Have I put in a recommendation yet for Home Comforts? This book was written ten years ago by a lawyer and professor who secretly enjoyed keeping house enough to write the first single-author housekeeping manual (and an 800+ page one, at that) in 100 years or so. It is fascinating. At first I confess I was put off by the tone; sometimes it sounds as if the author is trying to evoke the housekeeping manuals written 100-200 years ago. You know how the Victorians sometimes reviewed an obvious point several times in different words. She goes off on philosophical tangents (or so they seemed to me) of why to dress the table with linens rather than leaving it bare, for example. I read what I could of it the first time (I have been checking it out from the library) skipping over those tiresome parts. But now I have it again, and I am actually enjoying some of the more philosophical commentary. I read in some of the post-release interviews that the author was disappointed by the way people received the book as an offense to their intelligence–as if it were about how everyone should clean or set their tables. But the book is clearly about homemaking, about why it is so important to families and even to society that people learn to keep house well. It mixes a bit of philosophy in with a LOT of useful information; above all it is thorough and answers just about any housekeeping question I have in a day.

An excerpt from the introduction:

To the contemporary mind, the idea that happiness depends on good housekeeping might seem quaint or odd. A century or two ago, and in fact until the past few decades, it was taken for granted, and the quality of housekeeping was not beneath the attention of such great novelists as Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy. Several of Charles Dickens’s novels present an interesting variation on the whore/virgin theme when they contrast good housekeepers, who are lavished with praise, and bad housekeepers, who are described with appalled fascination. David Copperfield’s first wife, Dora, who ties a basket of housekeeping keys to her waist in a childish imitation of real housekeeping, all but wrecks their marriage through her infantile incompetence. And though David realizes that he must forgive and love her anyway, Dickens helpfully kills her off and remarries David to Agnes, a genius of a housekeeper who even in childhood brought order and cheer wherever she went with her own little basket of housekeeping keys. In Bleak House, the horrible Mrs. Jellyby serenely abandons her family to domestic squalor and confusion while she attends instead to charitable enterprises serving people a continent away. In contrast, Esther Summerson trips about creating comfort and order to the merry jingle of her little basket of housekeeping keys, and her guardian proves his good sense by appointing her his housekeeper within hours of meeting her.
. . .
Much housework is discretionary, but not all housework is. Minimum standards of cleanliness and order are inescapable necessities for health and happiness. It is up to each of us how to choose the dimensions of “necessary” in our own case. If this means that we can jettison without guilt a mother’s or grandmother’s idea of adequate dusting, it also means, on the other hand, that we still have to figure out just how much dusting represents the rational compromise between health and comfort and available time and resources. It is as true as ever that a dusty home is unpleasant and unhealthy to live in.

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