The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher is a unique book; intelligent, thoughtful, and beautifully written. The author is probably better known for her children’s book, Understood Betsy (1916), a story that demonstrates her knowledge and understanding of children, so it’s not surprising that The Home-Maker also explores this aspect, delving even more deeply into the needs of children and the importance of the home atmosphere.
It has been described as a feminist novel as the mother gets the chance to follow a career rather than be confined at home doing work that frustrates her no end, but the author told her publisher that the book ‘should be taken as a whoop not for “women’s rights” but for “children’s rights.”’
Dorothy Canfield Fisher examines the roles of mothers and fathers in a small American town setting with a great deal of sympathy. Eva, the mother in the story, is a vigorous and highly capable woman, a perfectionist, who feels thwarted by the never ending duties of her household. She loves her children but is so caught up in the minutiae of everyday life that she has no time to enjoy or understand them. Lester, her husband, is a poet and a thinker whose workplace is a misery to him. He has no time for the thought life he needs and hates the materialistic focus of his work. They are both frustrated by his inability to advance and bring home a decent wage.
The real strength of this book comes from the author’s perception of the inner worlds of the couple’s three children, Helen, Henry, and Stephen. I think a book from a purely feminist point of view would have made Eva’s predicament the primary focus but everything that happens in the story is filtered through the children and their needs. Even the father and mother grapple with what is best not just for themselves but for their children.
Lester felt that his employer was exploiting the home-maker by hammering the idea that it was all about good furniture, fine table linen, expensive rugs and well-made clothes. This conspiracy to force women into the slavery of possessions sickened him:
'...how about keeping alive some intellectual or spiritual passion in the home? How about the children? Did anybody suggest to women that they give to understanding their children a tenth part of the time and real intelligence and real purposefulness they put into getting the right clothes for them?'
When Lester has an accident that almost kills him and is left crippled and confined to a wheelchair, Eva goes out to work while he stays home and they both find great satisfaction and purpose in their new roles.
After a period of time Lester begins to have signs that signal his recovery. He keeps this to himself and considers the future, feeling that Tradition was against him. The Tradition that said:
'...men are in the world to get possessions, to create material things, to sell them, to buy them, to transport them, above all to stimulate to fever-heat the desire for them. It decreed that men are of worth in so far as they achieve that sort of material success, and worthless if they do not.’
He wonders how they could work around this problem:
'Would it be possible for both of them to work, he and Eva? Other parents did sometimes. The idea was that with the extra money you made you hired somebody to take care of the children. If before us accident anyone had dreamed of Eva’s natural gift for business, he would have thought the plan an excellent one. But it was only since his accident that he had had the faintest conception of what ‘caring for the children’ might mean. Now, that he had lived with the children, now that he had seen how it took all of his attention to make even a beginning of understanding them, how it took all of his intelligence and love to try to give them what they needed spiritually and mentally...no!
You could perhaps, if you were very lucky - though it was unlikely in the extreme - it was conceivable that by paying a high cash price you might be able to hire a little intelligence, enough intelligence to give them good material care. But you could never hire intelligence sharpened by love. In other words you could not hire a parent. And children without parents were orphans.
'...You can’t ‘hire’ somebody to be a parent for your children!’ he thought again, passionately. They are born into the world asking you for bread. If you give them a stone, it we’re better for you that that stone were hanged about your neck and cast into the sea.'
The more he was immersed in the care of his children and the running of the home, the more aware he became of society’s lack of respect for that unpaid work.
'Why, the frantic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the home. The only women who were paid, either in human respect or in money, were women who gave up their traditional job of creating harmony out of human relationships, and did something really useful, bought or sold or created material objects.'
The Home-Maker is a timeless gem of a book. The issues the author tackled in 1924 are still relevant. We hear so often that we can ‘have it all’ in the context of career and children but this story questions that notion. Rush and hurry, timetables and rigid schedules, can be obstacles to communication and understanding, as is so poignantly shown when Lester discovers the reason for his youngest son’s savage behaviour.
How’s this for a description of the angry little boy?
‘He...sat...dry-eyed, scowling, a magnificent sulphurous conflagration of Prometheus flames blazing in his little heart.’
Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote from her own experience in this area. Her husband, John Fisher, volunteered in the Ambulance Service in Paris during the First World and afterwards was physically immobilised for some time, losing status and opportunities for advancement. At the same time Dorothy’s writing gained a large audience and invitations to speak around the country. John supported her role as the celebrity and breadwinner while finding ways to express his own interests and skills.
Dorothy believed that whatever the convictions or fashions of society, if a man and woman are able to construct with their children a life in common which keeps them reasonably happy, healthy, good and strong, with a permanent affection for each other, then they have made a successful marriage, no matter what pattern it might take.
Persephone Books is one of my favourite publishers. I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover and the Persephone covers are definitely attractive!
The Home-Maker is my choice of a book in the Classic From the Americas or Carribean category for the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge @ Books&Chocolate.