Parson Blake And The Farmer’s Wife

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If in addition to these labors she cares to supervise the poultry house or the piggery, well and good. However, “active labors about the cowhouse and the enclosure of the swine are not properly her responsibility,” and a husband should realize that “her time is worth more in the house than out of it.”

All this ought to keep the farmer’s wife fairly well occupied, which is as it should be. Mr. Blake has scant patience with the cult of idleness for ladies that was becoming popular at that time. He closes his chapter on the choice of a wife with nostalgic references to those bygone times when even royal ladies fashioned their clothing with their own fair hands. What, moans Mr. Blake, is this present generation coming to?

The term “gracious living” had not yet come into vogue, but our author coined a phrase, “living prettily in the country,” to express the same idea. In a chapter with that title, he points out that it is not enough that food should nourish, garments clothe, and a house protect from the elements. The farmer’s wife who aspires to “live prettily” must be on her toes to add those little extras which country people—alas!—sometimes neglect.

First of all, there is her house, which, though it be modest, must be neat and clean and must express her own taste and originality in its furnishings. For this purpose, the husband should give his wife an allowance large enough to cover more than the bare essentials. Having said this, the author hastily adds that this need not be a large sum. The farmer’s wife will frequently be satisfied with what the city housewife might spend on her parlor curtains alone. There is to be no going hog-wild on spending sprees; furniture and household equipment should be bought carefully, one piece at a time. “Thus, spending |io.oo or more yearly for furniture in a farm house, nothing being cast away or destroyed, by the middle of life, when the children are becoming grown up, there will be no lack of everything needed for convenience or ornament.” No mention is made of the wear and tear on furniture incidental to the growing-up process.

Good country food needs no fancy cookery to make it tempting, but the farmer’s wife is reminded that ”… if the table furniture is in a ruinous condition—if it has been cast upon the table in wild disorder—a relish for the repast is greatly impaired. For such negligence there is no excuse. The excuse usually given [is] that none but the members of the family are present. It is a species of domestic economy with which we have no fellowship that a family live like pigs when by themselves.”

This is plain speaking, and it applies also to dress and personal grooming. The Reverend Mr. Blake dislikes slovenly women. He is not happy about the fact that countrywomen tend to neglect their personal appearance because they live an isolated life and are seldom seen. All the more reason to make a good impression on the rare occasions when someone happens by. A wife should be so clothed that she is always “in a condition to be seen by strangers without mortification, and without an expenditure to embarrass her husband.” Mr. Blake’s eye is ever on the family finances.

The contribution of the farmer himself to pretty living is neatly disposed of in one paragraph. Among other things, he is to see that the Sunday wagon is kept clean and painted; that the door fastenings of the house are in order and the windows free of broken glass; and that there are “no loosened weatherboards to become Aeolian harps to the rats and mice while the family is asleep.” Compared to the round-the-clock requirements placed on his wife, it seems the farmer comes off rather easily.

This the good preacher is the first to admit. Having described in great detail the obligations assumed by the woman when she married her man, he is suddenly appalled at what has been asked of her and proceeds forthwith to turn his attention to “resources for preserving her spirit unbroken and buoyant.” Her husband’s labors vary with the seasons and are performed amid the beauties of the great out-of-doors; but “how in the kitchen does summer differ from winter, or spring from fall, save in atmospheric temperature; or how does the evening differ from the morning, save that one displays the boiling teakettle and the other the boiling coffee-kettle? … To woman, shut up in the kitchen, there is seemingly no summer, no spring, no autumn; naught but dreary winter.” Clearly farmers’ wives must be cheered by some recreation.

For physical and mental relaxation, Mr. Blake recommends the quilting party and the afternoon tea party as just the thing. Here the weary ladies get a new lease on life. “The current news of the day, true and false, probable and improbable, is analyzed and collated as if prepared for a revised edition of the press. … Here, too, fashions and morals are duly expounded. … Nor are the probabilities or improbabilities of future matrimonial alliances overlooked.” It must be confessed that on these occasions that admirable spirit of neighborliness common in the country sometimes degenerates into nosiness and gossip. Slander, like the dropped pebble which sets the whole surface of the quiet pool in motion, is sometimes “propagated through the whole community on the concentric waves of the social breath.” Nevertheless, these gatherings serve a great social purpose. They send the ladies happily back home with something new to think about.