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Caudles and Entremets

On housekeeping.


Between the beach plums and the rosa rugosa and autumn-yellowed grasses that line the winding path through the dunes, a red posted sign blocks the way. DANGER, it shouts in black capitals, HAZARDOUS STORM EROSION. KEEP OUT. Much of the beach has washed away, leaving sheer cliffs of dunes, and there was by some mismanagement no budget this year to dredge the ocean and rebuild it. Housekeeping is usually considered to be a matter of small hand tools rather than enormous machines of complex engineering, and to involve removing soil at intervals rather than putting it back. Nevertheless, this strikes me as a failure of housekeeping.

Housekeeping is, after all, the maintenance of the environment such that humans can not merely survive—although that too—but have a life, something more complete and sustained, richer with inward enjoyment and outward creativity. As Cheryl Mendelson puts the basic problem in Home Comforts, “Living in your home constantly uses up its good things—food, clean clothes, linens, shiny floors. Housekeeping routines provide for their continual renewal.”

The foundation, although not the height, of housekeeping is the ceaseless and cyclical battle against entropy, whether in the accretion of dust mites or the steady battering of the sea. Mendelson’s domestic bible for the modern home is an enormous doorstopper, an extended meditation on housekeeping by way of an exhaustive reference book and how-to guide. It was inspired by Mendelson’s own readings of housekeeping manuals, which she lists in an impressive index. A partial list includes The Virginia Housewife, A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, House and Home Papers, Motherly Talks with Young Housekeepers, American Woman’s Home, Cassell’s Book of the Household, The Complete Home.

There are few more enduringly popular forms of literature than the book of domestic advice. In the Western tradition, it dates back at least to the fourteenth century, when a Parisian merchant set out to write out a guide for his young wife and produced what is now known in translation as The Goodman of Paris (La Ménagier de Paris). The popularity of these manuals is slightly strange. It is a tired canard that housework offers no scope for human skill and ingenuity and is therefore unworthy as a subject of reflection. But it is true that housekeeping is intensely personal. As Marjorie Hillis puts it in Live Alone and Like It, a 1936 guide to housekeeping, and more broadly, life, for single women, “This is your house, and it’s probably the one place in the world where you can have things exactly as you please.” So why do we pay in money or time to hear someone else’s opinion of how things should be run?

After all, housekeeping, Hannah Arendt would say, is inherently private. All domestic matters, she proposed in The Human Condition, are the domain of necessity (what humans must do to form the basis of bare life) as well as secrecy (birth, death, love). They are thus irretrievably and simultaneously excluded and guarded from public relevance. But like everything else thus excluded and guarded, domestic matters are also, in her reckoning, the domain of charm.

And there is an enormous amount of charm in reading about housework. The vicarious enjoyment of quotidian pleasures and the subsequently renewed commitment to savoring the zest of life probably account for the allure of both Instagram cooking videos and my favorite section of The Goodman of Paris, wherein the good merchant helpfully and at great length sets forth sample menus for various types of feast and fast days:

To Make Four Dishes of Meat Jelly, take a pig and four calves feet and have chickens plucked and two thin young rabbits skinned, and you may cut away the fat, and let them be cut right along when they be raw, save the pig which is in gobbets, then put into a pan three quarts of white wine or clarry, a pint of vinegar, and half a pint of verjuice and boil and skim them well; then put therein a quarter of an ounce of saffron tied up in a little cloth to give it the color of amber, and boil meat and all together with a little salt; then take ten or twelve heads of white ginger, or five or six heads of galingale, half an ounce of grain of paradise, two or three pieces of mace leaf, two silver penniworths of zedoary; cubebs and nard three silver penniworths; bay leaves and six nutmegs; then bray them in a mortar and put them in a bag and set them to boil with the meat until it be cooked, then take it out and set it to dry on a clean cloth, then take the feet, groin, and ears for the best dish and all the rest for the others. Then take a fair towel on two treaties and pour all your caudle therein, save the spices, which you will take out, and set to strain for pottage, and do not move it.

I can never read this section without wanting to bustle down to my storeroom to look over my jellies and verjuices and my little cloths.

Or take Marjorie Hillis’s pronouncement on loungewear:

This is no place to be grim and practical. Don’t worry about whether your nightgowns will wear if you are sure that they will flatter. We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown, nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nighgown, well-cut and trailing. Next, of course, you’ll need negligees.

A certain baseline of material security is presumed throughout Live Alone and Like It—you have your own place, and the (carefully managed) disposable income for a few good nightgowns. Much of Hillis’s advice is attitudinal; and in instructing her single women to have the gumption and wit to make the most of their comforts, to burrow into and enjoy them, she lays them out for the readers’ delectation as well.

The Goodman of Paris is the project of a wealthy merchant who has taken a much younger wife; the mores that permit this also tell him not to expect too much from it—medievals seem in their own literature keenly aware that lusty young women want lusty young men, and if an older man manages to saddle a young wife with the bad end of the bargain, he cannot say he wasn’t warned about what usually happens next. Consequently, the goodman’s expectations are relatively moderate. He expects her to marry again after him, and to someone better suited to her station—in the meantime, he considers it his affair to school her untutored youth in hawking, in deportment, and in the three great duties of medieval wives: sexual irrefragability, submissive obedience, and the practical provision of creature comforts. The last seems by far the most important to him, which both softens his rather unsavory position and ensures that if you slog through all the exempla (practical illustrations of lessons taken largely from classical authors) you will be rewarded by calves’ jelly and clary sage. His exempla are in fact at times half-hearted: after expounding the revolting little fable of Patient Griselda, he adds that if the story seems—to paraphrase—completely nuts, it’s not his fault, because he must relay it as it was transmitted by the authorities (an echo of this reverence for the authorities comes alive again in Cheryl Mendelson, who warns us that we must eschew raw oysters, raw cookie dough, runny eggs, and rare steaks, per U.S.D.A. instructions). His practical advice never suffers from this type of ambivalence.

