I seem to have gone mildly domestic on theme this week so it's time to wheel on What Diantha Did by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.Less well-known than The Yellow Wallpaper perhaps but equally radical and unsual for its content.
Here's an extract from the introduction.
"First published serially in Gilman's magazine the Forerunner in 1909-10,the novel tells the story of Diantha Bell, a young woman who leaves her home and her fiancé to start a housecleaning business. A resourceful heroine, Diantha quickly expands her business into an enterprise that includes a maid service, cooked food delivery service, restaurant, and hotel. By assigning a cash value to women's "invisible" work, providing a means for the well-being and moral uplift of working girls, and releasing middle- and leisure-class women from the burden of conventional domestic chores, Diantha proves to her family and community the benefits of professionalized housekeeping".
You can still get this book free and in serial form delivered by e mail to your inbox from the excellent Mousehold Words.
What a radical book this must have been in the U.S. in 1910.The vexing question of servants was troubling many households, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hire and retain competent servants and many women were struggling with the burden of running their own homes.
Gilman delineates one such woman Isabel Porne, (this name will only just scrape through my list of banned words on here in an effort to avoid some recent spamming) who prior to her marriage had been a successful architect and since marriage and the birth of their first child was trying to run her business from home.
As the pressure mounts Isabel finds herself lying in bed worrying obsessively.
"she was thinking persistently of dust...two days dust at least...dust in the dining room gathered since yesterday - the dust in the kitchen - the dust of eight days in her great, light workroom. Eight days since she had found time to go up there"
Even worse I'm sure we'd all agree
" she turned to the parlour - no the piano keys were gritty, one had to clean them twice a day to keep that room as she liked it"
I suspect Isabel was just a few steps removed from the plight of the nameless woman in The Yellow Wallpaper. The frustrations of her balancing act are evident as Isabel's anger overflows
"I'm glad to be a mother to his child! I'm glad I married him! But - this is not what he offered! And it's not what I undertook! He hasn't had to change his business!"
Her cynicism rages
" 'Do you love me?' They ask, and 'I will make you happy!' they say; and you get married- and after that it's housework."
However salvation is on hand as Diantha Bell knocks on her door.
As Charlotte Rice argues in the wonderful introduction to this edition, Diantha is Gilman's mouthpiece in the book and through her she presents many of her ideas for the reformation of the whole 'servant question'.
They are to be employees, with rights and contracts, they will be educated and trained to work efficiently, and quite radically Gilman proposes a co-operative approach to the work including what must be one of the earliest 'meals-on wheels' and homecare services for the disabled ever portrayed in fiction.
There is also much to admire in the detail.Gilman presents an impressive monetary account of the cost of a daughter's work within her family, (with apologies to Offspringette, this might just work in reverse nowadays) work done for no money and balanced against the cost of raising her and the daughter emerges in credit, leaving her father speechless one suspects with admiration as much as anything. It is this financial acumen Diantha takes into her business.
Thought provoking reading within the context of its times and a book that deserves to be better known, and good companion reads?
Well The Homemaker by Dorothy Canfield for one but next up House-Bound by Winifred Peck which might as well round off my unexpected week of virtual but not actual domesticity tomorrow.