Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer "Housekeeper[s], Maniac"

By Leonard Gill

JUNE 15, 1998:  If anyone persistently denies any interest in, involvement with or concern about cleaning,” says Margaret Horsfield in her history of modern housework Biting the Dust (St. Martin’s), “only three conclusions are possible. They are lying, or flamboyantly eccentric, or they hire someone else to do all the work.” Someone like Louise Rafkin, who willingly tackles toilets and nail clippings in Other People’s Dirt: A Housecleaner’s Curious Adventures (Algonquin).

Under the category “flamboyantly eccentric,” however, you can confidently put Marian Barbara “Joe” Carstairs, the subject of Kate Summerscale’s outrageous biography The Queen of Whale Cay (Viking). Among Carstairs’ welcoming notes to guests at her island home, we find the following: “DO NOT DISTURB MOTHS IN CLOTHES CLOSET. HATCHING SEASON.” “DO NOT PUT CLOTHES IN BUREAU DRAWERS. NEVER MIND WHY.”

Emma Garnet Tate Lowell, the narrator in Kaye Gibbons’ latest novel, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon (Putnam), is neither a liar nor an eccentric. But, as a child on her father’s plantation in the pre-Civil War Tidewater of Virginia, she did have more than someone else to do all the work: She had slaves and lots of them. Years later in North Carolina, her tyrannical father deliberately empties a bottle of India ink on the rug she and husband Quincy prize. Quincy retaliates by dousing another bottle of ink on Tate’s beloved Titian. “If that were blood,” says Quincy, “it would come out. But it’s gone. A thing of beauty, gone.”

Maybe so. But maybe not, if the recommended 19th-century cleansers cited by Horsfield in Biting the Dust are as serious-working as they sound: dried fowl’s dung, purified bullock’s blood, gall bladder of ox, treacle, lye, gin, and “stale urine” (fresh, apparently, won’t do). Little wonder the index to Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, as late as 1952, listed one unstoppable neatnik under the heading “Housekeeper, maniac.”

Horsfield’s excellent study does make one wonder that the backbreaking labor of keeping house throughout the 1900s didn’t drive greater numbers of wives and (if they were lucky enough to have them) servants to revolt or simply to the brink. Could they, though, have been guided by words such as these from House and Home (1896)? “The daily care of a house, if reduced to a system and accepted as a pleasant and imperative duty, never burdens a rightly balanced woman.” And the situation didn’t much improve into this century with the advent of electrical appliances: “A neurotic wife, worn out with the worries of housekeeping and domestic troubles,” argued a manual from 1914, should expect (or be expected?) to turn into “a loving woman, bubbling over with mirth and joy.”

Louise Rafkin isn’t exactly bubbling but there is a certain mirth, even joy, to be found in Other People’s Dirt, her chronicle of getting inside the lives of those she cleans for and inside the lives of those, like herself, who clean. According to the author, “Official studies show that despite a quarter century of feminism, it is still an event worthy of a parade when a heterosexual man wipes a kitchen counter or cleans a toilet.” (The man who boils his underpants in the microwave doesn’t count.) And despite some brushes with fame (“I once heard Barbra Streisand’s voice on an answering machine at the precise moment I had both hands in a toilet”), hers is still largely women’s work. (The guy in San Francisco who charges $10 an hour, cleans in the nude, and somehow walks out with $200 also doesn’t count. Pierre, a black, gay New Yorker, at least “gives great bathroom.”) But there’s good practical advice in these pages too. For those of you thinking of entering “the burgeoning business of after-accident cleanup” (suicides and such), for example, Rafkin’s informant recommends a mixture of Australian minerals called Ex-Stink. Just don’t count on repeat customers.

Ex-Stink might have helped Emma Garnet, up to her neck in the arms and legs of Confederate amputees, before On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon closes in 1900. A less crowd-pleasing narrator might have helped the story. Before it’s over, we witness Emma Garnet adopting every enlightened cause known to 19th-century man until one half-expects her to anticipate the future ACLU. The formidable patriarch of the family is Samuel P. Tate, and when he asks his literature-loving son to wager whether the son or Emma Garnet will be the first to rot in hell, you understand the elder Tate to be by far the most memorable character in the book.

Joe Carstairs was born in 1900, granddaughter to a founder of Standard Oil and daughter to a heroin-addicted mother who, with husband number four, researched the testicles of man and beast. Carstairs’ minor fame, however, was hers and hers alone. In 1934, she bought Whale Cay in the Bahamas, declaring “I am going to live surrounded only by coloured people.” But she did so after speedboating into the record books as the fastest woman on water, romancing Marlene Dietrich, and gender-bending every stereotype in the book. She also displayed a maniac drive to antagonize. In the notice to Carstairs’ houseguests quoted above, we also read “PLEASE REFRAIN FROM USING BUZZER PROVIDED. SERVANTS RESTING FROM 8 a.m. UNTIL 10 p.m.” As author Kate Summerscale correctly points out, this, of course, was absurd. Joe Carstairs kept her house spotless.

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