Persephone Book No 7: The Home-Maker

A forum for Persephone readers where we write about a new book every month.

This month’s Forum consists of an extract from A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s book about American women writers..

DCF writing

The twentieth-century project to redefine housework as homemaking, and to emphasise technology, training, and professionalism, continued in the 1920s, and became part of the American ‘comedy of emancipation’. The Institute for the Co-ordination of Women’s Interests at Smith College attempted to find ways for women to share and streamline domestic chores. Yet even this program perpetuated the assumption that women had full responsibility for housework and child care. In ‘Why Women Fail’ (1931), Lorine Pruette remarked sardonically that upon marrying, ‘men appear to lose a large part of their capacity as adults; they can no longer feed themselves, house themselves, look after their health, or attend to their social  responsibilities… most of them upon marriage lose the capacity even of writing to their own mother.’

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958) tackled this paradox head-on in her novel The Home-Maker (1924), which imagined a realist, rather than a utopian, role reversal in the family. The Home-Maker was Fisher’s finest novel, and the only one in which her interest in Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism, and the Montessori method of child-rearing united in a memorable whole. Although the content of the novel was contemporary and detailed, Fisher’s narrative method was influenced by modernist fiction; she told the story from a different point of view in each chapter, getting into the minds of each member of the family, including the children. She had experimented with the technique in an earlier novel, The Brimming Cup (1921): ‘Each chapter is meant to be a revelation of what lies under the surface of that particular character. I have tried to make a glass door through which the reader looks into the heart and mind of another…so that, once for all, he knows what sort of human being is there.’

The Home-Maker is the story of the Knapp family, Evangeline, Lester, and their three children Helen, Henry, and Stephen, whose lives are being destroyed by the pressures of proper male and female behaviour. Lester, by nature a poet and intellectual, detests his job as department store manager, feels like a slave to the clock, and misses spending time with his children. The energetic Evangeline has become a neurotic and hysterical housewife, endlessly cleaning, suffering from eczema, and scolding the children into fits of vomiting, rage and terror. ‘What was her life? A hateful round of housework, whih, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework. The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank grey days, one after another full of drudgery.’

Named after Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Dorothy Canfield Fisher was the author of ten novels, more than a hundred short stories, several books for children, and many articles. She grew up in an academic and artistic family. Her mother was an artist who took her on tours to Paris and Madrid, her father James Hulme Canfield, became chancellor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln when she was twelve. Later she confided to Pearl Buck that ‘the particular shadow which darkened my adolescent years was a complete lack of harmony between my father and mother.’ At Nebraska, she came to know Willa Cather, her brother’s classmate, who remained a lifelong friend. In 1893-4 they collaborated on a ghost story about a football game. When her father became the chief librarian at Columbia University, Canfield moved there and earned a Ph.D in French. Instead of teaching, she began to write short stories that she signed ‘Stanley Crenshawe’. But in 1907, she married M John Fisher, a former captain of the Columbia football team, and they settled in Arlington, Vermont. Dorothy Fisher saw the small town as the site of Ibsenesque and Chekhovian tragedy as well as New England regionalism, and began a series of stories about ‘Hillsboro people’ based on the Vermont villagers. In 1912, with profits from her first novel, The Squirrel Cage, she took a trip to Rome and was won over by the Montessori system of early childhood education. It became the basis for two more novels, The Bent Twig (1915), a sentimental story of a girl’s coming of age, and a popular children’s book, Understood Betsey (1917).

During the war John Fisher volunteered to serve in the American Ambulance Hospital at Neuily, and Dorothy decided to accompany him to Paris with their two children. While working for the Red Cross, she sent back articles about French life to American magazines. Collected as Home Fires in France (1918), the book went through six printings and was praised by Yale professor William Lyon Phelps: ‘I have read many books from Europe during the great war,’ he wrote to her, ‘but nothing so good as yours.’ After the war, however, when they returned to Vermont, John could not find employment, and she became the family breadwinner. The adjustment was not easy; he had a number of illnesses and accidents, ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature, and had to watch his best friend, Alfred Harcourt, establish a profitable New York publishing company, while he was a Vermont househusband. If John Fisher was the model for Lester Knapp, the Fishers never admitted it. But The Home-Maker was almost the only novel of the period to tackle the psychology and the stigma of role reversal, and the extremes by which it had to be justified.

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