Ambivalence is not an affliction Marjorie Hillis suffers from either, as a general rule. Live Alone and Like It is for the single woman a guide to grabbing life by the collar and shaking some fun out of it. The single woman is a figure who requires less social explanation these days, but following the one-two punch of World War I’s decimation of the male population and women’s increasing entry into the workforce and urban rental market, she stood out enough to require special consideration. The book is a diamond of its era: liberated, but not so liberated you fall deficient in self-respect or canny refusal to let anyone make a fool out of you; snappy, full of the zippily mannered diction that makes P.G. Wodehouse and Preston Sturges a delight; pursuing above all else the virtues of moxie and verve and avoiding the deadly sins of self-seriousness, self-pity, and sloppiness. It is a paean to the female bachelor—the woman who, on her own, can assemble a good life of luxuriant, well-modulated pleasures and humane pursuits. In practical terms, it seems that even for bachelors, the home is the heart of the good life: this is where Hillis lavishes the majority of her advice (the bar, the bedroom, the decor, the dinners, the entertaining). The home is where you establish and maintain your own standard of living and the powerhouse of the personality which you present to the world.

That both of these books consider a kind of total orientation in the world a fit subject for housekeeping advice is perhaps a hint that the domestic and public are not as inherently or as neatly compartmentalized as Arendt’s Athenians would have it. In a similar vein, Home Comforts is a legal book almost as much as anything else, detailing the various ways the arm of the law extends into the private home, delimiting allowable defense and assigning liability. (Mendelson, wretched overachiever, is a lawyer, as well as an erstwhile philosophy professor, novelist, and expert maker-up of hospital corners. At one point, she illustrates the emotional fraughtness of housekeeping by recounting the hostility of other mothers when she turned her child out in a hand-sewn Halloween costume. That anecdote may have less to do with housekeeping per se than she thinks). But it is also, in its own way, a political book.

In the chapter on domestic help, Mendelson writes, “Remember the difference between authority and rank. You are the boss but you are not a feudal lord. You need not feel guilty about asking someone to work on the mold on the bathroom tile. However, although some wealthy households still require domestic employees to enter through the back door or a special service entrance, this all seems a bit un-American. . . . They need not ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ you unless you are going to ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ them, and if you call them by their first names you must be sure to let them use yours too.” Here she echoes Hillis, who writes that the basis for domestic concord with a maid is to treat the relationship as one between two working women. Contrast this with The Goodman of Paris, in whose feudal structure the good wife rules her servants as she is ruled by her husband, with a mandate to govern their manners and morals in every particular.

Housekeeping is inevitably in some way political because it deals to some unavoidable degree with relations between people. The Athenian household of Arendt’s reference point is passively, negatively political: its slaves and women support the public man by their labor and are ruled by him upon his return from the public world. The bourgeois household of The Goodman of Paris is structured by its surrounding feudal society: the household is both a complete feudal society in itself and the smallest nesting doll in a succession of political orders, of ruler and ruled, that reaches all the way up to the cosmos. The goodman’s household is both positively political and entrenchedly unequal. Hillis’s lady bachelor pad has all the apolitical privacy of the Athenian house; it is not a complete microcosm of any political order. But both the lady of the house and the domestic servants are, in theory if not practice (at the time of publication, Hillis’s presumptively white female audience had the vote, while for black women it was at the very least more complicated) free to enter the public sphere as they please.

Mendelson’s vision of housekeeping is an attempt to unite all three models. The home of Home Comforts is both a microcosm, a small self-contained society, and a retreat of privacy, all structured by the larger matrix of American egalitarianism. The home, in Mendelson’s post-feminist reimagining, is where the housekeeper is both servant and ruler: drudge against the assaults of entropy, decider of the shape of life and keeper of its orderly functioning and right relations.

The key to Mendelson’s political project lies at the beginning of her chapter on domestic help:

The best kinds of domesticity are self-sustaining. Households of a size and nature that can be kept up by those who live in them are the most homelike, and housework in itself is physically and emotionally pleasant and restorative. Housekeeping with heavy reliance on domestic employees is not—and never has been—a system that works well. Your own housework can be a joy to you because of the way it is integrated into your life and because of your intense identification with your home and its contents. It does not feel the same to the hired worker.

The best housekeeping creates a society that does not offload its own reproduction onto a subject class. It is the school for a kind of democracy that can include both women and workers. The best housekeeping, for Mendelson (and the best democracy, we can infer), occurs when housekeeping skills are visible, honored, and widespread.

Beyond the scope of Mendelson’s project, but a necessary supplement to it, is the question of how to labor in the home without becoming a de facto subject class—how to enjoy the good wife’s caudles and entremets without being practically excluded from Arendt’s public sphere or from Hillis’s sparky individuality and thriving personal domestic ownership. It is not a question that can ever be settled once and for all by making some types of work the lodestar and leaving domesticity to whoever is left holding the bag. Housework will always be with us. The nature of housework, the shape of economic production, the relationship between public and private, and the political role of the home will always be subject to change—and so too will the political questions of its just apportionment. Luckily, for those of us who like to retire to bed with manuals on storing jellied eels or buying French Vermouth, this probably means that as long as new social conditions arise to produce them, domestic advice manuals aren’t going anywhere either.

Clare Coffey’s work has appeared in The Outline, Plough, and many other publications.