29 March 2015

A Little Madness In Spring

"A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown --
Who ponders this tremendous scene --
This whole Experiment of Green --
As if it were his own! "
 - A little Madness in the Spring by Emily Dickinson

In Old English the word wif referred to a woman, not necessarily a married woman.  Then came the Middle English word midwife to describe the mistress of a household.  The word housewife as currently understood is one of the words that fails into a category named by the Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff "claiming an identity they taught me to despise."

No one has ever - as of yet -  captured the poignancy that lurks in the word housewife better than the late Jayne Davison.  Davison died in 1981 at age forty-nine from cancer.  The year before she published The Fall of a Doll's House: Three Generations of American Women and the  Houses They Lived In.   Davison grew up in Summit, a streetcar suburb in northern New Jersey and lived for most of her adult life in the Boston area, Cambridge to be exact.  It was the similar geographical background that attracted me to the book when it appeared; I intendded to avoid doing housework or becoming some man's chatelaine.  I had seen reproductions of Sheila de Bretteville's Womanhouse (1973) and the several version of Femme Maison by Louise Bourgeois.  Against all advice, I refused to take typing in school; I would not go quietly.

Both Jayne Davison and Louise Bourgeois are gone now.  Davison's daughter Lesley Davison published an updated version of her mother's book To Make A House a Home: Four Generations of American Women and the Houses They Lived In (1994); the book contains dozens of photographs of their comfortable homes.  When I was a girl living in Essex County New Jersey, in my childish myopia I thought everyone lived this life because all the people I knew did.  I hope I am not nostalgic but I can't help but wish from time to time that I had been right about that.  It seemed such a lovely world for a child but, as we have since learned as the doll's houses crumbled, it exacted a terrible price, as all idylls seem to do.  I am still here, taking an admittedly housewifely pleasure in the spring cleaning of my apartment.  This too is not without poignancy.
Sheila de Bretteville has migrated from the Womanspace project at UCLA to Yale University where she is the Director of the Yale Graduate Program in Graphic Design.
1. Unknown French artist - Le printemps (Spring), 14th century, Bibliotheque nationale de France, Paris.
2. Louise Bourgeois - Femme Maison (Woman House), 1984, Museum of Modern Art, NYC>


Tania said...

Joli titre, et aussi le billet.
J'espère, Jane, que vous avez bien reçu mon commentaire et mes remerciements pour le précédent (Mallet-Stevens).

jane said...

Je suis heureux de vous entendre. Je suis triste que je n'ai pas reçu votre e-mail de Mallet-Stevens . Il s'est perdu sur internet

Tania said...

Oh ! I try to remember.

Jane said...

Tania, if I could have a chateau like the one in the picture, I might want to be a chatelaine.

The chateau looks like Chambord but with more trees!