The past is indeed a foreign country


The thing about being in a foreign is the way in which the strangest things will trip you up. You are prepared to find that most of the people in Turkey speak Turkish but you may be set aback when you excuse yourself from the dinner table to visit the toilet in your host\’s home and find that the facilities look rather different than you had expected.[1]

Similarly when one reads books written in fifty or one hundred years ago one expects that gender expectations, indeed the very performances of gender, would differ from those of the present day. If one is at all familiar with the past (or the history of the women\’s movement) one is not taken aback to learn that women did not have the vote in England in 1914 or that most women in the 1890s did not routinely go to college.

What trips one up is that these changes did not take place in a lockstep fashion. Women did not get the right to vote, go to university, live on their own, open their own bank accounts, sit on juries and hold public office all at the same time. So one will come across rather remarkable scenes such as this one from Barbara Pym\’s book Excellent Women[2] (the narrative voice is that of Mildred Lathbury, the book\’s protagonist. The book is set in the early 1950s. Lathbury is what would once have been called \”a gentlewoman\”, unmarried, living alone in London after the death of her parents. She worked for the government during the war and now has a job working with \”distressed gentlewomen.\” Earlier in the book she met Everard Bone through mutual acquaintances. She and Bone are, at most, vaguely friends. One day Lathbury receives a telephone call from Bone:

\’I rang up to ask if you would come and have dinner with me in my flat this evening. I have got some meat to cook.\’
I saw myself putting a small joint into the oven and preparing vegetables. I could feel my aching back bending over the sink. (p. 284)

My initial response as a reader is to wonder why Lathbury jumped to the (in my mind unwarranted) assumption that Bone was expecting Lathbury to cook the dinner to which he had invited her but it is soon made clear that she is correct in her assumption.

\’I\’m sorry about the meat,\’ I said, \’trying to infuse life into our now nearly dead conversation.
\’Why should you be sorry about it?\’
\’Do you know how to cook it?\’
\’Well, I have a cookery book.\’
……….
I had not wanted to see Everard Bone and the idea of having to cook his evening meal for him was more than I could bear at this moment. (p. 285)

Throughout the book Pym (through Lathbury) highlights the degree to which men expect things to simply be done. For women of the class of Lathbury this creates a particular problem since the changing economic structure of English life has changed the ubiquity of servants. Just a few decades earlier men of Bone\’s class and education would have someone who \”did\” things for them. They might not have been able to afford a live-in servant but they would not be doing the cooking and cleaning themselves. From my reading of novels set in the 1920s and 1930s many of these men lived in buildings that had a staff that provided meals and similar circumstances. Now such buildings were beyond the financial reach of many of those who might have lived in them before and servants were no longer plentiful and cheap. What was a gentleman to do? Apparently such men, robbed of servants, turned to the nearest gentlewoman to solve the problem.

One imagines that if one had even brought this matter to the attention of a man such as Bone he would have been perplexed as to why it was a problem. \”After all,\” I can imagine Bone saying, \”Mildred would have to cook her own dinner anyway. The only difference is now two of us can eat what she cooks.\” The idea of the reverse (Lathbury calling him to suggest that he come over to cook her dinner) is one thinks, beyond his imagination.

And yet, things are changing. The couple through whom Bone and Lathbury met do not live out the normal gender roles. She is an anthropologist and he is a retired Naval officer. He likes to cook and she refuses to learn to do so well. They do not see themselves as revolutionary and yet their very refusal to do so is perhaps the most transgressive thing about their marriage.

For readers who are interesting in the \”facts on the ground\” of the way in which gender expectation and performance have changed over the last century reading books such as Excellent Women is the literary equivalent of an anthropologist\’s field trip.

[1] This example was inspired by an episode of House Hunters International. I was baffled the a woman who was planning to buy a house in Istanbul and move permanently to Turkey should be so taken aback at the sight of a perfectly clean squat toilet. She didn\’t say that she wanted an American style toilet, she took one look at it an exclaimed in horror \”what is that!\”

\”That\”, I said back to the television set, \”is an indication that you are a typical drive-by Westerner who thinks they know a lot about a country because they like visiting it as a tourist or when staying with friends. I bet she doesn\’t even carry her own toilet paper with her.

[2] Pym, Barbara. Excellent women. Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1985.

One thought on “The past is indeed a foreign country

  1. \”This example was inspired by an episode of House Hunters International. I was baffled the a woman who was planning to buy a house in Istanbul and move permanently to Turkey should be so taken aback at the sight of a perfectly clean squat toilet. She didn't say that she wanted an American style toilet, she took one look at it an exclaimed in horror \”what is that!\”That was (and is) pretty much my reaction, but I darn well know they exist just from a short trip to Italy…– Base Delta Zero

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