Review: Lorna Sixsmith’s How to be a Perfect Farm Wife

As an historian and the curator of the Modern Wife, Modern Life exhibition, my research focusses on women’s magazines (Woman’s Way, Woman’s Choice and Woman’s View) published in 1960s Ireland. I’ve read them for what they reveal about expectations of women – particularly housewives – during a decade of transformation. The message for the housewife is clear: in addition to being a dutiful wife, caring mother, parsimonious with the household budget and well turned out in her appearance, the good wife was also expected to have all the latest mod cons.  These included a fridge, electric cooker, washing machine –– even a dishwasher! Essentially, ideal wife and modern wife became blended into the one ideal.

But on closer inspection, how representative or accurate was this image of the real 1960s housewife? What about the women living in those parts of rural Ireland that the electrification project had yet to reach? For these women, the absence of piped water or electricity meant that mod cons could be nothing more than aspirational items. Rural Ireland and farm wives rarely appeared in the magazines, with the notable exception of the praise that was heaped on them for the entrepreneurial spirit they showed in earning ‘pin money’ by selling eggs.

As I’m interested in getting a broader sense of how everyday life was experienced by women of different generations and of all backgrounds, I was really keen to read Lorna Sixsmith’s latest book, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife. I was delighted when Lorna invited me to make my blog one of the stops on her book tour.

I met Lorna earlier this year when I took my 1960s women road show to Portlaoise where she shared some really interesting insights into life on a farm, and we recently reflected on 1960s marriage during an ‘in conversation’ event at dlr LexIcon. Her book builds on the wonderful stories I’ve heard her share, and as I read it on a long train journey a few weekends ago, I found myself laughing out loud, getting a little teary eyed – the story about the Aberdeen Angus bull calf nearly broke me! – and reflecting on the position of women in rural society.

How to be a Perfect Farm Wife does not claim to be a rigorous historical analysis of Irish farmers’ wives, but Lorna clearly has a strong sense of the lines of continuity and change across the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. Drawing on her own experiences, she writes with authority. Her observations are given further legitimacy by the use of newspaper extracts – mostly personal advertisements – which are scattered throughout the book. They offer revealing glimpses into a system of values that often guided the forging of a relationship.

As I read the book I couldn’t help but think of the magazines I research and their urban outlook. If they were to be believed, farmwives did all the same things as urban housewives but also collected eggs from their hens. Lorna’s book reveals the truth and shows just how demanding the average working day was for the farmwife. I was particularly struck by a remark from one of her interviewees: ‘we didn’t have time to think about morning sickness; we just got on with it’ (p. 25). All of the challenges facing women in their daily lives were further complicated by the necessity of keeping the farm running.

One element of the book that really caused me to pause for reflection actually has very little to do with the farm wife herself. The writing of women’s history in Ireland has tended to focus largely on revolutionary or political women. More recent scholarship has begun to examine the experience of everyday life, but the spinster has been largely neglected. By offering guidance on negotiating the relationship not just with the mother-in-law but also spinster sisters, Lorna sheds light on these overlooked women who existed in a greater quantity than women’s magazines would have us believe. (Magazines were filled with advice on attracting a husband and being a good wife, and left little space to address the lifestyle of those who could not or would not marry). Lorna’s book, though not tackling the subject of spinsterhood in depth, thus makes an important contribution to our knowledge of the position of women in society.

'The Young Wife' (1938) marriage manual
The Young Wife marriage manual (3rd edition, 1938).

Filled with such tips as ‘how to prepare a chicken for the table’ and ‘how to use traditional cleaning materials’, as well as a wonderful collection of classic recipes, How to be a Perfect Farm Wife reminded me a lot of the marriage manuals that newlyweds either bought for themselves or received as presents in the first half of the twentieth-century. They fell out of fashion by the middle of the century, but a cursory glance at Amazon suggests that more humorous takes on the traditional manual are making a come-back. I would suggest, however, that Lorna Sixsmith’s book has an advantage over many of its rivals. How to be a Perfect Farm Wife is not simply a delightful page-turner, nor is it only for those from a farming background. Despite the tongue-in-cheek title and chapter headings that suggest a light-hearted read, the book is eminently informative and revealing about the position of women in Irish society. As such, it should appeal to anyone with an interest in social history.

~ Ciara Meehan

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For details of earlier stops on the How to be a Perfect Farm Wife blog tour and for details of upcoming reviews, visit Lorna’s website here. The next review will be posted on 19 November by Catherina Cunnane of That’s Farming.