Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958) was a superb novelist, a great supporter of contemporary writers, and an advocate of the Montessori method: Eleanor Roosevelt called her one of the ten most influential women in America. The author herself viewed the novel not as a feminist one but as a children’s one – ‘not of course a novel for children, though many early adolescents would sympathise and commiserate with the Knapp children, but certainly a novel of children’ (Karen Knox in the Persephone Preface). There are very few novels, indeed it is hard to think of any, which describe a domestic situation through the eyes of the parents with the focus throughout on the children, in particular, in this novel, on a five year-old. The portrait of Stephen is among the most memorable in literature and the scene where he explains to his wheelchair-bound father why he had been so angry and upset (his mother had been about to wash his teddy bear) is superb: unsentimental, insightful, an extraordinary insight into the mind of a small child which was deemed by the New Statesman reviewer ‘one of the most moving scenes I have read in a modern novel’.
And our favourite detail in the book? Even though she is out at work, Evangeline cannot let go of her ridiculously high standards and, sadly, makes a fuss if the floor is dirty when she comes home. So Lester and the children put down sheets of newspaper the moment she leaves in the morning and throw them away just before she returns: to reveal an immaculately clean floor. Simple and effective. No wonder Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote towards the end of her life: ‘The little things of life, of no real importance, but which have to be “seen to” by American home-makers, is like a blanket smothering out the fine and great potential in every one of us.’
Towards the end of The Home-maker Lester thinks to himself: ‘Why, the fanatic feminists were right, after all. Under its greasy camouflage of chivalry, society is really based on a contempt for women’s work in the house…. As for any man’s giving his personality to the woman’s work of trying to draw out of children the best there might be in them … fiddling foolishness! … He was sure that he was the only man who had ever conceived even the possibility of such a lapse from virile self-respect as to do what all women are supposed to do.’
Persephone Books is an independent publisher based in Bloomsbury. It is dedicated to reprinting neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century women writers. The end papers in each book are printed with a fabric design that was created in the year in which the novel was first published.
Images by Victoria Garcia
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