Dorothy Canfield Fisher …

… wrote a lot more books than Understood Betsy. She wrote a book about Maria Montessori whom she met in Italy. She wrote a bit about World War I in France, discussing in one case some women who had been taken to Germany as hostage/prisoners. And she wrote a lot about people from Vermont who go elsewhere, either Europe or the Midwest of the United States, and what happens.

That’s actually a poor description. In several of Dorothy Canfield’s books there is a divide between those who understand some kind of aesthetic and cultivate it vs. those who work. The author is not in agreement with this divide and her characters struggle against it or give into it for a while and then realize their mistake. I am going to state upfront that I didn’t read these books in toto. I find parts of them just too much as the characters are agonizing over whether they will accept luxury or accept doing their own work.

Some ten years ago I read an essay by a woman who had some sort of job, and a nine or ten year old boy. She wrote in the essay that she had been converted to the idea of making a home, so she fired her cleaning lady and started to work. Then she discovered that a) she didn’t like doing it and b) her son wanted to know why she was doing servant’s work. Shocked, she went back to her job and rehired cleaners.

I was shocked too. She allowed her son to put down the work of housekeeping. She had taught him to look at it that way and then was mortified to discover that, in fact, that’s what he thought. And rather than point out that it was honorable to work and dishonorable to look down on people, she reinforced the lesson, That’s not what We do.

But I am fascinated that such a discussion was ongoing one hundred years ago. Sixteen hundred years ago Saint Benedict set the west on a new pathway by insisting that work and prayer went together — Ora et Labora. However, this understanding is being chipped away constantly where I live now today. I just didn’t realize that the discussion was so old.

I’ve been reading Dorothy Canfield’s books because I wander through Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Australia when I’m feeling the need for words to flow across my eyeballs. There’s a lot of reading there….