Judith Flanders – The Making of Home

Judith Flanders – senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham – has made a return of sorts with her most recent book, The Making of Home(2014), having moved away from her earlier The Victorian House: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed (2003) to spend time in the urban worlds of her last two books, The Invention of Murder (2011) and The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London (2012). However, to have returned home does not mean that Flanders returns her herself to a familiar place, as she expertly argues and supports with vivid detail in The Making of Home.

Enjoying Flanders’s work necessitates experiencing the familiar as unfamiliar. For example, writing this book review in the comfortable study of my middle class starter home – an otherwise unremarkable event – becomes extraordinary. This space’s presumed stability and my own expectations concerning its comfort become fluid as Flanders’s details and argument swirl in my head. That I can close the door for privacy while my wife grades at the house’s far end and our dogs sleep in the narrow hall becomes a marvel. A casual glance through one of my study’s two glazed windows reminds me that only 200 years ago an entire American house might have had only one glazed window the size of a single pane. Moreover, window panes – in my study, single panes desperately needing replacing – were not in 16th century England even considered part of the house, their value so high that they were bequeathed to heirs separately.  A reevaluation of how I arrived at my previous complacency, though, is the essence of Flanders’s argument. It is the striking unfamiliarity of this otherwise familiar idea of home, as well as the persistent and various efforts I share with Westerners across centuries to close the gap between my ideals of home and the lived in structure and surroundings that together constitute that ideal, that Flanders evokes throughout The Making of Home.

A primary goal, stated in the introduction, is to trace the importance and render visible a home’s “invisible” influence and influences:

It is not … how houses were decorated per se, but how the decoration reflected the behavior of the people who lived there, and how that behavior, in turn, was guided by their beliefs and values, and the beliefs and values of the society to which they belonged. … And just as descriptions of physical surroundings need to be disentangled from the behavior that was caused by, or altered, those surroundings, so too do we need to separate the realities of the physical surroundings from how people thought about those surroundings. (19)

One invisible influence Flanders introduces early – and returns to often – is her distinction between “home” and “house” countries. Although this binary is by no means firm, it helps categorize basic differences between the emotions associated with home. Flanders writes:

To speakers of English, or the Germanic and Scandinavian languages, or the Finno-Urgic Group … the differences between home and house are obvious. They are two related but distinct things, and therefore they have two worlds. … Speakers of Romance and Slavic languages, living in ‘house’ countries, have by contrast just one word for both meanings. … Linguistically, the house was inseparable from those who lived in it, united by kinship and economic ties, and from the labour and land it took to maintain them. (3-4)

The distinction initially seems mundane, but Flanders asserts and proves that the psychic space one affords the idea of home, whether as a retreat from the counterpoised public, workaday world in which one must otherwise exist or just a slightly more private area whose borders might terminate in a public street café, has been shaped by and continues shaping emotional and cultural connections with the word “home.” As an American, I can easily identify with the ideas of a “home” language, for my idea of home separates me and my family from the busy world, and when I have to “bring my work home” with me, it is an unwelcome invasion. However, before I can rest too comfortably in this ideal, Flanders’s argument makes me aware that such an assumption means that the home my wife and I share is necessarily distinct from our extended families’ homes and contributes to a separation from them.

Samuel van Hoogstraten

“View Down a Corridor”

In order to render these “invisibles” – whether objects or social patterns and trends – more concrete, Flanders makes expert use of visual artwork. These are one of the book’s many remarkable highlights. Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age, for instance, famed for their supposed depictions of domestic life, are shown by Flanders to be inconsistent with the contemporary Dutch domestic experience. These paintings, she argues, were symbolic, not mimetic, yet the distance of time and our own assumptions of photographic realism have removed the symbolism and left us with the sense that these paintings were accurate representations of domestic life. Such misconceived images were later romanticized and mythologized as ideal, exerting an invisible yet strong influence on how a home should appear.

