Wednesday, 5 November 2014

'The Home-Maker' - by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

The latest in the Persephone Classics series is this new edition of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s 1924 novel The Home-Maker. Originally published many years ago as one of the very first Persephone books, it’s easy to see why the London-based independent publisher chose to reprint this forgotten book about the emotional turmoil of an unhappy married couple finding comfort when they swap their traditional gender roles.

The Home-Maker is instantly absorbing and quick to read, yet an intricately clever book in the tools that Dorothy uses to draw the reader in. Divided into three parts (before, during and after husband Lester’s ‘accident’), the book also devotes different chapters to different character’s voices, giving a great insight into the plot and dilemma from a whole range of sides.

The book opens on housewife Eva furiously scrubbing her floors after one of her young children has accidentally spilled some food grease. Eva’s home is immaculate and symptomatic of everything in her life: ordered, neat, controlled. Frustrated by the cards life has dealt her, Eva aims for perfection from her children and constantly chides them, while refraining from scolding her disappointing husband Lester for fear they might think less of him. But of course, the result is that her children are terrified of her and her husband is an emasculated wreck. The Home-Maker is a story of standards that must be upheld, a story of the fear about what the neighbours will think.

What particularly interested me, though, was Lester’s story. He’s a man struggling to conceal his depression from his family and employers. Shrunken by missed opportunities in life, a soul-destroying job and a wife he has disappointed, Lester feels he contributes nothing. So much so that he is driven to contemplate suicide not once but twice. Yet this enormous crisis in his life is not dwelled upon in Dorothy’s novel, which I found really shocking, but also reflective of the way in which mental health issues are still brushed aside as uncomfortable topics. Lester was the character I empathised with and who I wanted to see receive some help or comfort, yet instead he was caught in a long string of desperate deception.

The Home-Maker, despite its portrayal of a proud family built on the concept of perfection and solidity, actually reveals a delicate family struggling to stay together behind a mask of lies and unhappiness. It’s a profoundly sad book in that the only way for Eva, Lester and the children to remain happy is for them to live a life of deceit and sickness. Yet this reflects just how awful the stigma was less than a century ago for a wife to be the breadwinner while the husband stays at home to bring up the children.

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