Sunday, July 17, 2016

The serenity of clean

It was time for a big house cleanup this weekend, including washing a year's worth of grime off the windows. Unfortunately, with windows of our vintage, some water always leaks through. Towels mop up the damage. Our cleanup enterprise made me think of how different a clean and orderly house feels -- something the Bronte sisters knew way back in the 1830s.

John takes the brush to the basement windows. Cleaning them brought a whole new world of brightness into the basement.

The finished product would have pleased even the cleanliness-obsessed Bronte sisters.
 Saturday was cleanup day in our household, and as I polished windows and washed floors, I was thinking about household work and about how a clean and orderly house makes us feel.

Nobody appreciated cleanliness and orderliness more than the Bronte sisters, who are in my thoughts because I have been reading their works this summer; right now I'm in the middle of Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte.

Charlotte, Emily and Anne were poor, shy, unqualified to do anything useful in the world, and desperately wanting to write at a time when women writers were discouraged. Brought up in simplicity, humility and religion, their biggest desire was to stay home in their father's Yorkshire parsonage, with the lonely moors and each other as company, and to spin their rich imaginings into books.

Although as parson's daughters they were above the servant class, economy forced them to learn all the household tasks. And when they lost their longtime servant to age and disability, they took over all the work themselves. "I have lately discovered I have quite a talent for cleaning, sweeping up hearths, dusting rooms, making beds &; so, if everything else fails, I can turn my hand to that, if anybody will give me good wages for a little labour," wrote Charlotte in 1839, before she became the acclaimed author of Jane Eyre, Villette and The Professor.

The Brontes' books reveal an ardent appreciation for well-kept surroundings, whether in grand country houses or in frugal apartments, especially if a cat and a blazing fireside is involved. Here's Charlotte's hero in The Professor seeing his poverty-stricken beloved's tiny apartment for the first time: "Stepping over a little mat of green wool, I found myself in a small room with a painted floor and a square of green carpet in the middle; the articles of furniture were few, but all bright and exquisitely clean: order reigned through its narrow limits; such order as it soothed my punctilious soul to behold..." (The cat and fireside soon make an appearance.)

The key words in the preceding passage are, "soothed my punctilious soul." Women like the Brontes, with their high-pitched imaginations, high fear levels and high standards, probably did find cleanliness and order calming and soothing.

I felt a touch of that yesterday myself. When our house was clean and the windows, after a year's neglect, were finally so clean they seemed to vanish altogether, the whole world seemed more orderly and serene.

Here are a couple of excerpts showing Charlotte Bronte's enthusiastic appreciation of beautifully arranged and maintained living spaces:

Thornfield Hall is made ready for guests:
"...carpets were laid down, bed-hangings festooned, radiant white counterpanes spread, toilet tables arranged, furniture rubbed, flowers piled in vases: both chambers and saloons looked as fresh and bright as hands could make them. The hall too, was scoured; and the great carved clock, as well as the steps and bannisters of the staircase, were polished to the brightness of glass; in the dining room, the sideboard flashed resplendent with plate; in the drawing-room and boudoir, vases of exotics bloomed on all sides." (p. 174, Jane Eyre)

Lucy Snowe gets her reward:
"Opening an inner door, M. Paul disclosed a parlour, or salon -- very tiny, but I thought, very pretty. Its delicate walls were tinged like a blush; its floor was waxed; a square of brilliant carpet covered its centre; its small round table shone like the mirror over its hearth; there was a little couch, a little chiffonniere -- the half-open, crimson-silk door of which, showed porcelain on the shelves; there was a French clock, a lamp; there were ornaments in biscuit china; the recess of the single ample window was filled with a green stand, bearing three green flower pots, each filled with a fine plant glowing in bloom. . . . The lattice of this room was open; the outer air breathing through, gave freshness, the sweet violets lent fragrance." (p. 452-3, The Professor)

1 comment:

  1. I will never think of house cleaning in the same way!