Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Home Tracts, Home Facts


Well, eons ago I promised to do a few proper book reviews and I find myself with a spare hour (before my mum comes around for a cuppa) so I thought I'd introduce you to the wonderful world of "home tracts". Now, if you've been reading this blog for a while and fancy starting a little collection of antique and vintage homemaking books, start with home tracts. First, because they're much, much, cheaper than cookbooks and housekeeping manuals, in fact I've never paid for than £3 for a tract. Secondly, many of the tracts are written with the working classes in mind, and unfortunately you get very little insight into the lives of working men and women from 19th century cookbooks, even Soyer's Shilling Cookery, which was intended as a manual for the working classes, contained recipes far out of their price range. Thirdly, they are often narrative based, modern day parables of thrift, cleanliness and prudence and the efficacy of white wash and home-grown parsley, and as such are very entertaining. However, I should warn you that this post is not merely a book review, but gets a little impassioned an political towards the end.
Many tracts were either given away or sold cheaply by non-conformist chapels and are very much a product of the Evangelical Revival. What we must remember about this time in Britain's religious history is that the non-conformists were responsible for the vast majority of 19th century social reform, they simply took the Christian notion of equality and brotherhood of man with much more seriousness than the established church, and the established political parties, and therefore were quite a radical bunch of old dears. Indeed, Roy Hattersley says that the fundamental norms and values of the Labour movement were built firmly on Methodist ideals and not socialist ideals, and I tend to agree with Roy, as he's a nice chap and a good social historian. So when we read these home tracts we see the writer giving a dignity and a sense of pride and equality to the working poor in the narrative. We also get the idea of former sins forgiven, a new life encouraged, ways of self improvement suggested: reading them is a little like reading simplified snippets of a Mrs Gaskell novel, therefore.
But before I rattle on any further, here's a snippet from the first story in Home Happiness, which I imagine was first published in the mid-19th century and is an absolute smasher of a tract. In it a good working man's housewife teaches her slatternly neighbour how to run a house.
Above everything, pray don't have a mess when Eben comes home. It's shameful how some women drive their husbands to the public house, as one may say, by having the place all dirt and litter and confusion, when a man comes home tired, of an evening, wanting a little comfort. Such women have a small right to complain of drunken husbands, seems to me.
Well, you could deconstruct this bit until the cows come home, couldn't you? I detect a waft of the temperance movement, which is as it should be. I'm reminded of the bit in George Eliot's Amos Barton where she describes the miners of North Warwickshire as being better paid than the poor curate but spending their money almost entirely on drink. Indeed, one or two Methodist factory and mine owners in my town formed social clubs, libraries and so on for their workers specifying sobriety as a form of membership to such clubs. What interests me most is that on both sides of my family my great-grandfathers were miners, and indeed alcoholics, and my maternal grandmother, and paternal grandfather told stories of real hardship, poverty and deprivation. However, the question we have to ask ourselves is this. Is it an act of empowerment to say to the woman that she could keep her husband away from the beer simply by keeping a tidy home? Or, is the tract blaming the slatternly wife for driving her husband towards the drink? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter, deconstruct away, gentle reader!
Now, most of the stories in the book have an urban setting. (Is it me or have the urban poor in this country been seen as "problem " for nearly 200 years now? If so it's about time we got sorted out.) However, there is one tale in the book which has a country setting, and as such is a good read for any fan of Larkrise to Candleford, as it acts as a mirror to the scenes of country poverty and resilience in Flora Thompson's great book. In it we again read a story of a rather exemplary country couple and their imprudent and weak-willed neighbours.
"I've a good deal of binding that must be done this week, Lucy; can't you do some?" asked James, one morning a short time after they were married. "not to-day; 'tis Hilton Fair, you know, and Jane Richards and I are going. You'll come too won't you?" "I can't spare the time - I'm all behind now; we were out so much last week - I think, Lucy, you might as well stay home. Ain't you going to make bread? We've had none but baker's loaves ever since we married, and I don't like that at all." "Nonsense, you are always bothering about the bread. Besides, if we go to the fair, we shan't want any bread in the house," said Lucy, laughing; "so, come along; the shoes will keep to tomorrow." Poor James stood shilly-shally. He knew he ought to stay at home. and do the work her had promised to finish; but Lucy pulled him by his curly hair, and told him that he looked so handsome that she should be quite proud of going to Hilton Fair with him; and just then Jane Richards, with her smart beau came up; and he was afraid of being laughed at, and being called a grubbing cobbler (his wife called hime so once, when he hestitated about going to a tea party at a public house); so he put away his tools, and dressed himself in his Sunday clothes, to go to the fair.
