Virginia Woolf said, in A Room of One’s Own, that a woman needed her own room to be a writer. Sounds pretty obvious, these days. (If you find it too obvious and think “What’s the point?”, read the book and consider.) I work in a sort of narrow passageway between the living room and the kitchen, with washing machine and dryer about ten feet away, and no doors. I do think Woolf might have stressed doors a bit more in her book, but perhaps she took it for granted that a door (“that opened and shut” to quote Milne’s “Old Sailor”) defined a room as much as its walls.
The room needed and desired is not so much physical as metaphorical, and male writers are just as much in need of it as female. Woolf’s point was that throughout most of history, male writers could much more easily have that room. These days, perhaps we’re more or less equal in our ability to carve out that space. We’re certainly supposed to be, in theory, anyway. I do wonder how many full-time male writers have someone else to do their cooking, their laundry, and their housekeeping, versus how many female? (Leaving aside the whole bringing up the kids thing.) I’m not talking about my own house, where the Spouse, also a writer, does the laundry and nobody does the housekeeping, save for sporadic fits of vacuuming when the dog-hair begins to pile in drifts. Just . . . generally. How many male writers can be full-time writers because the wife has the equivalent of the “off-farm job” that keeps our family farms afloat? (Are they seen as hobbyists, as the female writer supported by her working spouse so often is?) How many female?
If you want to not live surrounded by drifts of dog-hair, and eat good meals rather than tinned or frozen processed stuff, being a housewife is a full-time job, and somebody, male or female, has to do it. In the old days, anybody lower-middle-class had at the very least what was called “the girl” to help. Now we’re supposed to have vacuum cleaners and washing machines, but they still demand time (and time to earn the money to buy them). And cooking a real meal takes almost as long as it ever did. It’s faster to get the oven the right temperature, yes, and you don’t have split the wood or pluck the hen before you begin. You still have to wash the potatoes and peel the carrots, and the chicken takes as long to roast as it ever did. Stir-fry? If you’re not wealthy enough to spend your money on pre-this-and-that’ed food, you’re going to be slicing your own meat and veg. That all takes time (a certain recent novel which had a nineteenth-century woman thinking rebelliously that it only took twenty minutes to get dinner notwithstanding).
This is why we need Mrs Hudson. “Who is Mrs Hudson?” you may be asking. Well, obviously, the Mrs Hudson. Sherlock Holmes’s landlady. Could he have spent hours sunk in brooding thought, experimenting with noxious chemicals, or dashing about dark alleys in disguise, if he’d had to cook and clean and generally pick up after himself? I think not. When I think of Mrs Hudson, I don’t think of Conan Doyle’s books, which is an embarrassing thing for an author to admit. In the books she’s mostly just there, a necessary fact of life without which Holmes and Watson could not function. She’s as essential as the roof over their heads, but she doesn’t have to be a full character and we should be glad that Conan Doyle fleshed her out as much as he did, I suppose. When I think of Mrs Hudson (and probably when you do, too) it’s Rosalie Williams’s Mrs Hudson that I mean. Williams brought Mrs Hudson to vivid life, and the writers of the Jeremy Brett and David Burke/Edward Hardwicke Sherlock Holmes for Granada expanded her role while keeping her true to the original literary character. A word here, a look there, a smile, a sniff or too and a stiffly retreating back, and Mrs Hudson was a real person.
Every writer, and especially every family of writers, needs a Mrs Hudson. Time is money and money buys time; if you don’t have money enough to buy time, you steal it from yourself. You don’t take days off to relax and recharge; you don’t take evenings off; year after year, you work at writing and whatever part-time off-farm job you have to, to make up for the steady and ongoing decline in writers’ incomes; you don’t dust; you don’t wash the kitchen floor. You dream of Mrs Hudson bustling in with your supper under silver-plate domes, so that you can eat and get back to writing and not have to wash the dishes. You dream of Mrs Hudson, who no doubt had a maid as well as the page-boy who ran errands, sweeping your floors and dusting your shelves so your computer wouldn’t be clogged up with dustmice and dogfur. Mrs Hudson could go and do the grocery shopping (though mind you, she expected the butcher’s boy to call at the door).
Only the wealthy can afford Mrs Hudsons any more. The alternative, of course, is to live with your mum for ever and for ever, and let her look after you. That doesn’t work for most of us either. So here we are, carrying on amidst the dog fur, having wild fantasies of Mrs Hudson making our toast and scrambled eggs and sniffing when we insist that teetering stack of books by the computer is in fact a highly organized filing system and she is not to touch it.
The truth is, every writer needs a wife, with “wife” defined by the nineteen-fifties, as in this amusing grocery list we found inside the cupboard when we moved in.(Note not only her fetching hat, but the quantity of instant foods on the list — ah, the fifties, where the decline and fall of civilization actually began.) Problem is, a wife would expect some sort of emotional involvement, which is just so exhausting when you already have a spouse.
No. It’s Mrs Hudson I yearn for, passionately. And she wouldn’t feed me T.V. dinners, either.