Housewife Hands

During my pregnancy with Pippin, in addition to all the expected and unexpected minutiae of a crappy pregnancy, I noticed an itchy patch on my left hand at the knuckles. With grim humor, I referred to it as my “pregnancy rot” but it continued to dog me even into nursing, once getting so severe the doctor prescribed steroids.

It was then I learned I had eczema, and specifically what a friend would later ID as “housewife hands ” — in my case brought on not by dishwashing but by all the hand-washing I was doing when I’d throw up.

Nineteenth century literature is obsessed with a woman’s hands as the key to her occupation and rank, sometimes even her character. Nowadays I don’t think we really notice someone else’s hands (unless it’s to critique a manicure?), although I found myself considering it recently at the salon. They’d just asked me about my job, and I’d said I was a “homemaker” — a term I infinitely prefer for its creative capabilities over “stay-at-home mom.” And I was also marveling that my hairdresser could ever manage to keep her hands soft: if I were plunging mine into shampoo and hot water a dozen times a day, they’d be cracked and bleeding and crusted with eczema.

But as they are now, they’re not much different from when I didn’t work with my hands. They’re a bit dirtier, I guess, from my fledgling efforts in gardening. They have calluses from carrying those stupidly heavy infant car seats. But now that I’ve left the Arctic conditions of western Massachusetts, I don’t struggle as much with eczema, even when a pregnancy or new baby has me washing my hands hourly.

At least I don’t have to deal with anxiety over what my hands make other people think of me, like Leslie Moore in Anne’s House of Dreams:

“Her hands, clasped over her knee, were brown and somewhat work-hardened; but the skin of her throat and cheeks was as white as cream.”

We’re supposed to get the idea that Leslie’s meant for better things, with her creamily aristocratic complexion, but has stumbled into a hard life that has left her hands “brown and somewhat work-hardened.” The opposite is true, perhaps, for Meg March, who, as the proud owner of “white hands, of which she was rather vain”  longs for a life free from domestic obligations at the outset of Little Women.

Men of the era, on the other hand, are meant to have work-hardened, rugged hands — something I’ve always loved about my rock climber husband, despite his office day job. A pompous minister in Rainbow Valley is described as having “plump white 
hands and [a] very handsome diamond ring,” while in Middlemarch Sir James Chettam revolts Dorothea because “his dimpled hands were quite disagreeable.”

So we’ve established that if you’re going to make it in the 1800s, you need to have tough hands if you’re a man and soft hands as a woman (and you’re out of luck if they aren’t, racially or otherwise, white). Still, my favorite mention of Victorian hands describes my hero and yours, Dorothea Brooke:

“She threw off her mantle and bonnet, and sat down opposite to him, enjoying the glow, but lifting up her beautiful hands for a screen. They were not thin hands, or small hands; but powerful, feminine, maternal hands. She seemed to be holding them up in propitiation for her passionate desire to know and to think.”

She threw off her mantle and bonnet, and sat down opposite to him, enjoying the glow, but lifting up her beautiful hands for a screen. They were not thin hands, or small hands; but powerful, feminine, maternal hands. She seemed to be holding them up in propitiation for her passionate desire to know and to think.

They’re not small, nor is there mention of them being smooth or white. They’re capable hands, but also womanly hands She’s a loving woman, and that love translates itself into care and a longing to know. We can extrapolate that in her later life, come down in the world, she must use them for work of some kind or another as she cares for her humble(r) home and children, and these are the kind of hands I aspire to have: “powerful, feminine, maternal” hands that make bread and hold books, wipe bums and tend gardens — occasional eczema patches and all.


One thought on “Housewife Hands

  1. Yes! I love that description of Dorothea’s hands and have the same aspiration. On a less profound note, I decided in my freshman year of college that hands were the most important feature for me in a man (you know, feeling the pressure to contribute when the other girls were talking about eyes, muscles, jawline, etc.). So, when I saw the gnarled pinkie of a certain fellow’s hands, and heard the ludicrous story of how his high school rushed him off in an ambulance for a broken pinkie and his subsequent months of pinkie therapy, I laughed and wrote him off. And the only proper conclusion? “Reader, I married him.”


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