Emmanuel de Witte

“Interior With a Woman at a Clavichord”

A last example of an “invisible” influence must suffice to drive home the importance of this point in The Making of Home. The Great Rebuildings – mid-1500s in England and 1700s in USA – are invisible historical events that contributed to the great domestic amnesia with which anyone reading Flanders’s book will find him/herself confronted. Primarily, the Great Rebuildings contributed to the myth that perceived “old” houses are representative of what people actually lived in and considered homes:

As well-to-do yeomen farmers built themselves larger houses in newer styles, the older houses were handed down to their workers, inadvertently giving later ages the notion that these houses had been what the working poor had been accustomed to. … From the late sixteenth to the seventeenth century, many of the vernacular buildings in England were rebuilt completely, many more were altered to a lesser degree, and more were entirely new. … [In the USA] the original poorly constructed frame houses of the colonies had always been intended to be temporary…. As a result, no houses at all survive in the USA from the first half-century of colonial settlement, up to 1667. … It is important to stress that most assumptions about early colonial housing are based on five samples, of which just three can be said to be original. (58-59)

The Great Rebuildings in both England and America are important to remember for they have contributed to the invisible housing world lying just beyond the shadow of many contemporary cultural “memories” of home. Such a hidden world is important to remember, though, for as Flanders notes they hide the “centuries of hugger-mugger, cheek-by-jowl living, which almost everyone experienced, and expected…. Yet without knowing how people lived, it can be difficult to understand why they acted as they did. It is only when we know what the physical circumstances people lived in were like that we can appreciate how changes to those circumstances reflected changed ideas and expectations” (60). As can be seen, Flanders is doing more in this work than simply uncovering curiosities and anachronisms about houses – she is taking on a cultural amnesia, a persistent yet unconscious mythmaking about the supposed familiarity of home that continues today in the gaps one can note between pictures of kitchens in Better Homes & GardensLadies’ Home Journal, or Martha Stewart Living magazines and our actual cooked-in kitchens.

Pieter de Hooch “At the Linen Closet”

At its core, though, The Making of Home is an academic piece, and this requires a lot of her reader. The scope of her work is wide, ranging across the Atlantic and across Europe, and this occasionally makes for rough passage. Additionally, although the visual art pieces are, as mentioned earlier, one of the book’s highlights, the placement of the artistic plates into two “plate sections” in the book fragments one’s reading when flipping between Flanders’s references to them in the text and the images themselves. However, the resolution and the glossy paper of these two plate sections make for high quality renditions, and grouping the images is easily forgiven. A last minor critique of the work concerns the book’s organization, which occasionally creates repetitive sections and late explanations of terms and ideas used with familiarly early in the book.

Four years before being granted permission to review The Making of Home, I purchased Bill Bryson’s At Home while on vacation in New Hampshire. Bryson’s work, its style of casual curiosity reflecting my own naive approach to the subject, piqued my interest in the “unfamiliar familiar” of house and home. Flanders’s The Making of Home, however, delves much deeper into these ideas, placing them within a well-stated and -researched argumentative framework, going beyond the what of “home” and “house,” and into the social, cultural, economical, historical, and political how and the why of these ideas. Instead of Bryson’s series of “eureka” moments – fun and exciting in their own right – Flanders weaves the curious history of home into a complicated, trans-Atlantic, and pan-European vision of how and why home both depends upon and resists reification. If at times reading The Making of Home proves difficult, it is precisely because Flanders demands that her reader feel, like me when closing the cover of her book, that just as much meaning and effort hides behind turning out the light and closing one’s study door.

Judith Flanders’s The Making of Home will be published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press in September of 2015. If you live in the UK, it is currently available in both kindle and hardcover on amazon.co.uk.


 

Shannon N. Gilstrap earned his Ph.D. in Literary Studies from Georgia State University, with a dissertation titled “A Revolution by Due Course of Law”: Matthew Arnold, G.W.F. Hegel, and the State’s Revolutionary Role”. He has published on Matthew Arnold’s prose and poetry in Victorians: A Journal of Culture and Literature and Victorian Review and maintains the scholarly website www.arnoldian.com. He is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Georgia (Gainesville).