Oh dear, poor imprudent James talked into downing tools by his pleasure-seeking wife. Well, you'll not be surprised to know that no good comes from going to Hilton Fair. Jane Richards gets drunk and finds herself pregnant by her smart beau (a soldier who hot-foots it away once he's done the dirty deed) , James loses business, after getting a reputation for idleness, the family falls into poverty and "after six years, no-one could have believed that the squalid, ragged-looking Mrs Elliot, with her four dirty little children, was the smart pretty Lucy who boasted of her many sweethearts." The sensible, frugal couple meanwhile had "children who regularly attended Sunday-school. The eldest son and daughter had become teachers...The girls had all been taught useful sewing; and could cut out a shirt, or even a pair of trowsers..." and all the children were taught that "honest working people, with the fear of God in their eyes, are often better off than some of those above them in the world."
Of course, fifty years later Maud Pember Reeves would debate the fact that all the working poor needed to improve their lot was an ability to keep house and keep sober. In Round About a Pound a Week (not a religious tract, but a Fabian society report), she details that despite frugality, cleanliness and sobriety the labouring London poor (the lower working classes) were still unable to afford to buy very little but bread and jam to eat, and the health of their children showed the lack of meat, dairy and vegetables in their diets. Her work, and the fact that the majority of drafted soldiers in the first world war were under-height) forced the government of the 1920s into giving schoolchildren free milk. What interests me, of course, is how far Pember Reeves ideal of "the state as co-parent" has morphed into the state as rich uncle. Labour's attempts at curing social deprivation and child poverty have been solely monetary based, we throw money at the urban poor, but we forget that the deprivation they face is cultural and curing that cultural deprivation is going to cost more money than giving out benefits. The state wanders into our lives and hopes we're not naughty with the money, and hopes we don't become too bothersome, and doesn't tell us how to use it, because we're all individuals and the state doesn't want to impose moral values on its nieces and nephews.
But it's no surprise to me that Labour has forgotten its roots, it's rather afraid of the people of whom it was formed to serve, it cannot converse with them without moralising to them, and Labour doesn't want to moralise because y'know that's not what liberals do, good liberals just throw money at any given situation and don't ask questions, of either bankers or part-time drug dealers on sink estates. So it simply doesn't moralise at all, it prefers its (politically safe) giddy rich uncle status. However, we must see a clear vision from our government on what a good life, a good community is and should be. The post-war Labour government managed this, it wasn't afraid to talk about equality, morality and community and it put it's money where its mouth was, it had a clear vision of post-war Britian and it acted on that vision. The early social reformers, Evangelical tract writers and trade unionists had a clear vision of the capabilities and needs of the people they served, they moralised a-plenty and knew what a good life was and offered a firm choice to their intended membership/readership. This is what we so desperately need now, a clear, from the ground-up, vision of British community life, and how the individual is responsible for their part in forming a civil society. And to do this we have to learn from our social history, learn from the likes of the tract writers and Pember Reeves. We need to empower our populace through moral education. We need a moral New Deal because without it those last vestiges of British community life we love and value will begin to crumble.
Gentle reader forgive me, but this is my post has been my online response to the Fiona Pilkington case. Barwell is on my doorstep and I know it quite well and I can tell you it's not that rough. It's just a bit rough and quite ordinary. It's not a Leicester sink estate, let alone a London sink estate, yet a group of local youth in Barwell bullied a mother and her learning disabled daughter so viciously that the mother set fire to herself and her child in a local lay-by. Asbos and handouts did not help Ms Pilkington and they did not help the children who caused her death, but instruction on how we are meant to behave as individuals, family members, and community members would have. By all means give benefits to those in real and desperate need, but please shirk no longer on expressing moral ideals. We need our bread, but we need our roses too.

