Wednesday 4 November 2009

One Valium or Two?

Now, I am neither a housewife in the 1980s nor a single woman in the 1990s, but I have recently been discovering what these predicaments are like - through fiction-based-on-fact and fact-based-on-fiction, respectively. Today I'll talk about the housewife in the 1980s...

I picked up Diane Harpwood's Tea & Tranquillisers: The Diary of a Happy Housewife (1981) in a charity shop for a pound. I was enticed by the cover, and the fact that it was published by Virago, into thinking that it might be a 1980s version of EM Delafield's superlatively wonderful Diary of a Provincial Lady. In some ways it fits... Jane Bennett has been married for ten years, has two children, and is a housewife always watching the pennies. Where Delafield's experience as a housewife was in this house in Devon...

...Diane Harpwood and her heroine are based in a small, rather depressing neighbourhood. Jane constantly fights with her husband David, despite also being rather smitten by him. She admires her friend Cathy for doing a correspondence course to get some A Levels (or perhaps O Levels, I forget) but is herself stuck in domestic drudgery. Here's an illustrative excerpt:
Saturday 28th: I left home tonight, flew the nest, scarpered. I'd had E-nough, and enough they say is as good as a feast, or in my case a glut. So the atmosphere in the old homestead has been a trifle chilled tonight.

I've been on my feet since half-past six this morning and my bum has scarcely come into contact with a chair all day. I've been making beds, tidying up, changing sh*tty nappies, tidying up, washing sh*tty nappies, tidying up, preparing, cooking and clearing up after breakfast, lunch and tea, washing the kitchen floor which is permanently filthy with bits of petrifying food and assorted muck carried in on everyone's shoes, except for today, when it was clean for a while.
By now you'll be getting the gist. Perhaps you're nodding your head in thoughtful sympathy. Or perhaps, like me, you're wishing she'd drowned herself in the sink at breakfast. The blurb describes Tea & Tranquillisers as 'hilarious and heartbreaking' and... well, it's not. There were moments of pathos in amongst the whinging, but for the most part this book was utterly humourless. Just page after page of complaining about her lot. If you want a book about being a poor housewife (though a bit earlier) look at Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns. For an updated look at provincial motherhood, you can do no better than Provincial Daughter, by EM Delafield's own daughter, RM Dashwood. But not this book... oh, that EM Delafield could have written it! Yes, her life was probably rather easier, at least on the manual labour front - but she turned a wry, self-deprecating eye upon her life and her dilemmas. There is a world between self-deprecating and self-pity.

And, lest you think I'm being all chauvinistic, this is not a feminist book by any stretch of the imagination. There are all sorts of household jobs and decisions that she can only envisage a man doing, and quite often you want to shake her and say "a woman is quite capable of a bit of DIY, you don't have to wait for your husband to do it while you make the dinner!"

As you can see, I was quite frustrated by Tea & Tranquillisers... it wasn't all bad, there were some quite touching moments, but on the whole I thought it was an ill-conceived, humourless whine. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts...

Tomorrow I'll be writing about that single woman in the 1990s... and, just to give you a sneak preview, the book in question meets with rather more favour! Oh, and it's not Bridget Jones' Diary...


  1. I actually think this sounds really interesting - may I borrow it please?!

  2. That review has made me laugh and laugh and laugh. Thank you Simon. I don't fancy this book much has to be said, I am now eyeing up Diary of a Provincial Lady though but must finish my current persephone first!

    You also have to be my quote of the week with...

    By now you'll be getting the gist. Perhaps you're nodding your head in thoughtful sympathy. Or perhaps, like me, you're wishing she'd drowned herself in the sink at breakfast.

  3. Well Simon, Provincial Daughter is on my wanted list but not Tea and Tranquillisers after that review:)

    I must say, that it sounds terribly tiresome to have a whole book which is nothing but a litany of complaints!

  4. T & T would probably work better as a blog then I'm sure that it would have helped many "happy housewives" to get through their day.

  5. Perhaps you had to be there Simon:-) I'm quite sure this might actually be very valuable social history! I whinged a lot, probably a whole book's worth! 1981, so this was the era that I had my three babies in four years and when it was still not really viable for women to work and raise a family. We all gave up jobs we had loved because we had no choice but to be stay at home mums, and at a time when opportunities for women were really taking shape and we'd done our bit towards that, but childcare was almost non-existent. I was part of a group of twelve friends who had all had babies at about the same time, had all been highly trained professionals and we slaved over nappy buckets(pre-disposables), walked everywhere (one car, no car seats for babies) and a great deal of it felt like drudgery made worse because we all knew what we were missing, and that we had held down good jobs. So much is available now and is taken for granted but 'twas not ever thus even as recently as 1980:-)


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