The Home-Maker

It has been a very busy few weeks, in part thanks a couple of writing deadlines but moreover because I am organising…

… the first ever Daunt Books Festival!

Daunt Books Festival

It takes place at the end of March, and decided I had to have the programme ready and tickets on sale at the beginning of February. It has been a great deal of work – coming up with ideas for talks, pursuing many of my favourite authors, and then persuading various Marylebone foodie establishments that they’d like to provide delicious treats, like Ginger Pig sausage rolls and La Fromagerie pastries – but somehow it’s happened, and here’s the programme.

It would be heavenly to see some EmilyBooks readers there for some or all of it. Wouldn’t it be fun if we could carry on the comments-section conversations face-to-face? Tickets (£5 or £30 for all two days of talks) are available here or over the phone on 020 7224 2295.

In any case, I’d love to know what you think of the festival. As far as I’m aware, it’s the first literary festival to take place entirely in a bookshop. And, in its careful fostering of a community of booklovers, bringing everyone together in a beautiful setting for two inspiring days, as far as I’m concerned, it’s a big F U in response to the aggressive and increasingly potent tactics of a certain internet giant …

The Home-MakerMy brain has been so overwhelmed with to-do lists, anxiety over website crashes, excitement about twitter activity and ticket sales (one event is ALREADY nearly sold out!), that I hadn’t expected to be able to concentrate much on a book. But somehow I whizzed through Persephone Books’ beautiful The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Persephone has an uncanny knack for publishing books where the pages seem to turn themselves – be that in the inevitable tragedy of a book like Harriet or Consequences, or the unfurling domestic drama of Someone at a Distance.

My interest was piqued by this paragraph in Nicola Beauman’s fortnightly letter, to which, by they way, I heartily suggest you subscribe for the latest news from their Lamb’s Conduit Street haven, and brilliant advice about what’s on culturally:

Last week saw time for a re-reading of The Home-Maker and to be awestruck by its brilliance, even on the sixth or seventh reading. The reason for the renewed rereading is that it is about to reprint and Elaine Showalter has written a new Afterword to dovetail with Karen Knox’s Preface. Also it is ninety years since first publication. So we are wondering whether, if one threw some money at it, one could achieve something of the Stoner effect. The novel is SO much better, so incredibly interesting about role swapping and about children (the descriptions of five year-old Stevie are astonishing) and we are sure that all the people who bought Stoner because – well, because they did – would in fact enjoy this so much more and we feel sad and slightly mortified that we have not made this into the great classic that it definitely is.

Of course I had to read it, and can only agree that it is indeed a classic that deserves to be rediscovered and praised to the rafters like Stoner.

I suspect it is easier, however, to make a classic out of Stoner. Stoner is written by a man and important men like Julian Barnes go on about how brilliant it is, which means that everyone sits up and listens, rushes out Stoner by John Williamsto buy it and is inclined to agree. Sadly I fear that while important women may talk about the brilliance of a forgotten classic written by a woman, the important men are unlikely to pay them much attention, so it will get – at most – only half so much fuss. Think, for instance, of Elizabeth Taylor, Dorothy Whipple (who I wrote about in the Spectator here), and even Muriel Spark. Then again, it is in part thanks to Julian Barnes’s consistent praise that Penelope Fitzgerald has had something of a resurgence of interest. So perhaps the key isn’t so much in the book being written by a man, but in being praised by a man. Perhaps for the Daunt Festival 2015, I should rethink the Virago Modern Classics talk and make the panel of authors all-male, rather than all-female.

I digress. The Home-Maker was written in 1924 and takes place in small-town America. It opens with a vision of domestic hell. Evangeline Knapp is determined to create the perfect home, so slaves around the house, while being nightmarishly sour and impatient with her three children and rather pathetic husband Lester, all of whom are terrified of getting things wrong – indeed are made physically ill from it. Canfield-Fisher cleverly jumps from focalising the narrative through Evangeline to, a few pages later, through five-year-old Stephen:

Oh, what a weight fell off from your shoulders when Mother forgot about you for a while! How perfectly lovely it was just to walk around in the bedroom and know she wouldn’t come to the door any minute and look at you hard and say, ‘What are you doing, Stephen?’ and add, ‘How did you get your rompers so dirty?’

It is terribly sad and terribly shocking that a five-year-old could think like this! How dreadful that it is only when he is forgotten about that he feels any sense of freedom, and what uncannily adult feelings these are for a young child.

Evangeline’s husband Lester Knapp is an accountant at the town’s department store, only he is thoroughly useless at it; his head is filled with lines of poetry, rather than figures, and he hates it. He is passed over for a promotion and then fired by young hotshots Mr and Mrs Wilson. (This all takes place very early on, so I don’t feel I’m giving too much away…)

Lester Knapp is so utterly dejected by his inability to provide for his family, by the poverty that he reduces them to, by his nagging disappointed nightmare of a wife, and sickly, anxious children that he decides to kill himself. He has life insurance and thinks that, so long as he manages not to make it look like suicide, this would at least be a means of providing for them. Of course he falters in the face of his children’s love, but he remains grimly determined:

A father who had only love and no money – the sooner he was out of the way the better.

When a fire breaks out at a neighbouring house, Lester is up on the roof wielding a pail of water in a flash, and he falls off it even quicker. He is dead, we all think, and it is completely terrible. Only what makes it quite so awful is that Canfield-Fisher has engineered the situation so cleverly that a little bit of you really does think it’s for the best. (Or perhaps you’ll disagree, and just think me particularly heartless.)

