On the first day of lockdown, I tidied my closet. It’s so much less stressful to wear clothes that make you feel good when you can actually find the clothes that make you feel good.
On the fifth day, I swept and mopped all the main living areas of my house. It was overdue. And once it was done, it felt absolutely amazing.
On the sixth day, I ventured out to the grocery store down the street and bought enough groceries to last at least a couple of weeks. And on most days since then, my sister and I cooked real food for dinner. Simple, easy food on most days, but real meals with protein and vegetables and, on day 12, homemade bread.
In those early days of uncertainty and forced solitude, I craved the comfort of tidy spaces and homemade meals more than I ever had before. And as I yielded to this impulse to tend to my home, I became increasingly aware of how valuable it is to take the time to make “home” a pleasant place to be, a refuge in the midst of a world that feels very chaotic and unpredictable.
Yet every time I logged onto Instagram and saw the ambitious “quarantine bucket lists” everyone was sharing, my own small attempts at homey-ness felt woefully inadequate. “Use this time well,” people were urging each other. “You’ll never get this much down time again!” they insisted, in those early days when staying at home was just a temporary measure and “normal” was more than just a distant memory.
By using my time “well,” these well-meaning influencers were referring to tackling some grand creative project or major career shift I’d been meaning to pursue but had lacked the time. And I wanted to take their advice. I wanted to be the type of person who wrote a book between March and June, by which time I was sure the pandemic and the social isolation would be over and I would be plunged back into the busyness of a regular summer.
But even then, back when I thought all the restrictions and stay-at-home orders would only last a few weeks or months, I couldn’t focus enough to even consider undertaking a major project, much less summon the energy to get such a project off the ground. I was separated from my Canadian fiancé, stuck in my house with minimal social contact, and exhausted by the weight of not knowing what would happen next.
Even my blog, the thing I was always wishing I had more time to pursue, felt like it was beyond my reach. I had started blogging a couple of years earlier with a goal of making literature and literary analysis accessible to non-English majors. In early 2020, however, I didn’t have the attention span to engage with the “serious” literature I thought I needed to write about, and every moment I spent making muffins and mopping my floors felt like a wasted opportunity because, at the end of the day, I felt I had very little to show for my efforts.
The reality, though, was that the silent work of creating a safe and comforting space for my social isolation was just as valuable as any serious writing I could have undertaken during that time. Because when the outside world feels unpredictable and even dangerous, having a safe and restorative home environment is crucially important.
I’m not the first person to view home as the perfect counterpoint to a chaotic and perilous world. Throughout the Victorian era in particular, many writers viewed society as dangerous and confusing and thought that the only way for people to engage with a stressful and morally ambiguous world and emerge unscathed was to have a safe and happy home to which they could retreat at the end of each day.
So committed were they to this belief that the Victorians launched a whole new genre of literature, producing book after book of homemaking advice. The books range from how-to manuals for experienced housekeepers to fictionalized instructions for younger readers, but all of them are based on the premise that the work of crafting a healthy, purposeful home was vital and important work. Full stop.
Did the Victorians get everything right? Of course not. At the time, the concept of home was inextricably linked with the women who were primarily responsible for domestic work, and many people of that era made the leap from valuing the work women traditionally did to assuming that it was unwise or even immoral for women to pursue any other kind of occupation. More extreme adherents to the “cult of domesticity”, a movement that idolized women as “angels of the house” whose pure influence kept everyone under their direction from straying from virtue, thought that men were, by nature, morally weak and were therefore in need of the preserving influence of their mothers, wives, and sweethearts to keep them on the straight and narrow. While this ideology did lead to society respecting women and their influence in ways it had not done since the Middle Ages, it also had the tendency to shift the responsibility for men’s moral failings on the women whose influence was supposed to keep their baser natures in check.
So, no, the Victorians didn’t get it all right. No generation is without its faults—including ours, if we’re honest with ourselves. If there’s one thing they got right, though, it was that the environment of our homes can have a powerful impact on our psyches. And they understood that when something is that impactful, it’s worth learning how to do it well.
Our homes have always mattered—but especially now, when the outside world feels so very unsafe, it’s vital that the space we come home to every day be one where we can truly relax and be at rest. I would go so far as to call it a cornerstone of the mental health foundation we need to establish if we’re going to successfully navigate the challenges as overwhelming as the ones we’re currently dealing with.
Yet very seldom do we prioritize learning how to build and tend to our homes the way we prioritize learning other skills that work toward the same end.
I can’t even tell you how many hours I’ve spent reading about mental health, researching strategies to help me manage my own depression and anxiety. But do you know what usually precedes a mental health spiral for me? Being hopelessly behind on laundry, looking around at a cluttered house, and feeling there’s nowhere peaceful for me to sit and let my mind be at ease. And these days, when I’m home all the time, there is truly nowhere else for me to go. If I’m going to feel calm and rested, it has to be at home—and that means my home needs to be set up to accomplish those aims.
I’m beginning 2021 in an unfamiliar city, with an unfamiliar health crisis outside my new home and half-unpacked boxes still cluttering the space within. After my marriage last September, I moved to a new city. I don’t have a job, or anywhere to go other than grocery store once a week. I’m home, every day, all day. And in the upheaval of transition, along with everything else that’s going on in the world, I need my home to feel safe and pleasant and comforting more than ever before.
Right now, at the dawn of a year no more certain than the last one, my need of a home that feels safe and calm and the Victorians’ expertise and creating just such a home have overlapped.
So, over the next few weeks, as I work to finish unpacking and setting up my home and as I try to figure out how to keep my home tidy and clean without spending all day doing it, I’m going to let the Victorians do what they do best: teach me how to keep my home.
Not all the advice in the homemaking books I’ll be using will be relevant to my home or to my life. I have a hunch, though, that a lot of the basics of keeping house haven’t changed as much as we might think over the last hundred and fifty years. I’m curious to see if I’m right, and I’m curious to know how easy (or how difficult) it will prove to adapt Victorian homemaking methods to a very modern home.
So if you have any interest in home, or history, or old books, or any combination of the three, feel free to follow along. I’ll be sharing my experiment here and on Instagram @the.inquisitive.reader, and I welcome your thoughts and insights as I go along!
Until next time, I’d love to hear from you: have you noticed that your home environment affects your mental health, especially during this past year? Let me know in the comments!