15 comments:

monix said...

It is really shocking when something like the Fiona Pilkington tragedy happens close to home. I am sure that everyone hearing about it was horrified but it is easy to switch off the News and put these things out of our minds. When it happens within your own neighbourhood, the stark reality hits home. Here in Devon, we are reeling from the awful child abuse case in Plymouth.

Mrs T gave everyone the right to be thoroughly self-centred when she preached there was no such thing as society. The welfare state took away personal responsibility when it degenerated into the nanny state. The Right and the Left have done their bit to create this situation but I can't see either side offering any solutions.

I am so glad that you have started the discussion. I hope that someone will come up with some strategies that we can apply to re-invent "neighbourhood" in every sense of the word.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Monix
It's been a bad few days foe news hasn't it. I can't imagine how those poor mothers in Plymouth must be feeling.

I think you're right about the Mrs Thatcher legacy. Creadful damage has been done to our communities by government sanctioning of rabid individualism. It needs to stop.

Angela said...

Agreeing with you both here! Like DD I live fairly close to Barwell and the Fiona Pilkington Case.
Rebuilding 'neighbourhaood' and 'community' is very hard work. We all live such disjoint lives and work crazy hours. The loss of Sunday as a Day Of Rest has had a significant impact on family life - so many of the children I teach have Mums who work in supermarkets on Sundays, whilst others have Mums who work the overnight shift at a local mail-order clothing company - and so Mums are aways too busy/too tired to build strong relationships with the children. So family life is weakened - and society suffers.
Yes Mrs T has a lot to answer for!
Bring back Shaftesbury and Wilberforce, Wesley and Whitefield...

Sarah said...

The Fiona Pilkington case was awful. It just show how 'youth nuisance' can really push people over the edge. Just a gathering of 'hoodies' scares me even if they aren't actually doing anything intimidating, so to have to go through abuse constantly. Just awful.

As for Eben, by gum there's no excuse for time down t'pub! :) Lol, to me it sounds as if the tract is blaming the wife for husband being down the pub all the time. There's two sides to it, the working class have always liked a drink, whether the home is tidy or not. But a tidy/cosy home would certainly make it more welcoming for husband and therefore he might reduce the time down the pub. Pubs are our natural meeting place, and men being competitive will often try to 'outdrink' one another, it's quite a badge of honour if they can say the next day, 'had 10 pints last night!'. I think to stop men going down the pub you'd have to totally change a national predilection for ale.

My hubs doesn't spend any time down the pub, well very very occasionally and our house varies between very tidy and 'call in the How Clean is Your House team'. :) LOl, well perhaps not that bad.

Sarah said...

I meant not 'natural' meeting place, but 'national' meeting place :)

Lol my word verification is 'dingus' how appropriate :)

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Angela
I think you're right bouat Sundays. One of the biggest challenges we face in the CofE is getting the children we baptise into church after the event. It's not that parents are not interest but that they fear that they don't have the time for church. It's a day to go to Asda, to work, to take John to football lessons and Jill to dance practice...busy, busy, busy.

Hi Sarah
LOL! I liked "natural" meeting place better. Personally, I feel a bit sorry for Mrs Eben!

Niki RuralWritings said...

very tragic news, gangs are a big problem here in N. America as well.
It is appalling that a few "bad apples" can literally hold power over a community, and I find it so discouraging that in most cases our police and community can do so little to fight back.

I've never seen anything like the household tracts you mentioned, but I do wish I could browse through them...I guess they were not produced or distributed in Canada.

Dulce Domum said...

HI Nikki
You know if I had the time I'd publish them on the internet...if I could get a scanner that is! I think lots of people would enjoy them.

I think sometimes we feel that these things could never happen in our own back door, but it's everwhere and it's tragic.

Left-Handed Housewife said...

