Book Review: Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975

By Alexa Johnston

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Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975 by Frances Walsh
Godwit $49.99

Book cover of Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975 by Frances Walsh. Photo / Supplied
Book cover of Inside Stories: A History of the New Zealand Housewife 1890-1975 by Frances Walsh. Photo / Supplied

What a great read. Frances Walsh's book is a fascinating work of New Zealand social history written with wit, intelligence and a refreshing lack of condescension towards the ideas and attitudes of the last century.

Someone once said we are doomed to pour scorn on the past for its backwardness and to be pitied by the future for our own - and from this perspective, women's magazines of the past can be ripe for ridicule.

These publications provided the raw material for Inside Stories and the fashions, the fiction, the quaint ideas about everything from housework to health could make them easy to mock, but Walsh firmly resists the temptation.

And we are in no position to sneer. What any future historian would make of the intelligence of New Zealand women today were they to judge from the tragic spectacle of contemporary women's magazines is a sobering thought. After looking through four of the most popular mags a few weeks ago - awash with celebrity relationships, weight-loss and weight-gain stories, someone having plastic surgery (which made very little difference to her nose but demonstrated how brave she was, presumably for spending $10,000 on herself) and useful advice on combating stress by eating potatoes and porridge, all punctuated with several thousand exclamation marks - I felt both depressed and exhausted.

There were a few good recipes but, in general, give me a 1940s magazine any day.

Walsh's research confirms a few accepted notions about the realities of past lives but overturns many more. She views the domestic world of women with genuine interest, respect, humour, occasional horror, but more often awe at the sheer hard work it demanded. Working at home, as seen through the chapters of this book, involved juggling the constant demands of housework, children, husbands, neighbours, shopping, dealing with her own low spirits, with household help, home appliances, the laundry, interior decorating - and even taking time to have a little rest every now and then. Has nothing changed? In the end, Inside Stories is a celebration of women's fortitude and resourcefulness and an engrossing journey into our history.

I was intrigued by an advertisement for a cookery book club from a 1970s Thursday magazine. The text suggests rather irritatingly that happy marriages depend on good cooking, but just look at the quality of the cookery books on offer - several of them are favourites of mine today. They include two classics by Elizabeth David, Paula Peck's masterly work The Art of Fine Baking, the Constance Spry Cookery Book which is full of wryly witty and sensible advice and even that encyclopaedic American tome: The Joy of Cooking. With these on the bookshelf the woman at home could enjoy reading some excellent food writers. Her husband's happiness might even follow ...

I can't say I enjoyed the design of the book, which seems to straitjacket the content rather than bring it to life. It's a pity that Walsh's carefully selected magazine covers and pages have all been relentlessly cropped into smooth postcards against a pristine match-lined wall, rather than looking like the stuff that lies around on kitchen tables - part of the clutter of home.

The photographs opening each chapter are of actual objects, but instead of suggesting the vigour, life and humour of the people who used them - for whom they were unsentimental, everyday things - they register as sad and maudlin relics. And did anyone ever hang their tea towels high up on a row of coat hooks?

But with fast-paced text, well selected quotes and a sharp eye for a revealing detail or a condescending phrase, Walsh paints a picture of lives which, though filled with work, were not empty of meaning. The consolations that can come from bringing organisation to domestic chaos are not to be sniffed at, as are the pleasures of making something yourself.

Many of those who sought advice from the columns of their magazines no doubt longed for the same reassurance. They were real women with real and worrying concerns and I was left hoping that, in the end, things turned out all right for them.

Alexa Johnston is an Auckland writer and curator.

- NZ Herald

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