May 18, 2011

"Inside Stories" at AWRF 2011

Again, note the quote marks. Not a collection of Festival gossip, but a piece by Dr. Richard Nightingale, an assiduous library user and a man always willing to expand his horizons, who went to hear author Frances Walsh talk with Anna Miles about her new book "Inside stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975" with its wonderful table of contents ("The Filth", "The Husband", "The Servant", "The Tub"...) With the sang froid befitting someone on his way to becoming a writer himself, he cheerfully agreed to my request that he supply a piece about it for Books in the City.
During the space of 50 minutes Walsh’s oral presentation glissaded entertainingly across some of the insights that she has unearthed in her revelatory journalistic compilation "Inside Stories". She easily captured the attention of her audience with her witty, wry and sympathetic observations of the key lifeline-for-domestic-women role played by New Zealand’s women’s magazines between 1890 and 1975. She explained that the choice of the start date was determined by the event of the 1890s campaign for women’s political enfranchisement; and the end-date by a number of features of the 1970s including the fight for work-place equity with men, the abortion rights campaign and an overall disillusionment by housewives with the domestic trap of housewifery.

With verve and panache Walsh outlined her methodology: she scoured through women’s media (and one or two general journals such as the Catholic Tablet), collecting a miscellany of articles from and of the domestic front. Her archival dig revealed that while the circumstances of the housewives’ lot changed significantly in the 20th century (largely due to the application of electrical technology to household appliances), their prescribed tasks and obligations were never-ending and grindingly time-consuming. Their domestic enslavement was only leavened by the application of the many and various household (and marital and parental) tips which the women’s media earnestly promoted. Women’s magazines were, Walsh claims, women’s saviours.

Walsh illustrated her presentation with a selection of images from women’s magazines, including covers, advertisements, photographs and illustrations. She took great delight in reporting on some of the more innovative and often whacky or downright unorthodox tips that the magazines provided New Zealand women: for example, to stave off depression, drink gin and chant; to banish insomnia, read Plato; and to rid the hair of dandruff, apply brandy.

She pointed out that her subject matter has been organised into chapters that reflect the diversity of the housewife’s world. These headings include The Filth, The Husband, The Servant, The Tub, The Child, The Shopping and The Neighbour.

Walsh’s presentation of the subject of her book was affectionate and great fun. Her book will undoubtedly be equally engaging, It is a book that surely must be read and re-read. Her publishers have produced a handsome book that will beautifully complement any home study, office or library. Certainly, given the trenchant observations of its author, it is more than just a coffee-table book.

-- Dr. Richard Nightingale


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