The Emotional Labour of Women

I recently read an article about how men have finally discovered the hidden labour of childcare and household concerns that women have been doing for decades or even centuries (alongside the workplace). I’m tempted to argue that it is nothing new: divorced fathers discover it when they share custody and no longer have the luxury of being purely ‘fun Dad’ and asking their partner what their child likes to eat or when parents’ evening is. Of course, there have been many fictional depictions of the chaos of motherhood that fathers could have referred to, but I suppose there is a difference between reading about it (and many would perhaps not choose to read about it) and actually experiencing it for yourself.

Two of those depictions I coincidentally read this February half-term, which was actually more peaceful than many others because: a) we couldn’t go away anywhere; b) although I was working full-time, the boys didn’t have to sit glued to their computer screen for home schooling purposes many hours every day, which makes them restless and grumpy. So, instead, they learnt ‘life skills’ such as cooking, laundry and cleaning.

Marian Engel: Lunatic Villas (February in Canada read), 1981.

Harriet Ross is a divorced single mother, a freelance writer with a weekly column entitled, appropriately enough, ‘Depressed Housewife’. She lives in a Toronto street that has been gentrified, but her own townhouse is a bit ramshackle, as it has become the refuge for a ragtag assortment of children and teenagers (some of them her own, some of them fostered for various reasons), depressed sisters, random old ladies, eccentric neighbours, spiteful ex-husband and his new crusading wife and so on.

While each of the people in her life seem to have problems and demand something from her, although she is being pulled in all directions and can hardly hear herself think at times, Harriet shows a generosity of spirit that is finally somewhat rewarded when she herself falls ill and the neighbours all pitch in to help her.

For all the grim realities depicted (alcoholism, drug-taking, child abuse, mental illness, manipulation, family courts), there is a certain joyfulness in the chaos depicted here, and a lot of solidarity amidst all the abandonment and betrayal. But there is no sugarcoating of the difficulties of being the lynchpin of a family:

Mornings are precious new beginnings, every day a chance to exorcise yesterday’s and before yesterday’s sins: mostly. Harriet begins her day very carefully, without shaking it hard enough to break the thin film of semi-consciousness that keeps her close to her dreams. She scoots downstairs as soon as the alarm goes off, puts the kettle on, collects the paper: and this year, the first in fourteen, takes the coffee and the paper upsatirs again with her, the better to protect herself from reality. They are really better off without her in the morning, the mob, and as long as there are milk and sugar and bowl and spooons and four kinds of cereal on the table they consider themselves looked after. Then, in bed, pretending to read the paper that is in fact reading her, she counts flushes, scrapes, shouts, clouts, hears Sim’s gruff ‘Get on with it, you guys,’ before his great thumping exit and slam; Melanie’s ‘Pervert’ to Mick’s ‘Slut’ and the resulting clashing of spoons; piggish little snorts from the twins; Sidonia, late and serene, descending the stairs like a queen… ‘Ma, where’s my…?’ can be dealt with more easily from upstairs.

Not all of the scenes are from Harriet’s point of view, and we get many different perspectives on her household, but also on life more generally, including this delicious rant about marraige by neighbour and friend Marshallene:

Marriage is a state for which I am sublimely unsuited. I dislike housework of all kinds and am well known for scorning the culinary arts. Little dinner parties make me want to get drunk and little black dresses make me want to stuff myself and burst out of them. I am capable of walking around a vacuum cleaner left prominently in the middle of the hall floor for a week. I am past child-bearing… I am no help and no comfort to anyone. I am a writer and writers are notoriously self-centred. I do not have to look at the outside world to find my material, nor do I need to live out someone else’s life to survive…

Although the narrative gets messy and bewildering in parts (no doubt reflecting the messiness of Harriet’s life), it is a warm-hearted, often very funny book, completely unsentimental about families and friendships, very clear-eyed about the often contradictory feelings in our bosom. A slice of life which reminded me of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn, 1958.

Marian Engel’s novel portrays urban life in Canada in the late 1970s, but Fremlin’s novel takes us to London two decades earlier. With much younger children to cope with (only three instead of seven, but one of them a baby), Fremlin’s Louise is a stay at home mother, but just like Harriet, she cannot count on anyone else to help her.

Her husband is the breadwinner and expects some peace and quiet when he comes home, but, with a baby that refuses to sleep at night, Louise is completely exhausted and overwhelmed, and gradually losing her grip on reality.

This is a much tighter, well-paced book, with a very clear narrative arc. Fremlin initially doesn’t put a foot wrong in depicting the frustrations of a well-educated woman trying to be reasonable, yet feeling increasingly out of her depth. When the schoolteacher Miss Brandon moves in as a lodger, Louise initially feels judged, but then gets increasingly suspicious about this mysterious guest and her motivations. Every turn of the screw, we as readers get more anxious and suspicious as well, although we realise that Louise’s sleeplessness makes her a less than reliable witness. The only fault of the novel is that the reveal through the use of diaries does feel rather Victorian. Overall, however, there is a very grown-up, knowing and ironical tone which I find sadly missing from most of the psychological thrillers being published today.

