Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Break-Up of the Modern Home

In 1960 Robertson Davies gave a speech at a reception for the Ontario Association of Architects. He uncovered the cause of the break-up of the modern home. It’s the damned architects.

In countless novels written fifty years ago the heroine, having discovered that her husband was deceiving her with the beautiful brunette, crept away to the nursery to weep over her beloved children.

How is she expected to do that in a house which hasn’t any nursery? No woman of ordinary sensibility can creep away to weep in the rumpus-room. The thing is a psychological absurdity, and by making it so you have contributed to the break-up of the modern home.

And the study—how many modern houses have a study? Yet every man needs a study. Not to study in, of course, but to retire to when the pressure of domestic life is too great. He summons the other members of the family to meet him there. ‘George, I should like to see you in my study,’ he says to his son, when he wants to tell him to stop spending so much money. ‘Mary, come to my study,’ he says when he wants to tell his daughter to break off her affair with that beatnik she has been meeting on the sly. ‘My dear, will you come into my study,’ he says, when he wants to tell his wife that he knows what she has been up to with taht handsome Mexican dentist. But most of all he needs his study to sulk in. Every man must have a private sulking-place, and as his wife always wants the bedroom for taht purpose, he must have a study, or bottle up his sulks. And if he bottles his sulks, it won’t be long before he has to be taken away in a strait-jacket. How can he sulk in the living-area, which his children are using as the play-area, while his wife is right beside him in the kitchen-area, without so much as a screen to divide them? By forgetting the study you have struck an underhand blow at the mental health of the nation.

His wife, as I have said, sulks in the bedroom. I wish I could call it a boudoir but those wretched little boxes in modern houses cannot rise to the dignity of such a term. You know what a boudoir is. It’s a bedroom that you can pace in. Consider this passage, from a very fine novel, written not quite a century ago by Mrs. Henry Wood:

Scarce able to see through the mist of tears that clouded her violent eyes, Lady Maude sought her boudoir. There, among the treasures she had brought from her childhood home, she paced the floor, lost in sombre reverie. Had I but known, she mused as she walked toward the window, had I but known when when I gave my trust, my hand—yea, all that a woman holds in store of love and tenderness—to Cyril, that a day might come when I should wish, nay, implore Almight God, for the power to recall every gift, I should have ended my life rather than yield to his suit. Yes, all of this, these broad acres, this stately mansion, yes, and—O God, be merciful!—even my children, I should have wished undone… She turned at the window and continued her weary pacing.

Do you see what I am getting at? She said all of that while making one trip from the door to the window. The book tells us that Lady Maude was tall—say five foot eight—and therefore one of her paces might be estimated at twenty-five inches. Everybody knows that when you are pacing and regretting at the same time, you take a step to every word. Therefore Lady Maude took 85 paces of 25 inches apiece, which is 2,125 inches or 177 feet from door to window. Assuming that the room was a double cube, and that she was walking the long way of it, that means that the dimensions of her boudoir were 177 by 88, giving her a floor space of 15,576 square feet. No wonder she was able to keep the treasures of her old home in it. If they had included a couple of racehorses she could have kept them in it, without serious inconvenience.

But the important point is that she was able to pace in her boudoir, and the novel has a happy ending. I put it to you, gentlemen, would it have had a happy ending if Lady Maude had been cooped up in one of the bedrooms of which the Canadian Council of Women have been complaining to Mr. John C. Parkin?

Robertson Davies, from “How to Design a Haunted House,” published in One Half of Robertson Davies


Don't be a jerk.