The Woman's House

In the 18th installment of Mr. B Speaks! Pamela and Mr. B's sister battle over the family home. Until Mr. B married, his sister would have acted as his hostess, especially at the family home. However, once Mr. B married, his wife gained precedence. Although not a "lady" like Lady Danvers, Pamela will now rule her husband's home.

This issue of power and precedence did not occur just in upper-class households. Although it is now customary to picture all women of the past as house-bound, put-upon, dominated, one-dimensional housewives, the truth is that housewifery has a long and noble pedigree filled with strong, independent-minded women. In medieval England, and early colonial life, the housewife was part of the daily operation of the farm/business since the house WAS the farm/business. Many of these housewives--specifically housewives of traders--managed the family business while their husbands were away.

An updated pantry--but note the door.
In a house as large as Mr. B's, the pantry
would be kept locked. Can't have
servants sneaking food!
Not only did the housewife help run the business, she held the keys to the larder and pantry. In Ellis Peters' novel The Sanctuary Sparrow, there is a power struggle between the spinster sister--who has held the keys to the larder for years--and the new bride who wants the responsibility and the power that comes with the keys; just like Pamela, the new bride ultimately wins. (Though Pamela will share the literal "keys" with the butler and housekeeper.)

This power-struggle may seem petty until one watches shows like Big Brother and realizes that control over the refrigerator is not only a lot of control but arouses fairly primitive emotions in the human breast.

This power dynamic would alter in the 19th century when businesses left the household (people went to work)--it is not that the household became less important in terms of necessary services but, rather, that the seat of power changed. People like Harriet Beecher Stowe tried desperately to revitalize the concept of the noble housewife by basically inventing Martha Stewart (and causing far more work to an entire generation of housewives than is actually necessary). But the concept of the housewife as power-base languished for many years.

It has revitalized in the 21st century, mostly because we now live in a society where service ain't cheap. Back in Pamela (and Jane Austen)'s day, and even up through the early 20th century, being a servant (nanny, governess, maid, cook, accountant)* was . . . there's no modern equivalent. People at McDonald's and migrant workers earn more money. And this lack of pay extended beyond servants. It is easy to get ecstatic about the "quality of work in the past" when you ignored that a carpenter of the past would be producing work that now-a-days would earn that carpenter several thousand dollars, not a few pennies.

*As Mr. B's wife, Pamela does not cook or clean. Instead, she supervises several dozen servants who cook and clean. She does keep the household accounts. And she spends a large amount of her time administering and supervising various charities, including a school and the equivalent of a health clinic. Taken altogether, Pamela is the equivalent of an administrative manager.

Being Pamela, she also wants to raise her own kids. So she keeps herself busy.

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