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Annmarie Adams on The Parlour and the Suburb

16 December, 2020

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2007) review ‘The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic identities, class, femininity, and modernity’, Gender, Place & Culture, a Journal of Feminist Geography, 24 July 2007 (from a collection of reviews 499-511)

The image of women at home is an enduring symbol of twentieth century culture. Happy mothers in decorator kitchens or cosy family rooms, surrounded by healthy children whose father is busy at work in the distant city, is a way we think about mid-century, middle-class womanhood and suburbia. Judy Giles’ The Parlour and the Suburb explores these intersections of femininity, modernity, and social class through a wide range of twentieth century sources, especially English literature. She begins the book in a particularly compelling way by juxtaposing a mysterious 1951 photograph of her own highly educated, middle-class mother dressed as an apron- and slipper-clad housewife (smoking!), with an excerpt from Marilyn French’s popular 1978 book, The Women’s Room. Why would Giles’ class-conscious mother pose for this photograph as a working-class housewife? Did French’s critique of suburbia as stifling for women, illustrated mostly through her main character Mira, derive from an outmoded Victorian paradigm? What follows is a fascinating narrative that takes readers through fictional accounts, sociological interviews, houses, department stores, and women’s magazines in an attempt to answer these questions.

The book’s four chapters are quite distinct in their subject matter and sources. Chapter one looks at how marriage, suburbia, and self improvement interacted/intersected in the early to mid-twentieth century. Using George Orwell’s novel Coming Up For Air (1939) as a window on domestic life and values, Giles argues that the working-class ‘invasion’ of suburbia disturbed a rigid middle-class social order, inspiring a fiery critique of suburban life and especially women. Chapter two looks at social class from another perspective, through the lives of domestic servants and their mistresses. Beginning with Virginia Woolf’s tempestuous yet intimate relationship with her live-in servant Nelly Boxall, Giles shows how middle-class women relied on domestic servants to keep their households tidy and to free up time for public-sphere activities such as writing. The decline of domestic service in England by the 1950s, Giles insists, was a critical aspect of women’s experience of what she calls ‘domestic modernity’.

Annmarie Adams on The Parlour and the Suburb

This annotation is an extract from Annmarie Adams (2007) review ‘The Parlour and the Suburb: Domestic identities, class, femininity, and modernity’, Gender, Place & Culture, a Journal of Feminist Geography, 24 July 2007 (from a collection of reviews 499-511)