With the ceaseless growth of populations, life grows less and less kindly for the woman and the child. The happy village life, with its freedoms, its play-places for the children, its crafts and its songs, has gradually decayed away. From causes deep-rooted in the appetites of mankind and common to all races, the people are driven more and more into cities. There the stony ways under foot, the closed houses like barren cliffs on either hand, the factory walls and chimneys forever multiplying, the strange machinery of iron and steel—look grimly on the woman and the child. The monster greed, who lies at the bottom of every human heart, steps out boldly under the sun, clothed in armour of stone and steel, defying Nature, kindness, beauty, art, handicraft, and all the fair simplicities that constitute the natural life. Since our conditioning is everywhere rapidly changing, since, among the noisy, pushing multitudes, the weakest not only go to the wall (as our proverb has it), but even down to the pit the case of woman needs to be newly stated. She must know in what today consists her virtue and her strength; what are her faculties, which way lies her path, what she shall desire, what she shall taste and what refuse. Very many are the offices and faculties of women; we can hardly count her different guises, so many does she wear in this tumult of increasing life. We recognize her as woman, the keeper of the house ; woman, the people’s servant; woman, the labourer; woman, the industrial slave; woman, the artist and follower of the crafts; woman, the healer; woman, the worshipper of Athene, mistress of all knowledges; woman, the priestess; woman, the counsellor, mother of mankind; woman, daughter of folly; woman, daughter of hell. Perhaps in all her manifold impersonations, woman is most completely herself in her immemorial office as keeper of the house. Realizing, as we can, the immemorial an elemental type of the housekeeper, we may consider afresh what are her functions, what her material of life, to what degree of honour she is born. Apart from the particular faculty of any artist, the degree of honour he receives is proportionate to the beauty and permanence of his material. The older artists relied for their ultimate greatness of reputation on the purity and lasting qualities of the colours they used. If their work had soon faded away, so would their honour. The housekeeper works in the most perishable material of all: it dies under her hand at night and must be renewed each morning. For builders in the frail and insubstantial, the housekeeper and Arachne, the spider, might make a match of it. The spider is incessantly spinning a web from her own inner store, constantly renewing it, constantly seeing her labour swept away. The housekeeper’s work, scarcely ended when she lies down at night, begins afresh with every dawn. She works in such material as water and fire, flour and soap, needles and thread, roses, and the broom. She is the link between man and the eternal simplicities. Of her completed works, some of the most important are eatable and meant to be demolished, for she is bond-woman to the appetites of her house-mates. She fights one long pitched battle with decay and many-legged depredators. But her enemy of enemies is dust: dust that forever rises in the footsteps of man. Out of doors sweet Mother Nature, who abhors dust, lays her live green carpet wherever she possibly can, and securely binds it down. When her green carpet fails, then the true terrors of dust are seen; we get the charging dust-storm a mile high, rattling like giant artillery and slaying all before it. Within doors, but for the cleansing hand of the housekeeper, life would be hideous. The labours of Sisyphus are hers—the enemy dust, slain yesterday, rises again to-day, and will rise again tomorrow. With such materials and such labour what pictures does our housekeeper create—pictures to hang forever in the memory of those who behold them. We have all seen them; they are common to every nation. The sun at the open window, crossing the floor, and the straight-made bed. The child’s face at the morning meal. The flower slowly opening in the vase. The lamp shining at night. The voice of welcome in the ready-opened door. The thrill of music in the house. The food fairly laid upon the board. Elements of life, every one of them, perfect and eternal, beautiful as art. Although this task of hers is that of a priestess and comparable to the work done by Mother Nature herself, it is not always seen so by men, nor even by herself. When called into the great market of the world to show her finished work, because of which she should have honour, behold, her hands are empty: there is nothing to show: she is of little account: her face is tired and her hair is grey. She has grown wise through the touch and feel of things, but she does not express her wisdom, as those do who have grown wise mainly from books. She stands silent, her voice unheard in the world’s uproar. Yet if you but stop a moment to consider that wholesome figure, she will presently appear to you to be significant: there is something there of the priestess, something of mystery and dignity: is she not an artist in life? Her art is the weaving of the indestructible out of the destructible. Out of such material as garments and draperies, comely meals, renewals of the bright hearth where love sits and warms herself, good counsel and the touch of the restoring hand, she moulds and stays up human life. She is the life-giver and the life-preserver. You see, in that comely figure of the good housekeeper who steals neglected into the world’s market-place, who is unpaid, and taken for granted, there hides an artist of rare achievement. Like Arachne, the spider, she has woven out of her very vitals a web of life. Here and there may be knots and flaws and tangles, yet in spite of them it will be found an acceptable piece of work; golden threads run through it; and when it is laid down as a carpet for the feet of the Lord of Life, it shines well enough and is on the whole worthy to take his footprints.
Rhys, Grace Little. “Arachne, or the Housekeeper.” 1920. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 20 Mar 2015. 25 Apr 2017 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/rhys/arachne_or_the_housekeeper/>.
Supposing then that we are in a reasonable state of health and comfort in other respects, we say that a walk home at night has its merits, if you choose to meet with them.
At all events, let us not confuse the motives of economy with those of simple pastime.
I like conscience, but, like corn and potatoes, carried too far, it becomes a vice. I think I could commit a murder with less hesitation than some people buy a ninepenny calico.
I have no hesitation whatever in saying that the most ignorant women I have known have been the worst housekeepers; and that the most learned women I have known have been among the best.
Before visiting countries and towns in the body, we ought to have visited them in the spirit; otherwise I fear we might as well sit still at home.