Mrs. Beeton, Good-By!
Bad housekeeping, like good, is an art. And both need a certain natural aptitude. The born housekeeper can be spotted fairly early: she is little Beth, who loved to dust and bake and died young. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Mrs. Beeton, whose book on Victorian housekeeping is exhausting even to read, also expired at an early age.) Grown up and married. this tidy little soul is Craig’s wife, or anyway his sister-in-law. Literature supplies other examples. Returning to Little Women, there is Jo, obviously a bad housekeeper; Tolstoy’s Natasha, revealed as an untidy mess the minute she gets her man; or Nancy Milford’s Linda in The Pursuit of Love, who is afraid to open the oven door and finds housework “far more tiring and frightening than hunting.” These are extremes. In between lie whole shoals of us who are neither Marthas nor romantic heroines, and who just want to scrape by.
My aim is to suggest how this can be done. It is all a question of learning how to be a bad housekeeper. The trick, you see, is to present the same spotless façade and impression of efficiency as the good housekeeper does, but to do it with one tenth the expenditure of time and effort.
For instance: cleaning. This is the heart of the matter, and good housewaves wear themselves to the bone over it. Undoubtedly, they get great pleasure out of polished floors, neatly arranged linen closets, and flowers whose water is changed daily. They are also inclined to snap,“Don’t use that ash tray, I just washed it,”and to make the guest who ignores the coaster provided for his drink so uncomfortable that he goes home early — which is fine with the good housekeeper. It gives her a chance to empty things, plump cushions, and otherwise clear the living room of all signs of human occupancy before it is time to go to bed.
The bad housekeeper couldn’t care less, because her living room is not really clean anyway. It just looks as if it were. In the last ten minutes before the party (or before her husband gets home), she has shined all visible surfaces with an oiled cloth. By entertaining only at night, she makes this easier. Only those surfaces under the circle of lamplight are clearly visible, and she has sensibly covered all her upholstered furniture either with dark velvet or intricately patterned chintzes.
In this charming living room, there is seeming order, because in the home of the good bad housekeeper everything has its place and there is a place for everything. The same place. It is a large bin or a hamper or closet or even the cellar, into which every unattractive object can be tossed. It is a fearful sight, of course, filled as it is with building blocks, skis, old overcoats, Teddy bears, unmatched rubbers, and books long overdue at the library. But who ever sees it? Nobody but herself and her family, who can easily be cowed with the words: “But of course I know where it is! I found it lying around, and I put it in the —” That takes care of them.
Even so, those who have to live with poor housekeepers can take comfort. It is true that on most days their apparently well-kept house will have dust under the rug and film on the windows, and they will know that it has. On the other hand, there will be times when the place glows with genuine polish. The good housekeeper rises early, “gets her dusting done” before the children are on their way to school, and has her house always open for inspection. The accomplished slat-
tern stays in, or at any rate returns to, her bed until eleven, four days out of five. But on the fifth, she has been known to produce a dazzling transformation. This is because, like the sculptor, she has to see her material laid out before she is ready to go to work. A film of dust is not inspiring. You can blow it away — she does. But dirt, now, a tangible coating of grime, is inspiring. And she tackles it several times a year. Like those months with “r” in them, when it is safe to eat oysters, these are the times when the bad housekeeper will not mind being dropped in on. At least as far as the downstairs.
The upstairs presents other difficulties, harder to solve. The worst housekeeper in the world has yet to discover a way to avoid making beds, except by not making them, which it is not the purpose of this essay to suggest. To date, the only (partial) remedy is those sheets which are shaped to fit over the mattress like a slipcover. They work admirably on standard bed sizes, but standard sizes of anything are hard to find in the really ill-run household.
