Jemima Lewis: A woman's urge to do the dusting

To some, it's almost as if the whole feminist nightmare never happened

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I returned home from holiday this week engaged to be married. This has never happened to me before, and I am surprised by some of the side-effects. Sometimes I get little attacks of vertigo - a woozy feeling of tumbling into space. Sometimes a rush of joy goes to my head, making my scalp prickle. But the strangest symptom of impending matrimony is this: I can't stop doing housework.

In the past 72 hours, every scrap of linen in our house has been boil-washed, every pillow plumped, every vase filled with fresh flowers. I have never been a messy person, but this is something else - as though the spirits of my pre-feminist ancestors have risen up and seized control of my psyche. While my fiancé and his friends lounge in front of Sky Sports, I scamper around emptying ashtrays and replenishing glasses. I could hardly be more servile without curtsying.

Is this what I have always been, deep down, despite the expensive education and the successful career? Just a surrendered wife in the making?

If so, at least I am in touch with the zeitgeist. Housewifery has been making a stealthy comeback in recent years. In 1999 Cheryl Mendelson, an American lawyer and doctor of philosophy, published Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House. Her aim was to "legitimise" the secret desire of many women to clean the tricky bit around the taps with an old toothbrush, or to arrange their shoes in alphabetical order. It worked: since then, publishers on both sides of the Atlantic have produced a tide of bestselling manuals, preaching the lost arts of starching and brass polishing to a new generation of disciples.

To those of a Good Housekeeping bent, this cult of domesticity is thrilling news. Women returning, of their own accord, to their proper place in the kitchen - it's almost as if the whole feminist nightmare never happened. Scarcely a week goes by without the papers interviewing some high-powered executive who has given up work in favour of full-time motherhood.

Television, too, has warmly welcomed the return of the Hausfrau. First Kim and Aggie, the ferocious matrons of Channel 4's How Clean is Your House?, toured the country naming and shaming domestic slovens. And now BBC3 brings us Anthea Turner: Perfect Housewife - a programme that every woman should watch, if only as a warning of what can happen when house pride goes too far.

Ms Turner, you may recall, used to be the darling of British television: pert, wholesome and ferociously ambitious. Then she ran off with someone else's husband. Cast out of light entertainment for the sin of public tackiness, she has been stuck at home for the past few years. But she has not been idle: not a bit of it. A woman of formidable energy, she has been quietly devising the perfect system for folding towels so the edges do not show. Now she wants to share her domestic skills with the rest of the country.

Perfect Housewife is ostensibly a game show: each week, two chaotic housewives get invited to Anthea's gracious home and taught how to organise a linen cupboard and arrange a "crudite display". In reality, however, it is a hair-raising vision of frustrated female ambition. Her jaw clenched, her eyes glinting with control freakery, Anthea screeches at her charges for their failures of taste ("I DO believe bed linen should be white") and discipline (she is agog to find the mother of a toddler "letting the housework slide in favour of an afternoon of finger painting!").

Victorian housewives used to compete to see who could create the most lavish table displays, employing everything from gilded fruit to stuffed owls to outshine the opposition. But in those days, women had no other means of creative expression. What's our excuse?

"When it comes to housework," wrote Katherine Whitehorn, "the one thing no book of household management can ever tell you is how to begin. Or maybe I mean why." This is the enduring mystery: why women like Anthea - and, to a lesser extent, me - continue to wield our dusters, all these years after feminism released us from our duties. A little housework, it is true, may be good for the soul. All physical labour has a meditative effect, allowing the conscious brain to switch off and the unconscious peek to the surface. Agatha Christie found that many of her best plots came to her while she was washing up, and D H Lawrence praised the therapeutic effects of domestic toil. "It's amazing how it cheers one up to shred oranges and scrub the floor." Creating order out of chaos provides temporary relief from the feeling that life is out of one's control.

But I can't help feeling there is an undignified streak to the female obsession with tidiness: a lingering whiff of that Victorian desire to compete with other women, to curry favour with men, to achieve dominance in the domestic sphere because it's smaller and safer than the world of work. It's a struggle for a bride-to-be, but I'm laying down my dishcloths and taking over the remote control instead.

jemima.lewis@virgin.net

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