What did some of the male titans of early modern literature have in common with housewives? According to Katie Kadue, a shared preoccupation with the tedious and not always successful work of maintaining life. In an elegantly organized and beautifully written book of five chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, Kadue ranges confidently across time, terrain, and language, moving from Rabelais (in the mid-sixteenth century) to Milton in the mid- and late seventeenth century and concluding with a discussion of two poems by women, one eighteenth century and one twenty-first century. Balancing a sharp eye for detail against a robust overarching argument, she offers both new insights into familiar authors and works and a new rubric one might use to discuss other texts and authors as well. As she puts it at one point, she reads monumental works “in a minor key” (152). The result is a book that rewards the domestic georgic practice of careful reading cover to cover but whose dazzling chapters can also stand alone.
What is the domestic georgic? By Kadue's definition, it is smaller and less heroic or transformative than the georgic as it is usually defined. Cyclical rather than forward-thrusting, feminized and quotidian, it is both diminutive and unending. It is the women's work that is, proverbially, never done. If “labor omnia vincit” was the triumphal and optimistic rallying cry of the georgic, the domestic georgic would require a more provisional, modest motto. Perhaps “Labor keeps everything sort of going for now?” Kadue shows how the authors she studies, including Francois Rabelais, Michel de Montaigne, Edmund Spenser, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton, shared a “surprising preoccupation with the repetitive, uneventful labors necessary to preserve life, and how those labors inform the metabolic processes of thinking and writing” (5). Those labors also provide models for understanding those processes of thinking and writing. As Kadue acknowledges, “Pickling, preserving, storing, and organizing are not usually considered the province of the literary powerhouses this book considers” (5). And yet! As she shows, even early modern literary powerhouses practiced writing as the selection and management of ingredients, as an act of assembling, curating, and preserving found materials in new compilations. Kadue activates the early modern layers of meaning around the word “preservation,” reminding us that treatises in the period linked recipes for preserving beauty, health, and youth with those for putting up jam or reviving sour wine. In a further link, preserved foods, like conserves, might be prescribed as correctives, balancing the humors and restoring health.
The domestic georgic conjured up daily suspensions of time, but only to provisional ends. Its achievements were always fleeting, always requiring repeated and sustained effort. Focusing on preservation rather than the production of something new, Kadue emphasizes how these writers’ creativity emerged from “the mixing of promiscuously gathered impressions, ideas, affects, and materials” (129). As a consequence, writers had to work constantly to “temper” their ingredients through “the near-constant work of preservation, maintenance, and restoration” (55); “the constant, microfocused labor of tempering the furnishings and provisions of the world in order to keep them” (105). Among its many other achievements, the book contributes to our ongoing inquiry into what constituted originality and authorship in the early modern period. As Kadue shows, “The author's task is to carefully arrange the vast linguistic and cultural store he has inherited” (51); “it may be that the not strictly productive and merely maintenance-minded management skills more proper to housewives or midwives and so scorned by learned men are in fact the very source and necessary condition of humanist authors’ creative capabilities” (53).
Kadue's approach enables her to reconfigure our very notion of “the Renaissance.” While some have understood the period in terms of the muscular, manly excavation of cultural heritage, Kadue emphasizes instead the domestic georgic or “intellectual huswifery” of managing information and manuscripts. Erasmus provides a model here for humanist housekeeping: the need “to organize messy textual material in order to make it available, hopefully, for others to use for their own sustenance and preservation” (21). As she points out, “the scholar's activity of correcting, copying, editing, translating, and transcribing can seek only to maintain original materials—and to only uncertain ends” (22). Her approach here offers a new take on ongoing discussions of work versus needlework, or the pen versus the needle. As she shows, the supposed opposites were actually conceived as more similar than different. Even these lofty canonical writers experienced their writing work as more like domestic work than not. Kadue's approach also enables us to understand the irritation of Montaigne's kidney stones as emblematic of the low grade inflammation every writing body must manage. Montaigne might have helped to invent a new genre, but that innovation emerged from the domestic georgic impulse not of boldly going but of getting by. “Asides, self-corrections, suspensions, and their relatives are the mechanisms by which Montaigne's metabolic machine reproduces itself, repeating with a minor or unquantifiable difference, preserving meaning by slightly altering it” (91).