It is, however, in the bathroom that the slipshod housekeeper faces her greatest challenge. She wall soon learn to regret the passing of those antique setups which provided a tub with curtains or even wooden shutters. Today’s enameled tub lies open for inspection, and so does the rest of this un-Roman arrangement, which so eminent a critic as Edmund Wilson has compared to the Gothic cathedral for civilized achievement. Maybe. But what about the ring around the tub, the sodden toy under it, and the damp stockings hanging on the shower attachment? The tub is perhaps the only area in the whole house about which the lazy housewife will have to be tough with her family. All of them must be made to scrub the tub when they have finished a bath, and that is that. The other hazards are handled by the upstairs version of the downstairs catchall: a laundry bin.
Laundry. This is something to which the housekeeper determined to do her job well devotes herself. She buys (at ghastly expense) a washing machine and a dryer and soon comes to think of the place where they are installed as a sort of slimy battleground, say the trenches of Flanders. Even so, these appliances would be worth their salt if it were not for ironing. The ironing of sheets and shirts is, as any but the unbalanced know, pure agony. There are no figures on how many men have left home on being confronted for the third successive evening by a steamed and irritable wife, but they must be rather impressive. The bad housekeeper does not risk this. She tallies the relative prices of doing it herself or sending it to the laundry, and comes out better than even. The laundry goes to the laundry.
The good housekeeper is, of course, automatically the good hostess. If her house is large enough, she has a guest room, properly fitted up. This means a thermos for water and perhaps for morning coffee, too; the latest books and a good reading light; a comfortable bed; plenty of towels and soap in the bathroom — really, one could spend years, and far more time and money than on one’s own sleeping arrangements, in meeting this ideal. The bad housekeeper does not try. Guests are demanding, tiring, and, if satisfied, likely to stay for weeks. She lets them sleep in an enlarged closet across from the baby’s room (he is still on his 6 A.M. feeding, and screams for it) or on a sofa in the living room. She looks dim when they appear for breakfast (“I think you’ll find everything you want, except that we’re out of coffee”) and had rather hoped they could all spend the afternoon rigging up the new aerial.
So much for expected guests. Now the unexpected ones. Good housekeepers market intelligently and always have supplies on hand with which to dish up a perfect little dinner. The more fools they. In the first place, why encourage people to drop in without warning? The bad housekeeper with talent doesn’t. She greets them with cries of unfeigned pleasure, but only because she knows that presently, unfed with the tidbits she has failed to store up, the whole party is going to have to go out to a good restaurant for dinner. What’s more, the invaders are going to have to pay for it. a double indemnity for which her husband should love her all the more.
There is a footnote to this: the bad housekeeper will not only be out of supplies when they are needed. She will order too much of things when they are not. Thus, she has a fifteenpound Georgia ham and a haunch of venison shot by her husband on hand at the same time. In these circumstances, she will probably decide to give a dinner party. Everybody is asked on twenty-four hours’ notice, and there arc not quite enough plates. Just the same, the party is probably a success, because she is a good cook. This is essential in a bad housekeeper. It makes up for everything. Fortunately, it is almost always a built-in characteristic. For mysterious reasons (perhaps the generosity which is the handmaiden of untidiness) she is a lavish user of fresh eggs and home-grown herbs, the kind of shopper who, uninterested in bargains, brings home the best; in short, she has the temperament of a good cook. It is the good housekeeper who leans to low-priced items and timesaving processes which will use no pots and make no mess. But whether it comes naturally or not, the wouldbe bad housekeeper must master cookery. It is her saving grace.
There may be others. Children are (except for little Beths) obviously pretty bad housekeepers themselves. The good housewife-mother worries about this. She scolds, picks up, scolds again. It is perfectly useless. Her children arc bound to grow up hopelessly addicted to unmade beds with dusty socks under them, a perfect curse to anybody foolish enough to marry them when they are old enough, as any parent with a love of order can see. But there is hope for the children of the bad housekeeper, because by the workings of that law which turns the children of the village toper into abstainers and vice versa, they are certain to grow up into models ol neatness, fanatics about polished floors, beautifully arranged closets, and fresh water for the flowers. Whereas their children. . . . Oh, well.
ELEANOR PERÉNYI is the author of several travel articles which have appeared in our Pleasures and Places section. She is engaged in magazine writing and work in New York.