Bother! All the eggs would be hard by now, and Margery was the only one who liked them hard. Harriet liked hers soft, and Mark liked his very soft. As to Louise herself, she had long forgotten which way she liked them. It made the housekeeping that much easier if there was one person out of the five whose tastes didn’t have to be considered. To neglect one’s own tastes was more labour-saving than any vacuum cleaner, and it was a form of neglect about which no one would call you to account.

Although the author is at pains to point out that she didn’t mean to portray the husband as a monster and that expectations were probably different back in the days when she wrote the book, she also makes the very acute observation in the preface:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Which. brings me back to the article with which I started this book, in which fathers say that they did enjoy getting to know their children better but that it also is incredibly hard work, and that they are starting to experience some of the guilt that mothers feel about never quite doing or being enough in all areas of their life. Will the concept of fatherhood and fairer distribution of household labour really change permanently, as the article asks somewhat optimistically? Or will it be more similar to my experience, when any complaints about labour not equally shared, were met with: ‘well, get a cleaner or a nanny’? (Which might make you wonder if this is more of a middle class problem, except I remember my working class and rural relatives behaving the same… and the extended family coming to the rescue in those instances.)

February in Canada: A Love Story with a Difference – Bear

Marian Engel: Bear, 1976.

My impression of the 1970s is that they must all have been on drugs for most of the decade – and the films, books and music of that period (perhaps starting a couple of years earlier, from about 1967-68) have that same dreamy, occasionally frenzied and lurid quality to them. At the same time, it must have been an exciting time of questioning, rebelling, reassessing and ‘finding your true self’. Even if the wins of that generation ended up being transient and often illusory.

I can’t help feeling that, in some respects, we have regressed as a culture in the 2010s, i.e. that there is less of a willingness to explore and push boundaries, that it’s all about bestseller lists and celebrities. This is all by way of introducing the novel Bear by Marian Engel, which has been described as ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada’, although at the time it was generally well received by critics and even won the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. Let’s not be coy about it: it is about a woman who develops a passion for a captive bear, and this passion includes quite explicit sex. What surprised me, however, is how much more shocked readers seem to be about this now, in an age when the worst kind of pornography is readily available to all.

Are we in danger of focusing so much on the bestiality aspect of the book that we miss what it is about entirely? Given the vigorous over-reactions, I was expecting something a lot more titillating, but the sex scenes constitute a very small part of the novel. Failing that, I expected it to be a much more surreal type of novel, full of heavy symbolism. It is in fact quite a straightforward narrative, although it does have a fable-like quality about it.

It is actually a novel about loneliness, about feeling alienated from the world, about being a woman in a world where men and career paths and options have proved disappointing. Lou is an introverted librarian in her late 20s who is sent on a mission to assess the estate bequeathed to her institute by the last of the Cary family, an oddly luxurious house with no indoor toilet on a small island on a lake in the remotest reaches of Ontario.

For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclsuion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.

Spending time by herself in this house which seems strangely incongrous with the surrounding landscape, Lou tries to reconcile the rather conventional library of 19th century classics with the bear that ‘has always been there’ on the grounds, captive, yet obviously important somehow to the family. Notes about bear myths and legends fall out of books as she catalogues them. She discovers documents by and about the early settlers in that region, documents which are sometimes at odds with the official history of Canada.

The ones who were most truly romantic perished horribly… Fell through the ice, contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis, died of strange fevers, scurvy, depression, or neglect. Only the hardies survived and their few memoirs. Often the diaires that were left to the Institute broke off when the settlers arrived from England. If you were building your own cabin, making your own cloth and soap and candles, furniture and tools, there was no time to concoct a bottle of ink or find a quill to use it with.

Although she can buy food from the shop on the mainland, in some ways Lou is imitating the lifestyle of those early settlers. Her few interactions with the people in the area prove rather unsatisfactory and leave her feeling more alone than when she is by herself in the house, or swimming in the lake with the bear. It is the bear who provides uncritical companionship.

She loved him with a clean passion that she had never felt before. Once, briefly, she had had as a lover a man of elegance and charm, but she had felt uncomfortable when he said he loved her, felt it meant something she did not understand, and indeed, it meant, she discovered, that he loved her as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand… She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.

This is much more a novel about trying to find a sense of purpose, agency and yes, perhaps reconnect with nature. It reminds me a lot of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, with its close observation of the rhythms of nature and with no anthropomorphising of the animal. What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is – a bent towards self-destruction that I have never understood, but which many people seem to experience at some point in their lives.

So, while I’m not sure if this is the greatest Canadian novel of all time (I haven’t read enough Canadian literature to make an informed decision about this), it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing. I am glad this novel has been rediscovered and I hope that it won’t be read and discussed for all the wrong reasons.