But then, from the perspective of young hotshots Mr and Mrs Willings:

When they heard through Dr. Merritt that poor Lester Knapp would not die but would be a bed-ridden invalid, a dead-weight on his wife, the Willings along with everybody else in town were aghast at the fatal way in which bad luck seems to heap up on certain unfortunate beings.

It seems like the worst situation imaginable, and yet Canfield-Fisher confounds our expectations and shows how it is in fact the Knapp’s salvation.

Forced out of the home in order to earn money for her impoverished family, Evangeline Knapp gets a job at the department store. Unlike her husband, she has a passion for it, which brings with it tremendous flair. Evangeline is an immensely capable woman, stylish and particularly good at problem-solving. Unleashed on the world, rather than chained to her home, all her energy soars to good effect, rather than being poisonously contained. She works hard, getting in early to check the stock before opening, and studying books about selling in the evening.

Endearingly, she isn’t motivated so much by money, rather that she genuinely believes she is improving people’s lives by helping them find the right clothes to flatter appearance and budget. There is a sweet moment when her manager who (unsurprisingly) feels rather threatened by her impressive presence complains to the head that Evangeline talked a customer out of buying a sweater and Evangeline pleads her case. She explains that the customer had wanted a ‘plain, one-colour, conservative kind’, which they were sold out of, but a rather more ‘conspicuous’ one caught her eye:

I knew it would look simply terrible on her – she’s between forty and fifty and quite stout – the kind who always runs her shoes over. And I persuaded her to wait till the plain ones came in. I thought she’d be better satisfied in the end and feel more like coming back to the store.

When asked why she didn’t try to sell her both, she responds:

Oh, her husband is only a clerk in Camp’s Drug Store! They haven’t much money. She’d never have felt she could afford two. If she’d taken the bright sporty one she’d have had to wear it for a year. And I know her husband and children wouldn’t have liked it.

And no, Evangeline doesn’t know this lady personally, only from ‘what I’ve seen of here in the store’.

She’s the perfect saleswoman. When the first customer of the day arrives:

She turned to greet her warmly, with the exhilarated dash of a swimmer running out along the spring-board for the first dive of the day.

I suppose I enjoyed these passages so much because they capture something of what I feel as a bookseller. There is such pleasure to be found not so much in selling any old book to any old person, but in finding exactly the book which you know a certain customer will adore. You genuinely feel like you’re improving their life. Usually you’re made to feel it’s daft to think like that – and one’s spirit can certainly be crushed by those people who are rude and in a rush, and unthinkingly grab whatever is the ‘Gone Girl’ of the moment and pay while talking on their phone, making you feel like you’re interrupting them to ask for their pin number. There is nothing more wonderful than when a customer comes back to tell you how much they enjoyed your recommendation and ask for another.

Evangeline thrives and is soon earning plenty of money for them. Meanwhile Lester thrives too, once the pain has lessened and he’s able to get about in a wheelchair:

It was a great pleasure to him to be able to say the strong short Saxon words aloud. For years he had been shutting into the cage of silence all the winged beautiful words which came flying into his mind!

His days are filled with poetry, he no longer has to attempt accounting and be surrounded by people of a completely different temperament. Instead he looks after Stephen, and there are many wonderful passages about Lester’s relationship with Stephen, and with the other children. He has become the ‘home-maker’ and he is wonderful at it, creating a spirit of fun and happiness. Cooking is transformed from a chore into a game: there is a great scene when Lester and his daughter struggle to discover how they should break an egg. The terrible opening scene of Evangeline scrubbing at the floor is recalled when they come up with the idea of covering the floor with newspaper all day, to protect it from all their mess.

What began as a tragedy has turned into a life-affirming comedy. The Knapps will live happily ever after … or will they? There is another twist to come, but I don’t want to reveal that here.

I can’t believe The Home-Maker was written in 1924, when it is something you could imagine Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg citing in Lean In. Dorothy Canfield-Fisher makes a vital case for challenging gender roles, while never forgetting to point out how difficult it is to go against tradition. This is a wonderful novel about the joy of finding your place in life, and the importance of having the courage to keep looking for it.

No doubt, Dorothy Canfield-Fisher was ahead of her time, but if she were still writing today, she’d see there’s still a great deal of work to be done.

Dorothy Canfield-Fisher


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9 Responses to “The Home-Maker”

  1. Emma Says:

    So lovely to discover this blog, Emily! This sounds like a really interesting book, which I shall have to add to my TBR pile.

    • emilybooks Says:

      Thanks Emma – I’m so pleased you like the blog and also the sound of The Home-Maker. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

  2. Jo Says:

    Probably my favourite Persephone book ever! You have reviewed it beautifully. And it will bear numerous rereadings.

  3. Jo Says:

    The Home-maker is a great read. Good luck with the festival, this is when I get so disheartened that nothing I would like to do happens ‘up north’ where I live! Best of luck x

  4. Alice Says:

    I’m very much looking forward to the festival Emily, you’ve done a marvellous job organising it!

    When I’m next up in London I want to do a bookshop tour, I think I need to make Persephone my first stop – especially as I want to make 2014 the year where I read more books my female authors. I’ve got The Stone ready to be read this month, but I’m feeling fairly indifferent about it.

    • emilybooks Says:

      A bookshop tour sounds wonderful – something we should all do more often!

      And I’m so pleased you’ll be at the festival – looking forward to it lots.

  5. Daunt Books Festival | old fashioned girls Says:

    […] Daunt Books Festival (organised by EmilyBooks) is taking place from Thursday 27th- Friday 28th March at Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street. […]

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