The domestic in drag

needled reviews:
Nigella Express, BBC2, Mondays, 8.30pm
Jane Brocket, The Gentle Art of Domesticity (Hodder & Stoughton, 2007)

Despite my best efforts to avoid it, last night I encountered Nigella Express. It was much more diverting than I’d assumed. Indeed, Mr B and I spent the programme in a state of near hysteria. How we roared as Nigella, taking the pornography of the edible right back in to the bedroom, oozed from her sheets resplendent in an oil-black nightie, apparently suffering a nuit blanche of donut withdrawal. In fact, the only un-funny thing in this truly ludicrous half hour was the orgy of irresponsible consumption it depicted. Nigella popped open and discarded a small planet’s worth of plastic while purring vacuously about ‘convenience.’

I was utterly transfixed by the spectacular Ms Lawson. Like a bizarre fusion of Russell Brand and Ab Fab’s Eddie she emoted and threw shapes about the kitchen. There was something reminiscent of the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher about her too: all ruthless, insane, and glinting. Most intriguing of all, it wasn’t just Nigella’s self-consciously excessive presence that was so powerfully suggestive of transvestism, but the gorgeous interiors of her home as well. From the sensuous sanctuary of her pantry (usefully marked “pantry”) to the consolations of her tea-pot; from the tearful, cookie-munching friend on her sofa to the privately-educated child obligingly performing its homework, this was an absurd parody of privileged domesticity: This was the domestic in drag.


I was also struck by the strange allure of the drag-domestic while reading Jane Brocket’s Gentle Art of Domesticity. Now, as an enthusiastic practitioner of the ‘arts’ Brocket celebrates, and someone who has occasionally looked at Yarnstorm, I felt compelled to be sympathetic to, and even to defend, her book. The bizarrely rabid attacks in The Daily Telegraph or on last week’s Woman’s Hour have, it seems to me, largely been voiced by individuals who just don’t get how sewing, knitting, quilting, or cooking could possibly provide a stimulating form of expression for any contemporary woman. Kate Saunders and Liz Hunt seem to regard such activities as somehow antithetical to one of feminism’s key goals, viz, women’s equal participation in the modern public sphere—a perspective which is not only short sighted but, given the sheer numbers of women who have over the past decade discovered a renewed sense of themselves in the creative energy of all sorts of crafts, weirdly old fashioned. And for any crafter there are certainly things to like and admire about Brocket’s book: her passionate appreciation of buttons, her visceral and individual sense of colour and, most particularly for me, her thoughtful and moving account of the embroidered table cloths she loves and collects. After discussing five distinctive and very different examples of the same popular 1930s transfer design Brocket writes of how she finds “comfort in handling these textiles knowing that I am appreciating something that was of great value to its maker.” For me, it was worth reading the book simply for her fond account of these objects, the “art” of which is so often overlooked, or dismissed.

But however much I want to like Brocket there are things I found profoundly troubling about her book. The first thing to note is that this is not a book about crafts or domesticity in any sort of broad sense, this is a book about Jane Brocket’s version of those things. So at first I thought my wary reaction to her domesticity might well be just a matter of personal taste: I am not quite so fond of pink or pineapples; of the sentimental art of the late Victorians or (shudder) of Jane Austen adaptations as Ms Brocket. And, after a while, the relentlessly saccharine palate and sing-song tone of the book started to induce in me vauge feelings of nausea. Then I started to realise that, in a sense, this was entirely the point: the whole purpose of the book is to absorb you in the all-encompassing syrupy aesthetic that is Brocket-world: A world where there is always a clean, fresh shirt on the line and a cake on the table; where each member of the family will be perpetually wrapped cosily in its favourite quilt and the colours of your comfy shoes will always match those of your current knitting project. Like the performing home and family depicted in Nigella Express, the world of Jane Brocket is one of luscious surfaces, sensory overload and visual excess….with something (for me at least) hollow and questionable at its core. The book celebrates a sort of hyper-real—or indeed drag—early twenty-first century version of a 1950s domestic ideal. Reading The Gentle Art of Domesticity was like being in a film by Douglas Sirk (or perhaps Todd Haynes’ intelligent homage to that master of the ‘woman’s film’) but, terrifyingly, without any of the irony or critique.

(Far From Heaven’s incisive critique of the domestic-in-drag)

It is not that Brocket is incapable of thinking critically about the conventions and meanings of the domesticity she espouses. On the contrary, she reminds us several times of her graduate qualifications and, in the rather odd readings of several late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century depictions of domesticity, showcases a certain discursive intelligence. She also writes that the domestic was for her an active choice—one apparently belittled by an ‘academic’ schooling haunted by the ghosts of the Pankhursts. But then she holds up for our unquestioning admiration domestic icons and female role models so conservative it really is like feminism never happened. Can any woman seriously champion Doris Day in Young at Heart as a positive image of domesticity? I’m sure even DD herself could maintain an ironic distance from that one. The same goes for The Philadelphia Story, which Brocket regards as a Lovely Escapist Story with no sense at all of how that most patriarchal of narratives makes Kate Hepburn’s frigidity a symptom of her terribly unreasonable failure to accept Dad’s harmless philandering. And its not just these obvious and conventional images of middle-class female repression that Brocket draws into the weird idyll that is Brocket-world. How can she talk about Cary Grant and his clothes without even acknowledging an idea of camp? Is she for real?


All pink hearts and pinafores, Jane Brocket is incredibly camp too but, unlike Archibald Leach performing Cary Grant, without any of the considered self-awareness. And this is what is really so disturbing and ultimately shocking about her book. For her “gentle arts” are not gentle at all but are built on the twin pillars of privilege and inequality. This book is a shameless defence of luxury and leisure, of a world in which women are not only financially supported by wealthy men but are incredibly happy to be so; a world in which women are there not to work, not to be public or political or economically productive beings, but merely to consume vast quantities of lovely raw commodities; make lovely handmade items from those commodities; and then celebrate the virtues of those lovely handmade things as somehow ends in themselves. (Oh, and they can enjoy chocolate too. How naughty!) Brocket is so relentlessly bourgeois, so utterly self-satisfied that she is completely incapable of stepping back from her own entrenched class position and thinking critically about her own conservative version of domesticity, and its relation to her own economic advantage. Anyone who can write, as she does on page 206, about the cheering spectacle of happy servants might do well to have a chat with one intelligent knitter I know, who also supports herself and her family on her cleaner’s wage. Sorry, Jane, but I think you should have considered the realities (or indeed history) of domestic labour at greater length before you assumed to write about domesticity, and thought a little bit more carefully about the implications of “domestic art” before you elevated the materials and objects of your gaudy, expensive, and incredibly fortunate life to that status.