Friday 3 August 2012
In praise of washing dirty linen in public by Eve Edwards
Forget the furore induced by Fifty shades of Grey among readers and publishers cashing in on women's fantasies. There is another more potent secret that I want to share with you: fifty shades of whites, otherwise known as 'hanging out the washing'.
I know you were hoping for some great revelation of what makes our female engines tick but spare me a moment to develop my thesis. I do think this is an age-old (largely feminine?) pleasure. Did you notice that it even invaded hit film Mama Mia? Their washing was unfeasibly pretty but it was girl space, a place to party, a place to sing. I dislike most domestic tasks but a line of washing flapping in a drying breeze gives me a contented thrill. It's about family and nurturing, I suppose, rather than sex; about getting things done and putting things to rights. Each item I peg out is an intimate reminder of the wearer marking out their stage in life. When did my daughter start wearing bras sexier and bigger than mine? When will the footballing/muddy trousers stage end for my youngest? I can't believe my husband is still going round in that old thing! Note to self - lose it before it reaches ironing basket. My husband and children do hang out the washing when asked but they don't seem to 'get it' in the same way I do. Am I alone in this?
And washing watching - are you guilty of that? Part of the fun of foreign travel is spotting those lines revealing, like the Queen's flag, who is in residence.
I snapped these lines in Venice - a glimpse into living in a confined space and sharing everything with your neighbours. But the storyteller in me is always on the look out for those telltale signs of age and youth; wealth and poverty; nappies, lingerie or bloomers. It is a truer indication of our real lives than any other sign I can think of - even the absence of washing suggests something (i. you don't really live here or ii. you don't care about the environment/have no space so use a dryer or iii. you have a laundry service or iv.the weather is so ghastly your entire house is festooned with socks). The truth of course doesn't matter to a fiction writer - it's what attitude I project onto the household that interests me.
Practices change over the centuries but it still remains largely associated with women's work. I'm reminded of the washerwoman who lives downstairs to Marcus Didius Falco, the hero of Lindsey Davies Roman detective series. She expects you to piss in her tubs so she can use the urine as a bleaching agent. I imagine she pegged out her laundry very much as the Venetians do today. In Shakespeare's day there were fields dedicated to drying the washing of Londoners on the south bank of the Thames (you can see them in miniature on the maps). Washing was a tedious business so clothes were often sweetened with herbs rather than washed and dried but eventually even the smell-tolerant Tudors surrendered their linen. Hence Falstaff's buck basket and the possibilities that presented to the playwright.
By the 19th century a 'laundress' had become a word for prostitute, perhaps because of the association with greater liberty given to the washerwomen, coming and going, dealing with intimate secrets of a family, and possibly also as camp followers. And, of course, historic practice is to belittle or skew anything associated with women. It took children's literature of the Edwardian period to make the washerwoman innocent again in the shape of Mrs Tiggywinkle and even poor old Toad escaping from gaol dressed up as one, though I suppose from the flirting, she kept a frisson of naughtiness for that amphibian.
Blast - it's raining again. Must dash out and gather in the laundry. But I'll leave you with some lines from Anna Laetitia Barbauld, who made a mock heroic poem on this subject in 1797 when washing was a communal rather than our solitary pleasure. It's called 'Washing Day'.