Clean round the bend

Julie Wheelwright encounters the women with irons in their souls

Biting the Dust: the joys of housework by Margaret Horsfield, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99

Ever found yourself waxing a floor at 2am, polishing a sink or cleaning the shower tiles with a toothpick in the aftermath of an emotional whirlwind? Far from being an unsexy subject, worth a desultory section in the most mind-numbing of mags, housework appears in Margaret Horsfield's delightful Biting the Dust as a subject closer to our hearts than we care to admit. "Whether we flap or scrub, the activities of cleaning often signify something quite apart from the business of chasing dirt," she argues; "women talk of the calming effect that cleaning has upon them, the virtuous radiance it sometimes imparts."

Of course, such remarks reflect a largely female perspective on the cleaning- thing, and one which was heartily pooh-poohed by such second-wave feminists as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. But Horsfield, a former contributor to Woman's Hour, bravely declares housework a veritable joy. As they haul their dirty secret out for a very public airing, the ladies of the chamois reveal that many women find mundane domestic tasks soothing, cathartic or even pleasurable, while others pour invective on the subject. Whatever our politics, housework is deeply emotive.

Many women among Horsfield's 100-plus interviewees confessed that they found cleaning akin to a religious observance. Moira massaged her kitchen floor with a variety of unguents while waiting to hear news of a critically ill brother; another fell into a frenzy of polishing the night before her son's funeral, while the author nursed a broken heart by scouring coffee mugs. For women, cleaning is the ultimate displacement activity.

Fireworks are also sparked by the depressing confirmation that even New Man has yet to discover the bog brush, and that women become their mothers when mopping the floor. Panic attacks of housecleaning are still common before a mother sets foot in her daughter's home, no matter how high-powered her progeny. Horsfield admits to polishing cutlery, waxing a wooden chair and scraping the grease from cooker knobs before a recent maternal visit. "Why? Because my mother makes me feel like a lazy slut, though she would never say anything of the kind. But I know she suffers, often loudly, if a house is dirty. Such suffering makes me wince."

Baby boomers, it seems, have yet to vanquish completely the postwar prescription that housework is women's work; the exclusive arena of female control and achievement. Feminist thinkers have written of the way in which childcare still maintains women as the power in the home; so does cleaning. Depressingly, recent statistics find that women still do at least twice as much housework as men.

Attempts to share the job usually end in a dirty war between the sexes. Soon after twentysomethings Danielle and Bill were wed, arguments about housework tarnished their romance. "He's so much worse than I realised and it puts such a strain on our relationship," says Danielle, who now refuses to wash her husband's dishes, which gather in greasy piles astride the kitchen sink. Trudi, a veteran of two marriages, found that both her spouses would clean sporadically but never take on the "dull, boring, tedious stuff". Horsfield advocates giving up and hiring help.

Cleaners, too, have their part in the story. Working as a professional maid at a Scottish hotel, Horsfield came to admire the head house-cleaner Alice, for "her unflinching ability to control our boss". Cleaners emerge in anecdote, from a trawl of historic cleaning manuals, and from the professionals' own experience, as potent figures with the power to dominate lesser mortals.

Horsfield has rooted out a whole new branch of inquiry for cultural scholars. The fascinating chapters on maternal mentors and on men's aversion to cleaning especially cry out for further investigation. Horsfield also treads the line between rigorous research and entertaining narrative with a fine grace, with feeling and an acerbic wit.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a lampshade that's just screaming to be hoovered.

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