Every day we’re bombarded with advice on how to be perfect. Whether it’s the magic cream that will keep you young or the latest newspaper column on how to garden, how to cook, what gadgets will elevate your life onto a plane of Zen-like calm as the minutiae of life are sifted into ever smaller boxes, there are always voices feeding our insecurities with the promise that if you could only follow these three simple rules life will flow like it does on the movies. With money tight and time even tighter it’s hardly surprising we feel like we’re floundering, but take heart. We’re not the first generation to feel swamped by the image of the perfect home, perfect life. It didn’t kick off in the 50s either whatever you might think from watching Mad Men. It goes much, much further than that!
At the climax of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew Kate instructs her sister and step-mother with her newly hard won wisdom. “A woman moved is like a fountain troubled” she scolds “muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; and while it is so none so dry or thirsty will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.” She could almost be selling the latest anti aging miracle potion.
Next week an 18th Century guide to how to cut it in the modern world will go under the hammer. The Lady’s Companion with the snappy subtitle An Infallible Guide to the Fairer Sex, was pitched as essential reading for “virgins, wives or widows”. So dogmatic, so L’Oreal.
My own interest in the impossible dream started when aspirations to domestic nirvana were limited to singing along to Somewhere That’s Green from The Little Shop of Horrors. It was the early 1990s and I was living in a bedsit in Rathmines that was straight out of Rising Damp. The wiring was certainly straight out of the 70s – ah the heady days before landlord registration! So the 70s edition Good Housekeeping Home Encyclopaedia seemed like an essential reference when I found it on the dusty lower shelf of a second hand bookshop. It was only when I got it home I discovered the wealth of information about stain removal and household budgets. In those days I tended to skip the bits about how to cater dinner parties and look your most alluring with a gin & tonic when your husband came home from a hard day at the office.
Growing up in the 70s and 80s surrounded by strong women, many of whom were going it alone I never doubted that I would build a career. There was never any suggestion that happiness was in any way contingent on a well appointed kitchen or, come to that, a man. By the time I reached my teens and my 20s I saw the perfectly rouged, high-heeled beauties in the “House Wife” manual as nothing more than Stepford Wives, enemies almost, who were very definitely letting the side down.
My stance softened when I met The Husband. I seized the idea of building a warm and inviting nest with both hands, consumed with the urge to build a glowing, sweet-smelling home just for just us two. I bought an apron and matching saucepans. I learnt to make cupcakes and bread. I was never going to be a kitchen goddess – the keyboard will always have more of a lure than the kitchen – but suddenly I could kind of see the point. It was in the euphoria of early married life that my little collection of “Good Wife” manuals took shape. Even when newsroom shifts meant I was living off M&S microwave meals for one I would look at the colour plates in these books and marvel at the spotless kitchens and gargantuan cleaning schedules.
The earliest book I have is the didactically titled Book of Good Housekeeping published by the Good Housekeeping sometime in the 1950s. “The modern housewife”, the introduction informs, “has to combine many functions with those of mistress of her house; she will almost certainly do her own shopping and cooking, and probably a good part of the household washing and cleaning; more and more she is her own interior decorator, handywoman and often gardener…Even with the willing help of the “man about the house”, the average housewife today leads a very full life.” The book covers everything from balancing the household budget to plumbing and beauty (all vanishing cream and makeup that looks it’s best from the other side of the room).
The schedule for housework alone provides a full working week and the requirement for table linen (2-3 table cloths, 2-3 breakfast cloths AND 2-3 afternoon tea cloths) means life would be a never ending cycle of table laying. But despite the frankly terrifying standards you’re supposed to aspire to there’s something comforting about the photographs of primary coloured kitchens and living rooms. For all the fish knives and grapefruit spoons, the book makes ideal home perfection look attainable – even if it is a full time job.
Then there’s Frankly Feminine published in England in 1972. Times have changed and it’s no longer enough to match your lipstick to your suit colour (or to dress up when doing the housework for that matter). The book starts off with a list of the calories in everyday foodstuff and many pictures of a very supple blonde girl in a red leotard but the housework plan is as strenuous as ever. As the foreword says “This book has been compiled for today’s complete woman – who sees the stars around her and finds her happiness still in her home, with her family, and her friends.” “Today’s complete woman” is still going to be spending a hell of a lot of time with table cloths and dinner parties even if the fish knives have now been superseded by fondue sets.
These were the books bought by and bought for brides. I can all too easily imagine how their calm, dogmatic tone could be tinged with the mother-in-law’s hectoring tones. They set the bar pretty high and, when not viewed as social history, must have seemed like the Stepford rule book. But I read them from a different world. I might not come close to their exacting standards but I don’t have to. I find it comforting not nagging that they break down domesticity into a simple set of rules. With their diagrams for everything from changing nappies to laying out a kitchen to putting on eye shadow they break down the esoteric secrets of grown up life into a few easy steps.
Generally speaking I restrict my domestic goddess tendencies to Christmas and the very occasional dinner party and you’re a million times more likely to find me sitting at my desk with birds nest hair and ratty pyjamas than turning the mattresses and laying the table for breakfast. But if I had the spare cash I’d love to bid for the Lady’s Companion…how fascinating to see how the mother-in-laws of the 1740s would given their instructions.