Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jewett's domestic innovations

The Country of the Pointed Firs has been frustrating to write about.  Well, I managed to drop the second “the” in the title only once, which is an achievement.  No, I mean something else, that Jewett’s novel is quite subtly written, so that whenever I move in more closely on a passage, I discover a lot of shading that I had missed.  I have been writing about the scenes in the book from too great a distance, one that misses much of the art of the novel.

Not that the detailed brushwork will make up for the lack of novelistic fun for the impatient reader who demands it.  The structure and story of The Country of the Pointed Firs are conceptual innovations that suggest new possibilities for the content and meaning of fiction, but at the same time withhold many of the usual pleasures.  As Ann Romines writes in The Home Plot: Women, Writing & Domestic Ritual (University of Massachusetts Press, 1992), the book:

lacks the pattern of complication and climax, the sense of accomplished external action, which we are accustomed to finding in nineteenth-century novels.   The events of the book occur again and again, as domestic tasks do.  (74)

One kind of intricacy is replaced with another.

Each of the two parts of Little Women features a chapter devoted to housekeeping, one in which the children must care for the house without the help of their mother, and a second in which the newly married Meg discovers the difficulties of managing a home on her own.  Both episodes are comic and pointedly aimed at a clear moral.  Alternatively, I think of Esther Summerson in Bleak House, once she is appointed head of the titular house, proudly bearing her basket of keys (I have come across a new wife doing the same thing in Buddenbrooks), with little indication of what she actually does.  Either Dickens has little idea, or he has no means to (or interest in) making art of it.  Jewett thinks, no, there is art here, too.

Later domestic writers – I barely know this tradition – find ways to work the good old novelistic stuff back into their novels, so that Delta Wedding and The Optimist’s Daughter (which, if I remember correctly, ends with a climatic bout of housecleaning), seem filled with incident and story, even if very little is actually going on.  but we are used to that now.  I wonder if the child’s point of view adds a gloss of novelty or strangeness to the domestic detail.  It certainly does in the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, where I can share the five year-old Laura’s interest in the mechanics of making maple sugar candy even if I am not so interested.  That is a bad example, because I am interested, but the principle is sound.

Another direction is to make the book even more boring, as in a novel I have not read, Willa Cather’s Shadows on the Rock (1931), about a young girl keeping her father’s house in late 17th century Quebec.  This is Romines:

In Shadows on the Rock, no detail is too small for attention; the book is full of menus, timetables, household hints, and recipes.  We even learn exactly how Cécile disposes of her kitchen garbage.  (153)

Romines calls the book “subtle and under-valued” (152).  I am curious, but I have read so little Cather.  Perhaps commenters will have other favorites from the tradition.  I have not even read Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (1980), so what do I know.  As I said, frustrating; ignorance is frustrating.


  1. "I think of Esther Summerson in Bleak House, once she is appointed head of the titular house, proudly bearing her basket of keys ... with little indication of what she actually does."

    However, Dickens accepts that whatever she does is presumably pretty complicated- in the same book, George Rouncewell will not let Rosa marry his son until she has been educated and can run a house. It's worth remembering that Mrs. Beeton's book was about household management and went far beyond cookery in early editions. In The Admirable Crichton, Crichton is the actual manager and director of a large and complicated organisation, even if it's only after the shipwreck that his actual power and authority is revealed.

  2. Yes, that is a good emphasis. It is not that Dickens saw Esther's role as unimportant - he and every reader understood the importance of her position as manager of the small firm that was an estate household.

    The Admirable Crichton, you don't say. I should read that.