Month 17 (September 1865): Domestic Management (part 3 of 3): The Dark Art of Household Work

Maria Damkjær is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Copenhagen

Read the first post here and the second post here.

The September 1865 number of Our Mutual Friend contains one of the most descriptive paragraphs on housework in all of Dickens’s work. Domestic tasks are usually obscured in Dickens, but here the reader is given details that any domestic managers would recognise. In fact, as I will argue, Dickens stresses the performative, indeed the theatrical aspect of housework.

Bella Rokesmith is installed in her little house in Blackheath, and when John goes to the ‘China house’ in the City, she goes to work:

She always walked with her husband to the railroad, and was always there again to meet him; her old coquettish ways a little sobered down (but not much), and her dress as daintily managed as if she managed nothing else. But, John gone to business and Bella returned home, the dress would be lain aside, trim little wrappers and aprons be substituted, and Bella, putting back her hair with both hands, as if she were making the most business-like arrangements for going dramatically distracted, would enter on the household affairs of the day. […]

The beginning of the passage suggests the familiar nineteenth-century erasure of household work (‘her dress as daintily managed as if she managed nothing else’), and the approaching end of Bella’s apprenticeship as a housekeeper. When she has finally learnt it all, housework will retreat into the realm of the unspoken. But as yet, it is all still unfamiliar enough to be specified in detail, and the passage goes on:

Such weighing and mixing and chopping and grating, such dusting and washing and polishing, such snipping and weeding and trowelling and other small gardening, such making and mending and folding and airing […]

While this is highly descriptive, there are no objects for all this ‘chopping and grating’. The rhythm of the sentence seems to neutralise specific goals. As Monica F. Cohen has argued, ‘the passage’s passive voice and subjunctive phrasing collaborate to muffle the sense in which [Bella’s] work might be purposeful.’ In other words, Bella performs a generalised ‘weighing and mixing,’ not one that leads to specific outcomes. Many readers come away with a sense that Bella is really playing at housework in what she herself persists in calling her ‘doll’s house’. But that should not diminish our sense of the importance in what is really going on: a description of the process of turning oneself into a homemaker. The passage continues:

[…] such diverse arrangements, and above all such severe study! For Mrs. J. R., who had never been wont to do too much at home as Miss B. W., was under the constant necessity of referring for advice and support to a sage volume entitled The Complete British Family Housewife, which she would sit consulting, with her elbows on the table and her temples in her hands, like some perplexed enchantress poring over the Black Art.

Like the good Victorian she is, Bella consults a manual; one that promises ‘Complete’ mastery of its topic. Bella is part of the new mobile middle classes at mid-century that were socially and more often than not geographically separated from their parents’ generation. Bella’s duties have not been bred into her, but must be learned from print culture. As Andrea Broomfield has it, ‘Victorian [manuals] were numerous, and often […] bestsellers. The speed of industrialization had left people with a somewhat shaky sense of their socioeconomic standing and how to keep it.’ The most famous of these manuals was Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management, published in 24 parts between 1859 and 1861. By 1868, it had sold two million copies. But it was not the first bestseller in the genre; Robert Kemp Philp’s Enquire Within Upon Everything, published serially 1855-1856) was a monumental success, and his Practical Housewife (1855) was full of the same kind of information as Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

These manuals gained a reputation for unnecessary complexity, often because they ambitiously aimed for a ‘scientific’ slant. Beeton’s Book of Household Management promises to banish ‘all terms of indecision from [the cook’s] art,’ and yet the opening chapters abound with confusing lectures about the number of drops to a drachm and similarly obscure information. Philp’s Practical Housewife has a baffling section entitled ‘Domestic Manipulation’ which contains information on, among others, ‘Cleaning, drying, corking, tying down, stoppering, and unstoppering,’ as well as recipes for various cements, essays on the economy of heat, and exhaustive instructions on packing. With sparse illustrations, some of the descriptions are hard to grasp. Well might Bella Rokesmith feel exasperated in her studies:

The Complete British Housewife, however sound a Briton at heart, was by no means an expert Briton at expressing herself with clearness in the British tongue, and sometimes might have issued her directions to equal purpose in the Kamskatchan language. In any crisis of this nature, Bella would suddenly exclaim aloud, “Oh, you ridiculous old thing, what do you mean by that? You must have been drinking!” And having made this marginal note, would try the Housewife again, with all her dimples screwed into an expression of profound research.

However much Beeton claimed to ‘banish all terms of indecision from [the cook’s] art’, cookery books were often difficult to understand.

Bella’s struggles with the Complete British Housewife were familiar to new practictioners of the art of middle-class housekeeping. But Dickens puts an unfamiliar spin on Bella’s labours. We saw that she studies the manual ‘with all her dimples screwed into an expression of profound research,’ and with ‘elbows on the table and her temples in her hands, like some perplexed enchantress poring over the Black Art.’ The narrator stresses Bella’s attitudes. In other words, Bella is striking poses to empty rooms. And when she first puts on her trim wrappers, she also ‘[puts] back her hair with both hands, as if she were making the most business-like arrangements for going dramatically distracted.’ This is a theatrical reference: the high drama of domestic management must be acted out. Even Bella’s study of the book bears all the hallmarks of a grand dramatic performance (‘elbows on the table’ and a furrowed brow). Bella performs not only competence, but also frustration; her dishevelled locks are an act that unite her two identities (coquette and wife). Domestic management is a game (in a ‘dolls’ house’), but a game played as if it were deadly serious. Domestic tasks are performative, and Bella, while playing at housekeeping, educates herself in the mystical arts of household practice. In Our Mutual Friend, Dickens emphasised something new: that domestic management was not an innate skill, but a learnt one.


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Filed under Books, Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

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