The Home-Maker, Dorothy Canfield Fisher
In February, pregnant and in bed with a cold, I fell head first into my first Persephone Book*. One of the small press’s handful of Classics, The Home-Maker was originally published in 1924. The author, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was a New England novelist (and wife, and mother). And rather than a feminist, a self-declared advocate for children. Ninety years later, her message remains sweet as ever.
Though she resisted labeling herself as such, Canfield (who is generally referred to by this, her maiden name) was in fact a sturdy feminist. While her husband led an ambulatory brigade in France during the first World War she wrote her first book, Home Fires in France (1918), about the impact of the war's violence on domestic life. Back in Vermont she continued to write, primarily on domestic themes, while her husband raised the children and supported her role as primary bread-winner.
It took me a day of lazy-paced reading to take in the story of the Knapps - of fiery Evangeline Knapp, her dreamy and impractical husband Lester, and their three children - meek Helen and Henry, and wild Stephen, the littlest. Ill-suited to the housework and childcare that occupy her every moment, Eva’s arms bloom with eczema. She loses her hair. Incapable of understanding her children as individuals, with expectations and needs so different from her own, she is oblivious to the misery she wreaks.
A profound depression came upon her. These were the moments in a mother’s life about which nobody ever warned you, about which everybody kept a deceitful silence, the fine books and the speakers who had so much to say about the sacredness of maternity. They never told you … they were not your kind of human beings - merely other human beings… How solitary it made you feel!
His mother’s equal in passion, Stephen reviles her for her cruelty (especially when she threatens to clean - and thereby destroy - his beloved, Teddy). Helen is a sweet but quick to collapse - her mother literally takes her breath away, and brings it back with nightly applications of ointment. Henry takes after his father, sickened to his stomach by the inevitable stress off incurring disappointment he cannot help causing. Indeed, the family collapses in anxiety one night like a row of dominoes, when Eva discovers that Henry has dripped the roast’s juices on the just-scrubbed floor.
The tone was reasonable. The logic unanswerable.
Eva laments her doom as an ill-humored home-maker just as Lester reviles his fate as an unsuccessful office worker. That is, until he’s fired he’s a clerk in the town’s department store, where new management has appointed him with a twerpy boss. Losing his job, and all hope he may provide his family with even the barest of necessities, Lester falls into a pit of despair.
He is visited by poems that foreshadow his demise: Paradise Lost, A.C. Swinburne’s A Ballad of Death, and finally George Meredith’s Lucifer in Starlight. Taking advantage of a fire in a neighbor’s chimney that night, he climbs onto an icy roof with a bucket of water only to throw himself off. The family will do better free of his dead weight.
And yet Lester survives, paralyzed. And the family’s luck turns. The Knapps thrive as Eva takes a job at the department store, outdoing herself as a sales woman, and especially as Lester and the children take over at home. For Lester, in all his dreaminess, has seen what Eva was too impatient for: the children.
What was terrifying to Lester was the thought that the conception of trying to understand Stephen’s point of view had been as remote from their minds as the existence of the fourth dimension.
He learns their fears and rhythms, and together they learn how to manage the home in Eva’s absence. Together he and Helen cook and discuss poetry. He persuades Eva that Henry should have a dog. Five year-old Stephen, in a celestial turn, learns to reciprocate his father’s love:
…he looked like a little golden seraph hovering around the gold gates…
Lester is desperate they should know they are “sacred even to parents.” The poems visiting him now are studded with hope: John Bunyan’s “He that is down need fear no fall” as well as Dorothy Wordsworth’s The Mother’s Return and, for nearly two pages, her brother William's Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.
There is not much to be said for Canfield’s subtlety. She leads the narrative along like a woman on fire. And it's all a bit of a fairy tale. Eva’s success might be described as collateral good (you must read to find out - and laugh - about the sophisticated / hilarious / potentially evil Willings, who own the department store). And I will not describe the family’s final sacrifice for you here, because you’ll feel it more if I don’t.
The language is at times rather problematic (“whiteness” makes more than a few disturbing appearances, as a synonym for naiveté and purity, but also in direct references to race and class). More structurally serious, husband and wife seem to operate independently, aware of one another’s personal, emotional, intellectual limitations (and strengths) but incapable of discussing them - at least, for the reader to see.
Yet I would like to submit, above all, this is a wonderful book. The author does not shy from complications, happy to leave them unresolved reminders of her time and place in the universe. She portrays gossip and unspoken judgment with good humor. And, in addition to the family’s basic quest for a better, more loving home, she also introduces the threat of consumerism at a time when mass-produced goods were trickling out of cities and into small towns and rural America. Once she lures you in, it’s impossible - but also unnecessary - to turn away. Despite the pain her characters suffer, they win. How lovely is that!
The novel might wear its message on its sleeve, but it is generally a sweet one. For Canfield children’s rights take precedence over arbitrary objectives set for motherhood, or ideals of 1920s feminism. As though Canfield saw past hardships faced by women of her time, she writes about fundamental human rights to dignity and pride, regardless of aptitude or expectation. And, as Rachel Cusk's recent Raising Teenagers: The Mother of All Problems or even the late Elisabeth Young-Bruehl's Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children testify, we generally continue not to learn the lesson: Children are too tender and too important - too human - to be forced to bloom too soon.
*Persephone's books are published originally with GREY jackets, a visually beautiful addition to any library. You can imagine the sense of calm you'd feel upon entering their bookshop, lined floor to ceiling with the pale grey spines. I really can't wait to say more about Persephone, so expect a post about the press in the next few weeks!