Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Emigrant Wife

The ‘Hints for Emigrants’ Wives’ (posted Monday 8 March 2010), said to have been written ‘by a Lady’, paints a picture of colonial life which seems idyllic - from a masculine point of view. There’s a suspicion that the author may have been a man e.g. hard-working husband comes home after long hot day in the fields to find evening meal perfectly prepared by wife ‘who has the temperament and bodily strength … to enable her to find pleasure’ in her domain, the home.

This was far from reality. Nothing the emigrant wife had experienced previously could help her adjust to her changed circumstances in the colony. ‘Housekeeping’ took on a new dimension: multi-tasking would be a more accurate term.

Eliza Feilden, who came to Natal with her husband in 1852 left us a detailed account of her ‘African home’.* Originally written as letters to her family in England, she later compiled them into one volume, illustrated with her own sketches:

‘I am learning to become a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I bake very good bread (in an outdoor oven), mix a capital meat pie … the oven part is the worst. A bake-pan is placed over a fire of wood in our oven and wood is put on the lid. This fire has to be constantly watched … to keep it at the right temperature or your loaf gets burnt to a cinder in the lower crust half an inch thick, and your pie-crust is sodden when the meat is baked hard. The lessons I am learning in cookery, however, will never come amiss.’

Needlework was not of the decorative variety. Apart from sewing her own clothes, a colonial wife had to learn to ‘turn’ a man’s suit to make it last longer, or cut it down to fit a growing son. In spite of the sub-tropical heat, cumbersome crinolines and tight-lacing continued to be worn. Examples of women’s typically close-fitting bodices, now preserved in museums, show small padded pieces sewn in the armpit, presumably an attempt to prevent damp patches and staining of the garment.

* My African Home: or, Bush Life in Natal when a young colony 1852-7 by Eliza Whigham Feilden (Sampson Low, 1887) 

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