Whistle While You Work


Our Daily Correspondent


William Paxton, The Figurine, 1921

“Many people tolerate squalor,” a friend once said to me. “But you’re the only person I know who seems to have a positive preference for it.”

Evidence to the contrary, I don’t, in fact, enjoy filth and chaos. But I do have a high threshold for it. I seem to lack a certain fastidiousness gene, and I’m guilty of what the British call, terrifically, “sluttish housekeeping.” I am not someone who will ever derive pleasure or satisfaction from cleaning—like running, it is a taste I doubt I will ever acquire. There is always a heap of clothing in my bedroom, generally schmutz on my mirrors, and invariably a mysterious profusion of change on the floor, everywhere. These are the sorts of things suitors think are cute and quirky, and that actual boyfriends come to understand are in fact heavy crosses to be borne.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—my own messiness, I enjoy depictions of cleaning to an unusual degree. Specifically, I love any montage in which order is imposed on chaos. Desirable elements include energetic sweeping, fresh coats of paint, clouds of dust, windows being thrown open. Is this because I somehow crave order, or just that Snow White was the second film I ever saw on the big screen? (War Games was the first.) I don’t know, but either way, I love to watch them while lounging in my unmade bed, generally surrounded by crumbs.

Even better than movie montages are written descriptions of such industry. Even though historical romance is not my thing, I have been known to pick up a paperback set in the Middle Ages purely on the off chance that a new bride will have to set her husband’s moldering castle to rights. This tends to involve the replacement of rotting reeds with fresh ones on the floor of a keep; often herbs are employed. Sometimes there are bonus scenes in which larders are scoured. But the residence in question need not be a castle. The epic airing to which Flora Poste subjects Cold Comfort Farm is arguably the high point of that novel. (The film depiction is equally satisfying.)

Now the house looked dirty and miserable and depressing no longer. Its windows flung back the gold of the sunset. The yard was swept clean of straws and paper. Check curtains hung crisply at most of the windows, and someone had been digging and trimming up the garden, and there were already rows of beans in red flower.

In the category of nonfiction, there are two books I particularly recommend if you enjoy setting-to-rights: the first is Julia Reed’s The House on First Street, which chronicles her move to New Orleans and becomes a story of Katrina. Of course, the story is a much larger one, and a tragic one: petty, necessary acts of cleaning and repairing and fixing are presented as battles in a much larger and more serious war. The tiny, gallant increments of survival—clearing out refrigerators of rotting food, repairing windows, fixing wiring—take on a larger than usual significance. As Reed writes, “what we are really doing is celebrating our very existence … We are still alive, we are saying to one another, and more than that, we are still here, in New Orleans, because we choose to be.”

The other book is very different. Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion, by Judy Corbett, came across my desk many years ago, when I was an editorial assistant at a publishing house. I have never seen or heard of this book elsewhere—I don’t think it ever came out in America—but I loved it. The titular optimists are a British couple in their twenties—Corbett, a restorer of antique books, and her boyfriend, an art historian—who, despite having no money, quixotically buy a crumbling, fourteenth-century castle in North Wales. There is nothing instant or easy or movie-montagey about this story, but it remains one of the most satisfying cleaning accounts—and truest, most inspiring love stories—I have ever read.

I do understand that the vast majority of things I have mentioned feature a woman sweeping in and imposing order on a space—and, by extension, a life. In my own case, things have never looked like that. I could be flippant and say this is some kind of “[insert cleaning word here] porn” for me—scrub porn?—but in fact reading about these things neither excites me nor makes me feel inadequate. These tales offer the comforts of a bedtime story, as if order and orderliness were part of a fairy-tale realm, as improbable as it is magical.