I love pictures of washing hanging out to dry – copies of the images above and below have been hanging in my house for years. There is something very satisfying about them, and it’s nice to think of drying washing as something that has been going on for thousands of years, mentions dropped into some unlikely books.
1) Starting with The Odyssey by Homer – probably composed around the end of the 8th century BCE. This translation (2004) is by AS Klein. Nausicca, a princess, is going for an expedition from the palace:
The girl brought the bright clothes from her room, and packed them into the gleaming wagon, while her mother put up a box of food, with everything to content the heart. There she packed delicacies, with wine in a goatskin bag: the girl climbed up, and her mother handed her a gold flask of olive oil, so that she and her maids could use it after bathing. Then Nausicaa took up the whip, and the smooth reins, and flicked the mules to start them. With a clatter of hooves they moved off smartly, carrying the girl and the clothing, and the maids too, to keep her company.
When they came to the river, lovely with streams, and never-failing pools, with enough clear water bubbling up and brimming over to wash the dirtiest clothes, they un-harnessed the mules and drove them along the bank of the swirling river to graze on the honey-sweet grass of the water meadows. They lifted armfuls of clothes from the wagon, carried them down to the clear black water, and trod them thoroughly in the pools, vying with one another. When they had washed the load and rinsed away the dirt, they spread the garments in lines on the beach, where the breaking waves wash the shingle cleanest. After bathing and rubbing themselves with oil, they ate their meal on the riverbank, and waited for the clothes to dry in the sun.
Nausicaa is a princess, so good for her doing her own washing. In fact she has been inspired by Athene, who whispered to her: ‘Your lovely clothes are neglected, yet your marriage will soon be here, when you’ll not only need to be dressed in lovely clothes yourself, but provide for those who accompany you.’ Nausicaa is going to help Odysseus…
When they had enjoyed the food, Nausicaa and her maids threw off their headgear and played with a ball, white-armed Nausicaa leading the accompanying song.
2) James Joyce’s Ulysses is inspired by the Odyssey, and Nausicaa is Gertie McDowell – we featured her doing her laundry in the parallel scene a long time ago on the blog. (And in this entry I translated a poem by Sappho from the Ancient Greek, though I haven’t ventured my own translation of Homer.)
3) Shakespeare has washing hanging out too, in the song of Autolycus from The Winter’s Tale:
When daffodils begin to peer, --
With hey! The doxy over the dale, --
Why, then comes in the sweet o’ the year;
For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale.
The white sheet bleaching on the hedge, --
With hey! the sweet birds, O, how they sing!
4) Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver goes sleuthing in the Scottish countryside, in Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses:
[The farmer's wife] had been hanging out washing; a basket of linen sat in the middle of the patch of grass and a pair of underdrawers hung by one leg where she had abandoned them. Rather a splendid garment for a sheep farmer’s wife, I thought, studying the satin waist-tape and the lace trim. And next to them on the line . . . I blinked.
‘Never,’ I said out loud. ‘Preposterous.’ For next along the clothes line to the splendid underdrawers was a bandeau brassiere in the same white linen with straps of the same satin tape and no Scottish farmer’s wife from Gretna Green to John o’ Groats could possibly possess such a thing.
5) In Christianna Brand's marvellous wartime murder story, Green for Danger, the posh young nurses live in a cottage together - here the policeman has come to visit:
Cockie [stood] in the narrow doorway, politely averting his eyes from a line of solid-looking underwear hanging across the little kitchen…Woody dived under the line of washing, holding up a garment for the Inspector to follow her. ‘Excuse the Jaeger coms and things, but chiffon and crepe de chine don’t quite suit the life of a VAD…’
6) The poet Seamus Heaney wrote a wonderful poem about pegging out washing, dedicated to, and about, his mother:
The cool that came off sheets just off the line
Made me think the damp must still be in them
But when I took my corners of the linen
And pulled against her, first straight down the hem
And then diagonally, then flapped and shook
The fabric like a sail in a cross-wind,
They made a dried-out undulating thwack...
7) I recently came across a lovely book of poems called Washing Lines, which could have been designed for me: a collection of poems about laundry, washing and ironing, illustrated with beautiful woodcuts. It seems to be out of print now, but you can still pick up copies. (Watch out if you search on Amazon: you have to specify a search in books, or else you get offered a lot of cheap and nicely made washing lines in many different colours.) It features poets down the ages talking about doing the washing. It was put together by Janie Hextall and Barbara McNaught, and is a lovely read.
8) There is currently an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at the National Gallery in London - this one, Hanging the Laundry Out by Berthe Morisot, is there, on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington:
The top picture is a photograph by Crispin Eurich of washing drying in the streets of Huddersfield. The second picture is Southwold Beach by Stanley Spencer.