(Unknown artist, ‘Chinese people washing three large, white elephants’: Wellcome Collection)
07:30 and my Spelt loaf is underway. But I actually enjoy bread making so can this count as housework? Cooking, fine, washing up and vacuuming, okay; ironing, less so; cleaning, much less so.
When Rudyard Kipling moved into Bateman’s in September in 1902, the house and thirty-three acres costing £9300, he was, Andrew Lycett notes, looking forward to washing his 335 apple trees ‘with oil, limewash, salt and soap’ as recommended in the agricultural textbooks. Would that count as housework? Probably not. Gardening or perhaps, on that scale, farming—‘We began with tenants – two or three small farmers on our very few acres – from whom we learned that farming was a mixture of farce, fraud, and philanthropy that stole the heart out of the land’—and would Kipling have done that work himself? He certainly had views on domestic service – of some of the people he met on his return from India to England: ‘They derided my poor little Gods of the East, and asserted that the British in India spent violent lives “oppressing” the Native. (This in a land where white girls of sixteen, at twelve or fourteen pounds per annum, hauled thirty and forty pounds weight of bath-water at a time up four flights of stairs!)’
D. H. Lawrence might turn his hand to sweeping floors and baking bread—and the Skeptic philosopher Pyrrhon of Elis was, apparently, ‘known to dust the house and sweep the floors for his sister, and was once seen washing the pig’—but the real (male) literary demon when it comes to housework is Patrick White, whose letters are littered with references to the daily tasks. ‘I seem to spend all my time washing up and preparing for the next meal’, he wrote to Frederick Glover and, on the eve of a long trip to Europe, remarked to Mollie McKie: ‘Still, it will be a change not to do the washing up for a few months. I did go away for a few days recently. but found myself washing up in self-defence as my hosts were so bad at the sink.’ To Geoffrey Dutton, he confided that: ‘My rheumatics only left after house-cleaning days: I suppose all the stooping and stretching drove them out; so you can tell Max [Harris] that is another good reason not to keep a “char”.’ Later, furious at a review of one of his plays which asked what Patrick White knew about suburbia since he was brought up ‘in a mansion’, he told Mary Benson: ‘I had lived in suburbia for twelve years, between sink and stove, and scrubbing my own floors, before writing that play.’ Again to Dutton, describing a call from a friend, he noted in passing that ‘I was labouring at the house-cleaning when the telephone went’.
When White and Manoly Lascaris moved to the house in Martin Road in October 1964, White’s biographer records, they had a cleaning woman for a short time but White stated that, ‘after doing everything in the way of house-cleaning ourselves over the last fifteen years, I find it a great strain having somebody else about, and I am always relieved when those mornings are over.’ She didn’t last and, ‘Once again, he took up the broom and Hoover himself.’
How long does all this stuff take? How long should it take? Judith Flanders writes that most Victorian houses (above a certain social level, of course) ‘operated a system that ran more or less as follows:
Tuesday: servant’s room [if time was allowed for it at all, her note adds], one bedroom
Wednesday: remaining bedrooms
Thursday: drawing room, breakfast room, morning room
Friday: dining room and polishing the silver
Saturday: hall, stairs, kitchen, passageways
Sunday: collect, sort and soak laundry ready for Monday’
Lucy Lethbridge, writing of the Edwardian period, notes that ‘Cotton, woven in the great textile factories of the industrial Midlands, needed mangling, starching, bleaching and pressing to keep its appearance. For the working-class housewife, washing her own family’s clothes took up two full days of the week.’ Midway through the twentieth century, ‘In 1950 a survey of full-time housewives showed that they spent an average of seventy hours a week on housework; in a survey in 1970 that average had risen to seventy-seven hours.’
Leaving aside the fact that ‘labour-saving devices’ are assumed to do precisely that—and surely they became more widely available in those twenty years—seventy-seven hours? Really? Eleven hours a day every day of the week? Madness. I shall continue to cook, wash up, hoover and sweep a bit – and make bread. As for the bathroom and shower. . . the Librarian and I will draw lots.
 Harry Ricketts, The Unforgiving Minute: A Life of Rudyard Kipling (London: Chatto and Windus, 1999), 278; Andrew Lycett, Rudyard Kipling (London: Weidenfeld, 1999), 347.
 Rudyard Kipling, Something of Myself: For My Friends Known and Unknown, (1936; edited by Robert Hampson, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987), 146, 87.
 ‘Pyrrhon of Elis’, in The Jules Verne Steam Balloon: Nine Stories by Guy Davenport (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1987), 25.
 Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 123, 125, 352, 436-437, 493.
 David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (London: Vintage, 1992), 447.
 Judith Flanders, The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbed to Deathbed (London: Harper Collins, 2003), 106-107.
 Lucy Lethbridge, Servants: A Downstairs View of Twentieth-century Britain (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 76, 308.