Instructions to the housewife

A book has fallen into my hands from the flea market, that happily expresses an important aspect of my ideological position — which, to review, consists of three planks: 1. Catholicism. 2. Birdsong. And, 3. Good tea. It is a reprint of The Farmer’s Wife, or The Complete Country Housewife, published originally in the 1770s by Alexander Hogg, in Pater-noster Row, London. My copy was however lithographically reprinted, very nicely on laid paper at The Job Shop in Woods Hole, at the command of the publisher, Messrs Longship Press, of Crooked Lane, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA, in anno 1976. … (Let no one accuse me of bibliographical vagueness.)

The little volume (of 128 pages) delivers what it promises in successive chapters to the young lady, of almost any rank, settling on a farm. It expounds her duties. It provides, that is to say:

“Full and ample Directions for Breeding and Management of Turkies, Fowls, Geese, Ducks, Pigeons, &c. … Instructions for fattening Hogs, pickling of Pork, and curing of Bacon. … How to make Sausages, Hogs-Puddings, &c. … Full Instructions for making Wines from various Kinds of English Fruits (as Cyder, Perry, Mead, Mum, Cherry-Brandy, &c). … Directions respecting the Dairy, containing the best Way of making Butter, and likewise Gloucestershire, Cheshire, Stilton, Sage, and Cream Cheese. … How to pickle common English Fruits and Vegetables. … Full Instructions how to brew Beer and Ale. … Ample Directions respecting the Management of Bees, with an Account of the Use of Honey. … To which is added the Art of Breeding and Managing Song Birds. … Likewise a Variety of Receipts in Cookery. And other Particulars,” &c.

Gentle reader must forgive me for having condensed this sub-title, to give the quickest possible overview of the contents. The book itself omits mention of other tasks, which even the town girl would know how to do (bread-making comes to mind); being meant, I think, partly as a “back to the land” exposition. Nor, of course, does it touch on the range of her husband’s duties on the farm, which would be more arduous.

Such was the advance of “technology,” in previous centuries, that the book might equally describe English farm life in my preferred thirteenth century; for all these tasks were performed by the women then, and in much the same way. It stands as an evocation of the last moments before the Great Disruption — for those last moments that would continue even into the twentieth century, in some locations, until the Farm Machinery suddenly arrived, along with the totalitarian Experts.

Charming is the author’s love for the beasties, conveyed in verbal sketches of them, from the intelligent and social young Hog of fourteen stone, down to that skilled and industrious little animal, the Bee, who weighs a tiny fraction of a drachm. Each has his creaturely soul and personality, and must be addressed cautiously in view of his own understanding of things.

Diplomacy is the rule in the barnyard: one must remain on good terms with them all. Granted, we intend to eat some, and relieve others of their possessions, but when was this not also an object of Diplomacy?

The penultimate chapter, on the Song Birds, raises country labour to the ideal of Idleness I have been trying, tirelessly, to promote. For here are instructions not merely on feeding the vagrant avians of the countryside, but actually for breeding them, nurturing to strength, and graciously encouraging the stock of Canary-Birds. As, too: the Sky-Larks, Wood-Larks, Tit-Larks; and Nightingales; the Robin Red-Breasts calling forth; and the echoing Linnets in the furze; the Chaffinches, Goldfinches, Bullfinches, stoutly; the Sterlings, that whistle as they walk; the Thrushes and the Throstles; and the mirthful Twites; the Red-Starts; and the tiny piping Wrens.

I regret that the Nut-Hatch was excluded, whom some may think too shrill and intemperate for a choir, but I find rather pleasing. Among all the little birds, I am most attracted to his squeeze-eyed, chisel-spiked visage, under that lumpen brow — his look sometimes of droll darkling doubt and dapper disapproval, in the intervals of his song — a kind of Evelyn Waugh figure: short, plump, and opinionated. Perhaps our author, in the eighteenth century, meant to include him among the Wrens; or perhaps to reserve him for the orchestra, with his sound like a tin trumpet, and sometimes a gazoo; or post him for entrances and exits, in the mantle of a page, or butler.

Or were he from around here, the author might be saving his Nut-Hatch to pair, chastely, with a Chick-a-Dee. The two understand each other’s calls, at least in Greater Parkdale (which extends at the moment from Ottawa to Winnipeg); and one can describe a predator to the other, in minute detail of size, shape, and speed — entirely in song. What finer operatic duet can be imagined? … Ah, the drama! … Oh, the non-humanity!

But returning to the book: delightful depictions of the respective choristers, their manner of life, their eccentricities of flight and nesting; their degree of liveliness and merriment. Too, hints are dropped of their society together, for the full Bird Choir is a liturgical institution, with its own conventions, peculiar to each farm; and one kind of Bird sings company to another, hearing his notes and responding with his own, in thoughtful syncopation.

Let them sing for their supper!

It is this aspect of birdsong that has been most completely lost upon generations of crass Darwinoids, obsessed as they must be with mere principles of survival. And likewise, with the other post-moderns, who despise work because they have scientifically extracted all of the possible joy from it, so that their whole lives become, by increments of displeasure, a dreadful curse on themselves and all around.

For this book is premissed on the notion that country life — for the woman as the man, and most certainly for their children — is joyful in its nature; that country labour is part of that larger, mystical joy: as the choir in its voice of Praise, reaching Heaven. Why would one want to destroy this with “efficiency”? Why should we agree to live in misery, instead? … (The first instinct of the mechanical factory-farmer might be to pesticide the birds, lest they eat his crop; but part of that crop was meant for their feeding.)

Nothing is perfect in this world, and the book has two important shortcomings against which I must warn. There is nothing in it on Catholicism, whatever; and with all due respect to the need for wines, ales, and other liquors to be flowing, there is no mention of tea.

For which reasons it will have to be revised.