Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Learning life lessons from our foremothers



As a side effect of Cameron’s odious cupcake culture and his desire to drive liberated women back to the domestic prisons of the ‘50s, the giftbook market has become saturated with quaintly packaged reprints of ye olde manuals for new brides.

But apart from tittering at the preposterous suggestions for deterring your husband from making advances (lie silently in the dark so that he can’t find you), and going cross-eyed at what a miserable time women are portrayed as having in days of yore, is there anything useful we can learn from our foremothers?

Four weeks from my own wedding, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few of these tomes, plus some delightfully dated cookbooks. So I decided to take a closer look at them and see if there was some accumulated wisdom to inherit, tucked away between the pages about skinning a rabbit or turning the mattresses over weekly.

So let’s start at the beginning. Or, 1861 to be precise, the date of the oldest book on my shelf. Mrs Beeton’s Household Management (Wordsworth Reference, £3.99) has 1,120 pages crammed with 2,751 entries covering everything from childbirth to poison and how to cure apoplexy (“the strong kind”), and not ignoring domestic abuse. By the by, the recipe layout we now know (where the ingredients are listed at the start of each recipe) was apparently pioneered in Beeton’s book.

Moving on… Sex Tips for Husbands and Wives from 1894 (Summersdale, £4.99), is by vicar’s wife Ruth Smythers. Let there be no doubt: she does not want new brides to be getting up to mischief with their “lascivious” husbands. With a fresh look for 2011, this is one self-help book that won’t be of help to anyone… although it’s ideal for poking fun at on your hen night. (“While sex is at best revolting, and at worse rather painful, it has to be endured.”)

Fast forward to 1934, and let me introduce you to The Country Housewife’s Book, by Lucy H Yates (Persephone Books, £12). This no-nonsense tome is for the country wife who is busy gathering crops in order to ensure her dishes are seasonal. Which is terribly fashionable now, of course. The recipes themselves (stewed lettuce, pigeon pie, mushroom ketchup) may not seem the most tempting, nor the ‘hobbies’ (dressing rabbit skins, using fowl feathers) the most appealing, but Yates’ book is beautifully put together, as Persephone reprints always are, with delightful illustrations by Mary Gardiner.


Heading out of the country and back into the city, and in 1936 there were two small but deadly books called How to Be a Good Wife, and How to Be a Good Husband (Bodleian Library, £4.99 each). Decorated with smart drawings from the Army & Navy’s clothing catalogues from the same era, these tomes are surprisingly forward thinking in some respects. For instance, wives are told to ensure their sons respect girls and women from day one: “Do from the earliest years, teach the boys to pay every respect to women, not forgetting their sisters. The boy who is so brought up will find himself welcome and at ease in any class of society.” Yet on the other hand, wives are reminded that they must be permanently presentable, otherwise they only have themselves to blame if hubby has his head turned by his secretary. 

When the tables are turned, men are advised that to be a good husband they must never be “like a bear with a sore head when your wife’s mother arrives”, but also to “cultivate the habit of coming down to breakfast with a smile”. So, despite the bluntness of the wiles women must employ to ensure her man doesn’t stray, at least there’s a hint of equality in the kindness and manners each must show the other. Not that it should need spelling out! More importantly, the husband is reminded: “Your wife will probably have ideas of her own.” Yes, she will.

Hopping on to 1949 and Kay Smallshaw’s How To Run Your Home Without Help (Persephone, £12). Aimed at the post-war wife who is setting up home sans the servants who helped her mother, Smallshaw’s wife is presumed to know nothing and told the hard facts straight. Filled with briskly British maxims, Smallshaw issues plenty of bright-side statements such as: “Bedmaking can be quite a pleasant interlude from the dusting and sweeping. Also it has the advantage of stretching the muscles without undue exertion.” “With more housework to do, cooking must be as simple as possible, so choose a steamed meal.” What-ho! Not to mention one-and-a-half pages devoted to instructions for washing up efficiently. Further chapters advise on “entertaining with enjoyment”, and encouraging your husband to peel the vegetables at the weekends.

Taken with a pinch of salt, as a fledgling bride with no domestic skills whatsoever, I have to say I found a lot of useful information tucked away in How To Run Your Home Without Help… seriously.


In 1969, Mary Berry presented The Bride’s Cookbook (Conde Nast, out of print), complete with deliciously psychedelic cover and title pages (above). There’s no beating about the bush here, and Berry begins by saying: “Remember that a great deal of your time will be spent in the kitchen so make it an easy and pleasant place to be”… making mealtimes sound like a prison sentence. Berry tells the new bride how to plan her food shopping, make a good pot of tea, and prepare a “tropical pineapple tower” for a party. The Bride’s Cookbook is a beautiful history lesson into not only the tired gender attitudes still prevailing on the cusp of the ‘70s, but also into the foul-sounding dishes couples were expected to consume (spice tongue with raisin sauce, frankfurters with eggs).

However, as with the other books, the most revealing bit is the thin section devoted to ‘Man in the Kitchen’… where Berry advises it is best to get your husband used to helping out as soon as possible, otherwise there’s no hope. And of educating him about the best way to do the weekly shop, before he stops off at the Spotted Dog for a pint. “The husband should be provided with clearly written instructions as to the quantity and description of the goods required. Until he is experienced, the simple words ‘cheese’, ‘bacon’, ‘biscuits’ will not suffice.”

Finally, bringing us pretty much up to date is Anthea Turner, whose book How To Be The Perfect Housewife (Virgin Books, £12.99) accompanied a BBC3 series of the same name in 2007. The most alarming thing to notice about Anthea's book is that being so recently published means it cannot be viewed as quaintly historical or dated... in fact, this must be how Anthea maintains women in the 21st Century should behave! Much of the information she provides is the same as in the books already mentioned (the book is even subtitled "Lessons in the art of modern household management" in a nod to Mrs Beeton). With a few nods to contemporary life in the form of sections about how to run your home office, and some more appealing sounding recipes than in previous books (baked pears with honey and almonds, yum). 


There's a fair deal of useful information in Anthea's book (the art of ironing a shirt, of stain removal, or planning the perfect dinner party etc), but it's wrapped up in a fairly sugar-coated manner that implies Anthea possibly has more time on her hands than the average housewife, who - after juggling her job, children and social life - may not have time to disinfect her dustbins every week, or to make her own furniture polish.
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So, what did I learn from these books? Well, while Smythers' book is clearly dated in terms of how most women view sex, the other books above (tone and language aside) don’t seem so dated in spirit. A book published now would be rightly ridiculed if it tried to tell brides their place was in the kitchen, looking permanently beautiful, while effortlessly whipping up three course meals. But the popularity of cupcake culture and the growing rise of cookery TV shows (Berry is currently a hit on BBC’s The Great British Bake Off) proves there is both a media drive to promote the Cameronification of old-fashioned domesticity, and a public willingness to lap it up.

I’m not for a moment saying you can’t enjoy cooking while also being a successful woman, but the messages coming loud and clear from the books mentioned here is that you are a wife first and a woman second… which sadly doesn’t seem a million miles from the Big Society push to drive women back into the home, and keep them there.

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if it's a good sign that these books are being republished: they work commercially because the sexist attitudes they contain are now considered quaint and amusing. In other words, they wouldn't sell if the publishers weren't confident that most people would laugh at the authors.

    While it's a good thing that a woman can say, "Just because I'm a feminist doesn't mean I can't enjoy cooking for my husband," (as long as it's a choice, not a duty), the Anthea Turner book suggests that there's another trend: women who believe that none of the victories of feminism post-1970 were worth winning.

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