#LiteraryWives: The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Every other month, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!

The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1924)

Goodreads synopsis: The Home Maker… tells the story of Evangeline Knapp, the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, whose husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family.

Contains Spoilers!

Another fabulous Persephone book. Because of its emphasis on the kids, and the contrast between the abrasive nature of the mother and gentle nature of the father, this one felt almost L.M. Montgomery-like or Mary Poppins-ish. It was clear what was going to happen and how, without taking away from the charm of the story.

Like many of L.M. Montgomery’s books, The Home-Maker showcases progressive ideas about the place of women in the world. And like Mary Poppins, it’s a story about a loving family who has lost their way and needs some help in making it right. In this case, the “help” comes mainly from Lester’s accident, with a little nudge from a generous neighbour and an insightful doctor.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I think this book is more about the consequences of society’s expectations on wives (and husbands). It’s obvious that Eva’s experience of being a wife is pure drudgery. It makes her so miserable she has nothing left over to give to her kids. Which is the danger of grouping people into set roles; not any one person is the same, so expecting them to be is likely to have a negative effect on everyone concerned.

Lester is also miserable at his job, and once he’s at home for a while, he discovers how much happier he is being the home-maker.

Eva’s happier at work, Lester’s happier at home, and the children’s health and behaviour dramatically improve with the new arrangement.

[Lester] How much better Lester understood his wife after those few months of observing her in a life that suited her than after fourteen years of grimly and heroically enduring a life that did not.

[Eva] How good Lester had been to her! She had not appreciated it. She had not really thought of it. It had never occurred to her that he might be anything else.

It’s not until the new arrangement is threatened that you realize how ingrained the gender roles are at the time. The thought of things going back to the way they were before just about kills them, yet they can’t imagine it can be any other way.

[Eva] If Lester got well, of course he could not stay at home and keep house and take care of the children… no able-bodied man ever did that. What would people say? It was out of the question. People would laugh at Lester. They would laugh at her. They would not admire her anymore. What would people say if she did not go back at once to the children?

[Lester] He knew that from the beginning of time everything had been arranged to make that impossible. Every unit in the whole of society would join in making it impossible, from the Ladies’ Guild to the children in the public schools. It would be easier for him to commit murder or rob a bank than to give his intelligence where it was most needed, in his own home with his children.

Although this book was published in 1924, I have no doubt that there are still places in the world that try to enforce rigid gender roles. Not only does this book simply and clearly show (as though it is a morality tale for adults) the harmful consequences of strict gender roles, but the ideas can easily be extrapolated to other types of expectations (or oppression) a society may have on a group of people.

A favourite line:And beautiful words which you do not pronounce aloud are like children always forced to ‘be quiet’ and ‘sit still’. They droop and languish.


 

Not only have I really enjoyed the Persephone books I’ve read, but I’ve also enjoyed learning about their authors. Read about Dorothy Canfield Fisher here.

Next Literary Wives discussion: War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

 

14 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: The Home-maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

  1. A Life in Books says:

    This sounds like a quietly subversive novel. How lovely it would be to think that such a reversal of gender roles would be easy and straightforward today, although some countries seem to have got it licked.

  2. wadholloway says:

    I read her Wikipedia bio. She was an impressive woman. Ridiculous to remove her name from an award. How about ‘Nobel’ (dynamite) Peace Prize. One comment said all her novels were autobiographical, I wonder if she did feel constrained at home with the kids. You wouldn’t think so by all the work she did. She does sound very driven though, how didactic was the novel?

    • Naomi says:

      It did sometimes feel as though it was trying to teach a lesson. But I didn’t mind, because it was such a good read. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, who her target audience was intended to be. Unfortunately, she was probably (mostly) preaching to the choir.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, what a good ending. There were times I wondered if their friend Mattie was going to turn out to be a help or a hindrance, but she really came through for them!

  3. buriedinprint says:

    This is one I’ve wanted to read for ages, but I’ve not found a copy yet. It sounds “just plain good”. And I’ve heard several English readers (like Liz, above!) speak well of it. So I just checked the library again and they have 42 items listed for her as reference-only but only 7 for circulation and not this one (only one novel of interest, actually). But that doesn’t explain why I haven’t read the others books by her which I do have. (That’s just the same old excuse. You know it! LOL) Hope you enjoy your next LW book just as much!

  4. The Paperback Princess says:

    I like what you said about it being a morality tale. And the comparison to Mary Poppins is also so apt! (Currently watching that one over and over on Disney+ with Matilda). I hadn’t realized until I read your post that their roles are so ingrained that they couldn’t see a way to keep things as is if Lester gets better. I wonder that this book isn’t read more widely today! I had never even heard of it until it was on our list!

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