Kadue acknowledges important recent scholarship that has demonstrated the dependence of great men on women and servants, but she chooses to take a different approach, focusing not on “the lived realities of women, but the imaginations of male authors who repeatedly returned to rhythms of domestic labor in the form and content of their work” (9). While Kadue's book might profitably be read in relation to other work about “lived realities” and the processes that have disappeared women's work or the uncanniness of early modern domestic labor, her goal here is different: pointing to how, in its very mundanity, domestic work provided a model for intellectual work and writing. She makes it clear, for instance, that she is not arguing that Spenser's The Faerie Queene casts women and servants as the real heroes but argues instead that the poet's own endless work resembles that of those women and servants and that the poem's heroes depend on the support work of others, even as the poem depicts them as astonished and undermined by that very dependency. Whereas early scientists tended to obscure their reliance on the work of their households, Spenser draws our attention to that dependency. “Spenser's personifications of bodily and mental processes sweat right through the cloudy wrapping of allegory and confront us with a bare fact about Elizabethan aristocratic personhood: far from being fashioned autonomously, it relies on the labor of others—specifically, social inferiors” (61). The cloudy wrappings of allegory—and of epic and romance—have obscured the significance of these episodes. Yet Kadue helps us to see them and their significance as well as how they slip out of the allegories’ control. The focus in this chapter is three episodes, at three sites of maintenance work: the nursing staff of the House of Holiness in book 1, the workers in the Castle of Alma in book 2, and Venus's remedies in the Garden of Adonis in book 3.
Kadue models humanist scholarship as, among other things, “corrective” as much as innovative, and her own practice offers some illuminating correctives here. She is also tempered in her judgments, scrupulously acknowledging what she has learned from other critics and formulating nuanced interventions, gentle yet revelatory course corrections. For example, the chapter “Spenser's Secret Recipes” positions itself against influential accounts of Spenserian self-fashioning. In The Faerie Queene, Kadue shows,
it takes a full-time staff of domestic laborers to fashion a gentleman. Or, to put it another way, Spenser's male characters are “unfashioned,” stripped of autonomy not only as allegorical personifications—each of whom is arguably meant to represent only one of the ideal gentleman's virtues, not the complete gentleman himself—but also as characters, who are revealed to have no selves at all if not for the work of other characters. (55)
The chapter on “Rabelais in a Pickle” challenges the critical consensus that Rabelais is defined by excess and transgression, “fluidity, fecundity, and flux,” (27) to focus instead on his creative strategies for managing textual excess through tempering, pickling, fermenting, and macerating. Tracking moments of “suspension” in Rabelais's flow, she links Rabelais to vinegar as well as wine and to “provisional or indefinite immobilizations” (29).
The chapter on “Marvell in the Meantime” counters Margarita Stocker's reading of Marvell's “Upon Appleton House” by suggesting that the poem attends not to the end times as much as it does to the meantime, the future held in suspension. Kadue offers a fresh perspective on what might be “queer” in “Upon Appleton House,” arguing that Marvell's poem works to preserve patriarchy as syrups, perfumes, and conserves preserved flowers and fruits. “Marvell's apparently subversive tendencies sustain heterosexual norms by renovating them, not out of an unequivocal attachment to heterosexuality but out of an urgent desire to sustain present conditions and future potential. Marvell's poetic techniques show how the suspension of futurity can be as easily conservative as transformative” (24). As she points out, “The pleasure with which we locate queerness in early modern literature . . . can obscure how content or form that is ‘odd, strange,’ or ‘aslant’ often helps to reproduce the very normative structures it ostensibly undermines” (108). “An occasional reprieve from understanding things in straightforwardly patrilineal terms may be necessary for the reproduction of the heterosexual couple as an institution” (124).
In the chapter on “Milton's Storehouses,” Kadue offers a particularly revelatory corrective to Stanley Fish's reading of the passage in Areopagitica describing books preserved “as in a vial” as relics. Kadue points out that we might instead see these glass jars as the contents of a woman's medicine cabinet, or what is now sometimes still called a “glass pantry” of preserves. This is a wonderful example of how Kadue's focus on the domestic georgic dramatically alters our perception and interpretation. “Milton's Storehouses” provides a perfect final chapter, especially in its reading of Paradise Lost as linking the fall to “a tension between a domestic georgic of maintenance and a teleological georgic of progress” (135). Once Raphael introduces a concept of linear progress (“time may come when”) to Adam and Eve, the domestic georgic becomes unsustainable for them. Kadue's approach enables her to tease out similarities between Milton and the daughters who milked him of a morning and the wife who prepared his meals and acted as a secretary. All, she shows, were engaged in interdependent forms of domestic georgic.
The conclusion considers Mary Collier's poem “The Woman's Labour” (1739) and Alice Oswald's Memorial (2011), a rewriting of the Iliad. Both, Kadue shows, articulate how repetitive labor constitutes masculine heroism and how making poetry resembles manual domestic labor. Taken as a whole, the book helps us to understand the links between the feminization and devaluation of domestic labor, on the one hand, and of research, writing, and teaching in the humanities, on the other. Perhaps in this protracted pandemic, we are more able than ever to understand what it means to put the future into suspension; the inseparability of domesticity and paid labor, intellectual and manual work; the irritation of constant uncertainty; and the hard, unending slog of maintaining. While Domestic Georgic is grounded in the particulars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and its case studies, it is also arrestingly timely.