I have two more books by Marian Engel on my shelf – I found all three of them second-hand at a bookshop a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist buying all three. The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas seem to feature older female protagonists in urban environments, tied down by marriage and children, trying in vain to recreate something of their past glory and hopes and dreams. Ah, my perfect cup of tea, then! I might continue with one of them for my February in Canada month…

Holiday Book Haul

I had to pay a rather absurd amount for overweight luggage, although it was only my suitcase that was 4 kilos overweight, my older son’s suitcase was 4 kilos underweight and my younger son had no suitcase at all. What can I say except: don’t fly TAROM, as they clearly try to rip you off. So what was in my luggage? Of course all the Romanian delicacies that I miss so much when I am back in England: wine, homemade jam and honey, herbs and tea leaves from my mother’s garden, quinces (shame I cannot bring the tasty organic vegetables or cheese or endless array of milk products – kefir, sana, drinkable yoghurt, buttermilk etc.).
And, naturally, I had to bring back some Romanian books and DVDs. Romanian cinema is not very well known but highly respected in a small niche community. I got a recent film Child’s Pose, winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2013, which covers pretty much all the topics that interest me: domineering mothers, generational and class conflict, as well as corruption in present-day Romania. I also got two older films from the 1960s by one of the best Romanian directors, Lucian Pintilie: The Forest of the Hanged based on one of my favourite Romanian novels, and The Reconstruction. The latter was named ‘the best Romanian film of all time’ by the Romanian film critics’ association, although it was forbidden during the Communist period because it turned out to be too much of a commentary on the viciousness of an abusive, authoritarian society.
There are many beautiful bookshops in Romania nowadays, although not all of my pictures came out well. I certainly lived up to my reputation of not being able to enter any bookshop without buying something! Among the things I bought are Fram and Apolodor, a polar bear and a penguin homesick for their native lands, two children’s books I used to adore and which I am very keen to translate into English and promote for the BookTrust reading scheme for diverse children’s literature In Other Words
I succumbed to the lovely hardback edition of Mihail Sebastian’s diary from 1935 to 1944, such a crucial (and sad) time in Romanian history, especially from a Jewish point of view. I got two titles, both family sagas, by female authors that I already know and admire: Ileana Vulpescu and Hortensia Papadat-Bengescu (the latter is sort of our national Virginia Woolf, although not quite as experimental, but she nevertheless dragged Romanian literature into modernity).
Brasov Bookshop 1
I also bought some new contemporary writers to try out: Radu Pavel Gheo –  Good Night, Kids about emigration and coming back to the ‘home country’, Lavinia Braniste – Internal Zero, a book about young single women in Romania today, Ioana Parvulescu – Life Starts on a Friday, a historical crime novel or time-travelling story. Last but not least, I sneaked back one of my favourite books from my childhood Follow the Footprints by William Mayne. Nobody else seems to have heard of this book or this writer, although he has been described as one of the ‘outstanding and most original children’s authors of the 20th century’. Sadly, in googling him, I discover that he was also imprisoned for two years in 2004 for sexually abusing young girl fans, so that leaves a bitter taste in my fond childhood memory.
Brasov Bookshop 2
While in Romania, I received a fairly large pile of books back home in the UK to my cat sitter’s surprise, some for review, some I’d previously ordered. So here are the things which came thudding through my letter-box.
I went on a bit of a Murakami Haruki binge following the reading of Killing Commendatore. I suppose because the book was enjoyable but not his best work, I wanted to get my hands on some of my favourites by him that I did not yet own: The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleSputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun. Unrelated, and possibly as a result of some Twitter discussion, I went on a Marian Engel binge – a Canadian author I had heard of, but never read. I had to search hard in second-hand stores but found The Honeyman Festival, Lunatic Villas and Bear (I had heard about this last one, the love story between a woman and a bear, and it sounds absolutely bonkers). Meanwhile, I decided I needed to up my game with Chinese women authors, so I bought two Shanghai-based stories of illicit passion, Eileen Chang’s Lust, Caution and Wei Hui’s more contemporary Shanghai Baby. I also read an extract from Anna Dostoevsky’s reminiscences about how she met and fell in love with Dostoevsky on Brainpickings, so I ordered a copy of her out-of-print memoir.
I make no bones about being an unabashed fan of Finnish crime writer Antti Tuomainen, but I realised that one of his books was still missing from my shelves – his first to be translated into English (and possibly his darkest) The Healer. And the final, thick tome to make its home on my bedside table is from the Asymptote Book Club. I am very excited to be reading Ahmet Altan’s first book in the Ottoman Quartet – yet another family saga – Like a Sword Wound. Currently imprisoned in Turkey for his alleged involvement in the 2016 coup attempt, Altan (better known in the West as a crusading journalist, but much loved and respected in his homeland for his fiction) is currently working on the final volume of the quartet in prison. Last, but not least, I also received a copy of Flash Fiction Festival Two, a collection of sixty micro fictions written by participants and presenters from the second Flash Fiction Festival in the UK, which I attended (and loved) in Bristol in July. I am delighted to be there among them with a tale about a kitchen!