I wasn't familiar with the Pilkington case until reading this post. These kinds of stories are horrific and dismaying. It's hard to trace the roots of the problem, though. I've been reading some interviews with the American writer Marilynn Robinson who said something that struck me--she doesn't believe our present times are worse than other times, but that essentially humans have always done what humans will do--we've not gotten worse, but pretty much stayed the same. Any reading of the Old Testament will testify to that.

Here's something else Robinson says something else that I find interesting:


"The first obligation of religion is to maintain the sense of the value of human beings. If you had to summarize the Old Testament, the summary would be: stop doing this to yourselves. But it is not in our nature to stop harming ourselves. We don’t behave consistently with our own dignity or with the dignity of other people. The Bible reiterates this endlessly."

It is hard to pass down morals in a generalized way--here in the States, the biggest moralizers always end up getting caught having affairs with other people's wives (or, in some cases, husbands). Somehow I think part of the answer needs to be telling better stories--family stories, local stories, stories that don't sentimentalize or sensationalize. We live in the age of the Antihero, when what we need are more stories of flawed heroes (not superheroes; there's no such thing), stories about people who stayed with their families instead of abandoning them, stories about ordinary people who jumped in the river to save the drowning girl. We've got a dearth of good stories these days--popular culture is mostly junk and fantasy--and if we can't imagine a better way to live than violently and greedily and stupidly, we'll never live any other way.

Okay, that was more than I planned to write, but there you have it. Off to West Virginia!

frances

Jo said...

I loved Frances' comment - yes, we need more stories, narratives that pull us together. The patriotic propaganda of WW2 performed that function, particularly for Britain, and here in Australia I am beginning to see government-sponsored Climate Change patriotic propaganda that is similar in many ways - how to be frugal with electricity, use less water etc. I wonder if the popularity of the Harry Potter novels is that they provide an overarching narrative of Good versus Evil in the vacuum created by the last two generations which have not had the biblical narrative as the backgound of their daily lives...

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Frances
I hoped you had a good time in West Virginia!

Wow, so much to get from your comment. First, I agree with Marilynn Robinson, nostaligia is a dangerous thing. We've come a long way in terms of acceptance and tolerance in the past 50 years and we often forget this when we do a cultural critique. Again, murder, abortion, paed*ph*lia have always been with us, just ask anyone who really knows their family tree.

We don't have moralisers in the UK. We don't have a moral right, we have a burgeoning moral left, we have a tiny Christian right but it holds no political sway. In the 1980s there were a series of sexual scandals involving the leading lights of Thatcher's "family values" cabinet. Politicians learnt to no longer spout forth on values, morals, etc because if they were ever caught with their trousers down, the press would have them for breakfast. Nowadays they get caught at it, but still keep their jobs because the press can't call you a hypocrite if you haven't yet talked on the subject of modern morality in parliament.

The New Labour and New Tory line is that morality is an matter for individual conscience and should not be brought into politics. To a certain extent this is true, we are a secular democracy and a multi-faith society and the personal morality of the individual within a democracy will differ from citizen to citizen.

However, for morality to work, and work properly, there needs to be a common morality: a consensus. This I think was the prime failing of the American Christian right. They had the opportunity to build a moral consensus, but they simply caused political and religious division. The failing of our British, liberal (in the true sense of the word) morality is its overly sensitive pluralistic nature, again a failure to form a moral consensus. The trouble is, moral consensus forms social cohesion, it's how communities work. To be honest with you, I don't know the answer, but I do know that we need to make a start, perhaps with the media - you're right it's hollow and shallow and pretty vile - and whilst I abhor censorship, there needs to be public pressure for them to self regulate.

Blimey, I didn't mean this to a bloody manifesto! Like I said, you made such good points that I couldn't help but write an essay!

Hi Jo
Yes, Frances's comment about positive narratives is such a good one. In my experience young people are extrememly interested in "good vs evil". We underestimate the moral competence of our teens and children. They have a marvellous capacity for compassion an moral outrage! Actually, one of the reasons I came to believe in God was by realising that human beings were rather wonderfully altruistic, even our young, we were created that way.

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