BOOK REVIEW: ‘Daily Rituals: Women at Work‘ By Mason Currey

By Claire Hopley – – Thursday, March 7, 2019



By Mason Currey

Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 304 pages

In his introduction to “Daily Rituals: Women at Work,” reminds readers of his earlier book “Daily Rituals: Artists at Work,” a compilation of descriptions of how artists in various media manage their workdays.

Almost 80 percent of its subjects were men. And as now notes, their obstacles “were frequently mitigated by devoted wives, paid servants, sizable inheritances, and, oh yes, centuries of accrued privilege.”

In this new book, he focuses on 143 women artists, noting that this “opens dramatic new vistas of frustration and compromise.” While some wealthy women had their paths cleared, “Most grew up in societies that ignored or rejected women’s creative work, and many had parents or spouses who vigorously opposed their attempts to prioritize self-expression over the traditional roles of wife, mother, homemaker.”

One such was composer Robert Schumann. Though his wife, Clara, was a virtuoso pianist with a career in European concert halls, Schumann did not help with the eight children born in the 14 years of their marriage and thought she should put household needs over piano practice because “Clara realizes that I must make full use of my powers now they are at their best in the fulness of my youth. Well, so it must be when artists marry, and if two people love each other it is right enough.” To the extent he supported her continued concert career, it was because they needed the money she earned.

His lieder may never sound the same again.

Penelope Fitzgerald was also hampered by marriage. She did not publish anything until she was 58, and significant acclaim came only in her 70s. Her husband drank rather than worked. They and their three children lived on a dilapidated houseboat on the Thames while she worked as a schoolteacher to support them. Later, she advised young writers to devote themselves to writing “otherwise it’s not possible to get it done.”

Yet for some women running a conventional household provided the humdrum that fostered a creative life. Shirley Jackson, mother of four children as well as a novelist, said “All the time I am making beds and doing dishes and driving to town for dancing shoes, I am telling myself stories.” Writing did not conflict with domesticity because “A writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words always noticing.”

Similarly, though Doris Lessing left her two eldest children with their father in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to pursue her career in London, like Shirley Jackson she found household tasks helpful. “You’d think I was a paragon of concern for housework if you judged by what you saw,” she wrote, noting that “pottering around, washing a cup, tidying a drawer” was a way of preparing herself to write.

Painter Lee Krasner affirmed she sacrificed nothing for her art even though her reputation long lingered behind that of her husband, Jackson Pollack. “Pollack was a turbulent man,” she agreed. “Life with him was never very calm. But the question — should I paint, shouldn’t I paint — never arose. I didn’t hide my paintings in a closet. They hung on the wall with his.” One secret of their relationship may be that they admired and praised each other’s work.

For many having a studio or other place dedicated to work is vital. The French painter Romaine Brooks decided it was “essential to live alone.” Eudora Welty claimed she could write anywhere, but much preferred the home she grew up in, where she could prevent interruptions. Playwright Ntozake Shange liked working in cafes during the afternoon quiet hours because it was a protected environment, “where whatever my demons are, they are not going to be able overwhelm me because I am alone and vulnerable.”

Lillian Hellman posted a notice on her study door forbidding entry. She began work early aided by 20 cups of strong coffee and three packs of cigarettes a day. Many of the male artists featured in ’s earlier collection similarly needed lots of coffee and tobacco, and often also alcohol or uppers or downers to jump-start their creative process.

Most of the women artists described here have more moderate habits — a drink at the end of the day perhaps. Many eat breakfast, but few focus much on food. When sculptor Louise Nevelson learned that in old age Danish writer Isak Dineson consumed only oysters and champagne, she thought “what an intelligent solution to ridding oneself of meaningless decision-making.”

What emerges from this compilation is that creative women feel compelled to their work. In earlier centuries, many a creative rose must have been born to blush unseen, and those that bloomed rarely did so without some opposition. Women still face hurdles, sometimes involving choices about marriage and children, sometimes prejudices that create hurdles. What typifies them is that they figure out routines that give them a supportive framework.

Reading these accounts of their stratagems is illuminating and often fun. While reading them all in one go would be like consuming every dish on a cruise ship’s buffet, for chewy samples of illuminating reading, this is one to choose.

• Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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