountant and "If honestly, that was the sort of nature he had, why rebel against it?"

This idea is exemplified by the Willings who own the store and are first Lester's and then Eva's employers. Both are very happy with their lot because they are allowed to work with their natures. Mr Willing loves business ("it fitted him! It was his work!")and is perfectly happy to put in a 36 hour shift and then go home and talk to his wife about the store. Mrs Willing is a happier homemaker than Eva and was glad to stay at home with pre-school aged children, but is still eager to exercise her brain through the writing of advertising copy for the business; something which she is very good at.

This idea of being able to be yourself is continued when Canfield looks at the characters of the children. Never have I read a book in which the motivations and desires of a child have been so thoroughly examined as those of Stephen, the troublesome 5 year old. He is treated to the same analysis and respect as the adult protagonists and shown to be just as much of a prisoner of circumstance as his mother and father.

The issues that are explored in this 1924 novel are still prevalent today. Women may go out to work more frequently but there is still the shadow of unequal pay and the fact that most women, working or not are still doing the majority of the housework. This is muddied by the growing feeling that some women still enjoy domestic tasks and would be happy to stay at home and keep house. The issue is not who does what, but who, man or woman , is being forced into a life which does not suit them, purely because of their sex?

Before reading this book, I wondered if the title was a snide aside, that I would find a militant feminist scream of rage, but that is not it. The character of 'Aunt' Mattie Farnham is a home-maker; not as competent as Eva, but infinitely happier in the role. It fits her. It is Mattie who recognizes that it fits Lester too. It would not fit Mr Willing, it did not suit Eva Knapp.

What this book cries out is that we must be allowed choice in life, to find the roles that suit our temperaments and talents. Money can buy choice, like in the case of Mrs Willing who can afford servants to take the edge off the drudgery of childcare, but it is the breaking down of prejudice and "complacent unquestioned generalisation" that is the real goal.

This is a wonderful book that made me laugh, cry, think and rage. It lightly leaps from the depths of great tragedy to the sunny joys of human interaction. My only complaint is that I am not too struck on the endpapers but I can find it in my heart to forgive that very slight flaw...


  1. Excellent review - it brings up so many issues. I don't remember the endpapers - will have to look later!

  2. Thank you Verity, I see that a lot of people are reading it this week and can't wait to hear their opinions.

  3. I like the endpapers and the coupled and confrontational birds...

    I'm one of those hoping to read the book this week; it's a Persephone I've been wanting to read for some time and is seemingly a popular choice this week.

  4. Paperback Reader, I suppose they are confrontational!

    It is a wonderful book and I hope that you enjoy it.

  5. This one sounds so interesting! There is a whole world of Persephone out there for me and you just showed me another possibility. Whereas this may appear that not much has changed for women, this must have been somewhat cutting edge at the time. Can definitely relate to energies that surpass the needs of domestic life.

  6. The Home-Maker was on my list of favorites last year... such an amazing book! Great review.

  7. Hi Frances, I've only just started with Persephones but am by no means finished! I agree that this book must have been ground-breaking but apparently it was very popular and well thought of and so must have hit the spot for contemporary readers.

    JoAnn, I really enjoyed it . Thanks for commenting.

  8. Another book to add to my ever growing Persephone wishlist after reading such a great review.

  9. Joan, we may as well all just accept that we're going to end up buying them all! I just got home with Someone at a Distance under my arm after reading lots of Whipple-related posts this week.

  10. Wonderful review! I loved this book as well. I recently reread Understood Betsy (one of her children's books) and found it totally charming.

  11. I've been really wanting to read this but the endpapers were one of the reasons I haven't yet picked it up, but soon!!

  12. I enjoyed this one too! Lovely review you've written.

  13. Thank you ramblingfancy! I'd like to read more of her books.

    Claire, I really recommend it, some of the scenes are so moving.

    Thank you Mrs B! It seems to be a really popular Persephone title.