When I was around eleven or twelve years old and starting to think seriously about becoming a writer, I had this image of the perfect life. A house with a craggy sea view, all big windows and open plan in the best Dermot Bannon style and full of furniture by Joseph Walsh.
The most important room in this imaginary house would be, of course, the study. This would have books lined from ceiling to floor. I’d have a desk facing the sea, and here I would work all day producing critically-acclaimed novels. Of course.
Growing up in a small house as the oldest of six children, I was very aware of things like getting meals on the table, doing the laundry, and the dreaded ‘H’ word, Housework. So in my fantasy I decided I would have someone to take care of all that. My life would be devoted to Literature. Capital L.
It didn’t work out like that, of course, though I hit the mark in some respects. For the most part I’m grateful. Ivory towers, even ones designed by Dermot Bannon, get lonesome, and can you imagine keeping those windows clean? Ah, c’mere.
The thing is, even castles in the air need to get the floors swept and the food on the table. Boys, at least when I was growing up, didn’t have to trouble their pretty little heads about such things. In 1960s Ireland, boys were raised by their mammies to expect some girl somewhere would play housemaid to him for the rest of his life. The 21st century must have arrived with an awful shock for some of them. Girls grew up knowing with an entirely different set of expectations and attitudes. Even in our fantasies we knew that some poor sod would have to make the porridge, clean the toilet, and put out the cat.
Lives of the authors are replete with tales of people like Tolstoy getting famous while his wife, what’s-her-name (Sophia, if you’re interested), looked after their thirteen children (!), tended house, fed him his special vegetarian meals (because he couldn’t be arsed to eat what the rest of the household ate) and in her spare time edited his manuscripts and copied War and Peace by hand seven times. Male authors, you see, have wives who are duty-bound, nay, honoured, to support the Great Man in his lofty endeavours. Female authors are, by and large, expected to produce great prose whilst doing a Peggy Lee:
I can wash out forty four pairs of socks and have ’em hangin’ out on the line
I can starch and iron two dozens shirts ‘fore you can count from one to nine
I can scoop up a great big dipper full of lard from the drippin’s can
Throw it in the skillet, go out and do my shopping, be back before it melts in the pan
‘Cause I’m a woman! W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again…
(I am Woman by Lieber & Stoller)
Even the doyenne of the golden age of crime fiction Agatha Christie had to perform domestic tasks. She, like many other women, adopted a philosophical approach and claimed she got her best ideas doing the dishes. She was probably thinking up fifteen ways to murder her husband Archie.
Move forward a few decades.
Asked how she managed to raise a child on her own and write the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling said, “I didn’t do housework for four years. I am not Superwoman. And um, living in squalor, that was the answer.”
That may have been Ms Rowling’s answer, but I doubt it’s the full answer. After all, there had to have been some tasks she couldn’t avoid. Grocery shopping? Changing the bed linen at least once or twice a year? Washing dishes?
It is, of course, much more difficult if you are a single parent, as I know from first-hand experience. Even if you don’t have any creative aspirations, simply surviving is a challenge. Throw a thirst for literature or art on top of that and you have a recipe for frustration. At least with a partner you can expect support. Can’t you?
Maybe not. A UK study conducted in late 2017 found that women do almost 40% more chores around the home than men do. “The study calculated that women would earn £259 a week if they were paid for doing the housework whilst the men would rack up £166.” Source: Independent
Worse, a report in Australia says that one in four Aussie men, ONE IN FOUR, does no housework at all. Source: Australian News
It seems the male of the species evolves at a rather slower rate than his female sister. Even my beloved George Harrison would rather strum his guitar than pick up a broom:
I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping
Still my guitar gently weeps.
While My Guitar Gently Weeps ~ George Harrison
And here’s Nobel prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro on his path to success:
I would, for a four-week period, ruthlessly clear my diary and go on what we somewhat mysteriously called a “Crash.” During the Crash, I would do nothing but write from 9am to 10.30pm, Monday through Saturday. I’d get one hour off for lunch and two for dinner. I’d not see, let alone answer, any mail, and would not go near the phone. No one would come to the house. Lorna, despite her own busy schedule, would for this period do my share of the cooking and housework. In this way, so we hoped, I’d not only complete more work quantitively, but reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one.
People can sniff and tell you they don’t do housework, but they’re not telling you the whole story. They may mean they have staff who do most of the scutt work, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts they still have to do some chores, grocery shopping, picking up the kids, walking the dog. Oh, they may not call it housework, but it’s still domestic dreariness of a fashion. Or maybe they mean they only do the bare essentials. That’s me. Sweeping is kept to a minimum. Laundry ditto. Dusting is reserved for when visitors are expected. Of course, I still have to buy groceries, cook, wash dishes, and make the bed, but I keep it all as pared down as possible.
Society has evolved and writers of both sexes can expect support when it comes to domestic drudgery. We have a variety of new-fangled gadgets such as dishwashers and electric lawnmowers to make life a little easier. There are rumours, too, that some people will actually look after children and walk dogs for a fee. Can this be true? Perhaps it’s only an urban myth. Clearly further research is required.
It has taken rather longer than I expected, but I do have the quiet house with the study and the books. Yes, I have to do the chores myself, but, like Mrs Christie, I get some of my best ideas doing the dishes. And the sea, like Joseph Walsh’s furniture, has to be enjoyed via Google rather than in person, still, it’s there. The novels are coming and getting better. Now, does anyone have Dermot Bannon’s number?