09 June 2023

Chatelaine: The Stories of Hilma Wolitzer

"Some women marry houses."

   -  excerpt from "Housewife" by Anne Sexton

The housewife as chatelaine, as mistress of an establishment, was the 20th century successor to the  woman who produced the goods and services needed to sustain the 19th century family, the one who was lionized by Catharine Beecher in her influential book The American Woman's Home written with her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe and published in 1869. First published in 1883, Ladies' Home Journal would become one of the most successful magazines of 20th century America by appealing to newly affluent middle class wives who saw themselves as home managers and consumers.

These  are the women who populate the droll stories of Hilma Wolitzer, newly reissued as Today A Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, published by Bloomsbury. But make no mistake, Wolitzer's gimlet eye misses none of the pitfalls and contradictions of the post-war housewife. About her own years as a domestic engineer, Wolitzer has said: "I made a lot of Jell-O."

Recurring characters Howard and Paulette "married in those dark ages before legalized abortion." When Paulette announces her pregnancy to Howard, "all I could really feel was the doombeat of his heart and the collapsing walls of his will." That's how it was then.  So, too, in "Photographs' Paulie, as Howard calls her, reflects, "The doctors in my life were of the old-fashioned tongue-depresser variety, who probably accepted kickbacks on unnecessary, but lawful, hysterectomies." That, too, is how it was.

The emotional complications and displacements of sex at mid-century even extend to retirement living. This from "The Sex Maniac: "Everybody said there was a sex maniac loose in the complex, and I thought - it's about time." There are many sightings but no actual encounters. "There had been an invasion of those widows lately as if old men were dying off in job lots."  The piercing gaze of Hilma Wolitzer remains as fresh as it was in 1970s and 1980s when most of these stories first appeared.

Susan Hall (b. 1943) is an American artist who was born in Port Reyes Station, California and attended the University of California, Berkeley.

Image; Susan Hall - New York Portrait, 1970, acrylic and graphite pencil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC.


Tania said...

I didn’t know Hilma Wolitzer, and I can’t find anything translated into French. I like his last title ;-).

Jane A Librizzi said...

Tania, that is a shame. I often feel the same way after reading your book reviews. There are enough people who speak both French and English that this should not be.