Home-making is enjoying a comeback. Eliane Glaser detects a sinister plot among the cookers, the breeders and the knitters
"Emma has just bought a fashionable candy pink KitchenAid food mixer that will take pride of place in her kitchen. But she has no idea how to bake a cake, where to begin with a meringue, and thinks that a dough hook is a type of rugby tackle. Kate will marry the man of her dreams in a month's time. She has worked for ten years, and now wants to have children and be a full time housewife." What Emma and Kate need, according to Amazon.co.uk, is Clare Coulson's House Rules, a homemaker's manual for the 21st century. This is one of a series of books out this year which testify to our increasing obsession with domesticity.
The Perfect Hostess, first published in 1931, has been reissued, and the 1949 manual, How to Run Your Home Without Help by Kay Smallshaw, once editor of Good Housekeeping, has been republished for the How Clean is Your House? generation: "The perfect present for the newly-wed in need of some guidance". In her introduction to How to Run Your Home Without Help, the historian and journalist Christina Hardyment reveals that she too has recently decided to do without a cleaner. She writes, "To my mind, traditional housework is just as enjoyable a hobby as making Game Pie or Sussex Pond Pudding, with the added advantage that it is much better for your figure... for in my heart of hearts I agree with Smallshaw rather than the feminists who rubbished housework so comprehensively in the 1970s." Christina Hardyment has written books about the social history of domestic life; she now appears to be endorsing, as well as reflecting on, the demands of housework.
The trend isn't confined to new books, either: modern homemakers in need of a little music while they work can buy a new CD entitled Housework Songs the Album, its cover featuring a young woman singing (ironically, of course) into a vacuum cleaner nozzle. And there has been a spate of surveys; Ovaltine, invested in rekindling 1950s nostalgia for obvious reasons, revealed the latest trend: 'the new traditionalist': "She's a woman who's nostalgic for the past but embraces her very own modern interpretation. She is rejecting high fashion in favour of comfort in the home and wearing practical classics. Knitting and cooking are deemed preferred routes for unwinding to going out." The Ovaltine survey was endorsed by Rita Konig, author of Domestic Bliss, who commented; "As our daily lives get more frenetic, there seems to be a stronger leaning towards the vintage styles and traditional values of past generations. New traditional is hot right now in food, in interiors and in fashion."
But what exactly is new about this new traditionalism? After all, the trumpeting of domestic pleasures is invariably accompanied by retro styling; the 1950s twinset and pearls popularised by Bree in Desperate Housewives. But there is something different about the modern cult of domesticity. To begin with, it seems incongruous that in these modern times a 1950s version of home life is being marketed so explicitly as the acceptable, even trendy thing; and marketed, in particular, at women. One of the challenges of the recent Guardian revamp was to appeal more to women readers; and the new weekend paper includes a 'family' section, as does the relaunched Independent on Sunday. Appealing to female readers has always presented a challenge to newspaper editors, as women's lives in the last fifty years have been a contested ground; pulled between feminism and conservatism. If the Guardian's women's page addressed women directly and often controversially, editors of some Sunday papers, not wishing to alienate male readers, disguised their women's pages with titles like 'Lifestyle'. But nowadays the broadsheet market is irritatingly comfortable with the way it serves up a brainless diet of cookery ideas and interior design tips to thinking women; the new Telegraph weekend lifestyle magazine is named 'Stella', and the Observer lures in its female readers with flimsy features purporting to explore the tension, in women's lives, between work and home life, before bombarding them with recipes involving salsify and other ingredients not readily available in local supermarkets.
While the broadsheets reflect on the droll irony of Scarlett Johansson and Sarah Jessica Parker taking up knitting between takes, it is those very newspapers which are promoting domesticity as an ideal. The conjunction of media interest, book sales and lifestyle consumerism is a self-sustaining and lucrative formula, which would be fine if it weren't for the fact that what is being promoted, covertly, is a pernicious post-feminist message to women: actually, you can't have it all. As Kathryn Hughes's recent biography of Mrs Beeton emphasised, the archetypal domestic guru was herself a hard-headed businesswoman, so the phenomenon of a career woman advocating the joys of homemaking is not a new one. But what's different now is, well, that small matter of the feminist movement.
It's career women that are being told, by other career women, that they ought to spend less time at work and get back in the kitchen so they can start baking a proper Christmas cake, instead of buying one from Sainsbury's like some slattern. A recent Observer headline, 'Why the have-it-all woman has decided she doesn't want it all', says it all; like scores of similar articles, this one heralds an apparent trend: career women discovering that juggling career and children is actually too much trouble. These women watched their mothers trying to combine work and home life, and have concluded that the feminist experiment has failed; as a result, they're scaling back the career to spend more time at home. But read on, and you'll discover that that's not exactly what these women are saying. What they really want is for men to take on some of the domestic responsibilities so that they can indeed 'have it all'. Or rather, not 'have it all', but have a reasonable combination of a job, children and a comfortable home life. The very phrase 'having it all' is an odious concoction, since it suggests that when women want what men have as a matter of course, they are being exceptionally demanding.
Headlines which announce that women are voluntarily prioritising home life over work have the dual virtue of a 'new trend' beloved of journalists and a reinforcement of the social status quo. There's no more attractive feature story than that of a highly successful career woman who has discovered that a single week of motherhood is way more satisfying than their entire creative output to date. Anna Friel, Rachel Whiteread and Gwyneth Paltrow have all been reported recently eulogising the effect becoming a mother has had on them. Last month Paltrow apparently hit out at Hollywood actresses who put off motherhood to further their careers. She said, "I sort of look at some peers of mine and I think, 'No, you've got it all wrong.' I just want to tell them all to have babies and be happy and not get sucked into that Hollywood thing."
In June, the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference prompted a wave of scare stories about what happens to women when they put off having children. The columnist Zoe Williams subsequently did a month-long survey of the media and found that there are approximately five stories on age-related infertility and/or birthing complications every three weekdays. The media continually warns women that if they delay motherhood they risk 'heartbreak'. Puff pieces about Cath Kidston aprons are a disguised extension of this pressure, as is the ubiquitous repetition of Jools Oliver's announcement that all she's ever wanted was "the babies, the baking and the roses round the door".
The contemporary flowering of domesticity differs from the 1950s version in a crucial aspect: back then there were fewer choices, but these days we have an illusion that we are free. Rather than being governed by strict social rules, we are now sold the domestic, maternal ideal every time we open a newspaper or walk down a high street. But, as every advertising executive knows, free will is overstated. And with employers still penalising women who become pregnant, and without men doing their share in the home, a woman's 'choice' to put off motherhood is not a free choice at all. Since the effect of the relentless marketing of domesticity is to make educated, professional women feel guilty about furthering their careers, it ends up being the case that the women who are most susceptible to the domestic ideal are the women least likely to be able, realistically, to fulfill its exacting demands: they may succeed in the workplace but the shame of it cannot make a perfect Hollandaise.