In one of my favourite trashy reads, the heroine is in her bedroom and pointedly ignoring her cousin who is trying to claim her attention. The cousin exclaims,
“Listen to me! There are more important things than clothes!”
The heroine calmly replies, “Of course there are. But not when you are dressing for dinner.”
I’m not sure that Georgette Heyer was actually trying to give us a lesson in mindfulness, but this passage has always struck a chord for me. She is reminding us to give something our best attention whilst we are doing it, then forget it and move on to the next thing.
Mindfulness is partly about concentration. Do you remember your school reports? Mine always said, ‘Sadly lacks concentration.’ Or ‘Her butterfly mind is in danger of failing to absorb the opportunities she is being given’ or some such arch nonsense. Actually by the time I left school I had bloody good concentration and it was obsessive reading that developed it. With my nose in a book – even a Georgette Heyer (or maybe especially a GH) I could have ignored the apocalypse. Sadly these days, flitting from one bit of the internet to another means I can pursue those butterfly thoughts deep into the pages of Wikipedia, even unto the place where I have forgotten my starting point.
The power of concentration though, is not what I have been pondering. I have been contemplating the loo. Armed with enough chemicals to alert the United Nations I’ve been cleaning the Orchard House bathroom. Despite an expensive and prolonged higher education I still put my arm down the lav. But d’you know what? I don’t mind. In fact I quite like doing it.
In the ‘real’ Orchard House, of course there would have been a servant like Hannah Mullet in ‘Little Women’, but those were the days when even modest establishments could boast such a maid of all work. I’ve never felt that cleaning was ‘below me’. That’s not to say, I haven’t, when pressed for time, paid someone else to do it (and that has never troubled my conscience either) but I don’t share the disdain for the daily round and common task that is usually expected of a bookish woman.
(Early nineteenth century American woodcut)
Can I digress a moment?
I used to know a brilliant woman – a very elderly German refugee called Marianne Kuznitski. When I told her I was learning to drive, she said in her heavy Germanic accent, ‘My instructor, he is telling me, that it is most difficult to teach an intellectual to drive.” Then with a wicked grin she added, “Until then, I did not know I was one.”
So why are people surprised that I do my own housework? Because it’s seen as mindless? Because I could be spending my time more fruitfully on my own pursuits? Or even because I should be giving the work to someone who needs the money? An acquaintance who knew that I am preparing to move house, asked me recently if she could ‘take over’ my cleaner. Cleaner? What cleaner?
Of course intellectuals who live in a compete mess surprise no one and their name is legion. Iris Murdoch and John Bayley hunkered down in a squalid nest of domestic chaos. Simone de Beauvoir eschewed the duster on the grounds that it would only take a short time before everything was just as dusty as before. Here’s what she said.
‘Few tasks are more like the torture of Sisyphus than housework, with its endless repetition: the clean becomes soiled, the soiled is made clean, over and over, day after day.’
There is an apocryphal story about Thomas and Jane Carlyle who, incidentally, had a maid who secretly gave birth in a cupboard. I wonder who cleaned that up? When a famous poet came to visit, he left his hat on the floor by his chair. Several months later when he returned, it was still there. Here is the very room.
Of course one could argue, and I would, that you should apply your intellect to the domestic arts just as to everything else and there are numerous examples of academically minded women who were good cooks and gardeners and vice versa – Vita Sackville West and Jane Grigson to name but two. Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson were both the bakers of the family. Jane Austen made jam and worried about the price of fish.
So, far be it from me to disagree with the blessed Angela Carter, but I do. She wrote, “Oh God, in my misspent youth as a housewife, I too used to bake bread, in those hectic and desolating days just prior to the women’s movement….I used to feel so womanly when I was baking my filthy bread. An ecstasy of false consciousness’
It is the bog standard (if you will forgive the pun) business of cleaning that really gets us to the nub of the housework issue. Intellectuals are allowed to live in a mess and it’s seen as frightfully lower middle class to criticise them for being indifferent to their surroundings. They are allowed a filthy dishcloth or a splattered bathroom floor because their minds are on ‘higher things’. That, if you don’t mind my saying so, is a load of tosh.
Here’s a Carl Larsson to inspire you to a state of domestic perfection.
I’m also wondering whether there is a vestigial notion that cleaning is a working class pursuit, writing is definitely middle class and you do not betray your class by taking over the territory of another? I don’t know. I throw these things out only for you to mull them over at your leisure.
Personally I work better in a clean(ish) house. ‘But you don’t have to clean it yourself!’ I hear you exclaim. Actually I do. I like to cook for myself and I like to cultivate my own jardin. And just Iike The Grand Sophy when she is dressing for dinner, if I’m cooking I try and think about cooking and if I’m gardening ditto. Although I must confess that when I’m cleaning, I do so to the accompaniment of very loud music. Fleetwood Mac or the Verdi Requiem are this housewife’s choice.
Anyway, next time you notice the fluff under the bed or the yellow stains in the toilet bowl, crank up the volume on the ‘Dies Irae’ or ‘The Chain’ (very appropriate) and pull on the Marigolds. You never know, you might enjoy it.
It’s your fluff after all.