Dirty stories of life at home

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The Independent Online
For years it's had a bad press as drudgery; now housework is a sociological topic, worthy of a book, writes Matthew Mezey.

This week, Biting the Dust, the first history of housework, will arrive in the bookshops. And according to its author, Margaret Horsfield, housework is as much an expression of personality as the clothes we wear or the cars we drive.

For many women - and housework is nearly always done by women - housework reveals an obsessive nature. The notion that cleanliness is next to godliness appears to live on.

Ms Horsfield describes women who clean their skirting-boards with cotton buds or vacuum their lampshades. One mother, rather than cry over her son's suicide, scoured the kitchen floor with steel wool for three nights. Another woman would send her small daughter to pad round other people's houses wearing white tights to show up the dirt

There are two ways most of us attack our housecleaning, Ms Horsfield believes. The first is random and unmethodical; the second, painstaking and conscientious scrubbing, as though we might actually conquer the never-ending tide of dust and grime. The two approaches mix and mingle, and neither can be dismissed.

Ms Horsfield, who says housework is "something I understood and which I am naturally good at", describes cleaning from pre-industrial days - when the pressures of home production meant the spring clean was the thing rather than daily or weekly cleaning - to Mrs Beeton's Victorian principles and finally on to her panoply of today's obsessives.

However, those who prefer to be slovenly and can't abide the routines of broom and brush can take comfort from Quentin Crisp; the inimitable raconteur pointed out: "After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse."

t 'Biting the Dust - The Joys of Housework', by Margaret Horsfield, Fourth Estate, pounds 14.99.