ACT News


Self-denial no longer the best recipe for domestic happiness

A glorious little book arrived on my desk before Christmas and only now, having snuck off for a few days of rest and relaxation down the coast, have I had time to give it my full attention. The Australian Housewives' Manual, ''a book for beginners and people with small incomes'', by An Old Housekeeper, is a facsimile version of the 1883 bible for the modern young woman published by the National Library of Australia.

First published by A.H. Massina, a Melbourne publisher, it was a manual that went up against the likes of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, published in 1861, and did quite well given its particularly different approach.

''The general objection to the number of cleverly written works upon household management is that they are calculated for the use of people who possess good incomes, large houses, and one or more servants,'' the unidentified author writes in the introduction of the Australian version. ''They are, consequently, of little use to that large class of persons who are obliged to do without servants of any kind, to look at both sides of a shilling before they spend it, and to make both ends meet upon a workman's wages, or a clerk's salary.''

Given the current economic times - aren't we all perched on the precipice of a fiscal cliff or something? - there's a lot in the book even now. Good advice for making sure you're well set up financially before marriage, how to keep a home, how to cook economically and maintain a household budget.

But the sections of the book I love most are the ones that concern themselves with the whole concept of being a woman and a wife. In the chapter entitled ''Before Breakfast'', you learn that ''if you begin by being perfectly clean yourself, and if you resolve to clean up your house every morning, so that there is never more than the wear and tear of the one day to deal with, you will have no difficulty in keeping yourself and your place in admirable order, and you will also prevent your husband from slipping into those disorderly habits which spoil domestic comfort''.

Before breakfast, if one is to follow the lead of the book, the first thing to do is make yourself perfectly neat, ''attending to hair, teeth and nails as carefully as if you were going to make a call instead of light a fire'', but then you have to open all doors and windows to air the house, beat the rugs, sweep out the kitchen, clean the fireplace, do the dusting, lay the table for breakfast and then get about cooking breakfast so when your husband arises - even though the best place for a husband in the morning is bed, apparently - everything is just so.


And this is just before breakfast!

Once he's gone to work, the diligent young woman is at it again, getting everything in order for his return.

And, oh, his return, the highlight of the day. You're instructed to prepare early, making sure the house is cool and you've rested for three hours, so you too are cool, ''lightly clad in some pleasant cool-looking stuff, so that your very presence, as you open the door, shows him something comforting and nice''. Don't say too much, or be demonstrative, have fresh clothes ready for him, a bathroom ready for him to bathe in, a small meal to tide him over. If he needs a nap, let him, ''no woman worthy the name lives who will not enjoy herself more truly in that half an hour, in the knowledge that she has charmed away her husband's pain and discomfort''.

Is there anything in this home picture out of reach of any working man's wife in Australia, our little book asks. What does it want to realise it? ''A very little forethought, a very little self-control, a very little self-denial, the exact qualities which every woman who loves rejoices in exercising for the benefit of those whom she loves.'' It all got me to thinking about what's happening some 130 years later. Given most of our lives, I'm predicting with some confidence, are very different to the one described here, have we found a better way to do things, or have we got it totally wrong? Would we, as much as we can work it into the way society operates in 2013, be better off thinking more along the lines of the manual? If we devoted ourselves more to being selfless, to thinking of others before we thought of ourselves, would everyone who mattered to us be happier?

''Under heaven a wife is really absolutely responsible for her husband's happiness,'' the manual advises. (And one might again digress here to ask are we all actually responsible for our own happiness, and would a manual for the Australian husband suggest that he was responsible for his wife's happiness - but one won't.) ''And the one way for a wife to ensure her own happiness is by devoting herself entirely to secure that of her husband's … the secret of success is self-denial, and self-denial for the sake of those we love is the sweetest of all exercises - the one that brings the readiest and fullest reward.''

It all sounds so easy this selflessness thing. But for generations raised on the wave of feminism, how many of us are wired to work this way? I'm quite sure that not all marriages in 1883 were happy ones, but were they better?

There are paragraphs in the book devoted to adultery and infidelity, which interestingly enough blame the wife. If she had swept out that fireplace more regularly he would not have, with ''his perceptions quickened by his daily discomforts, [seen] in some other the qualities his wife lacks''.

It's easy to approach this book with a good dash of cynicism but perhaps we approach too many things that way.

While it's impossible to return to the days of 1883, in so many ways, what's stopping me from conducting a little experiment to see if living life as instructed here would benefit my overall happiness, not to mention that of my husband's, and make our family life better?

Even good can be better. I don't know if I'd be, nor indeed the rest of my family would be, too keen to eat haricot mutton, but if laying out a fresh set of clothes and restraining myself from wanting to tell him about my whole day in the first five minutes of him walking in the door might contribute to the betterment of our lives, what's there to lose?