Architecture in the Family Way: Doctors, Houses and Women, 1870-1900, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1996, $39.95, by Annmarie Adams, BA'81
Shortly after I received the commission from McGill News to review Annmarie Adams' Architecture in the Family Way, my husband and I announced our decision to buy a house, our first. This unleashed a deluge of admonition from colleagues and family. Is the insulation ureaformaldehyde? Is there lead paint on the walls? Asbestos in the walls? Radon under the floor? Allergens in the carpets? Being real estate virgins, we were (momentarily at least) flummoxed. What were we buying: a 1903 greystone, or the Irving Whale of Lower Westmount?
"Sick building syndrome" is a pervasive modern obsession, and Annmarie Adams puts her finger on the historical moment of its genesis: Great Britain, 1870-1900. But the ailing edifices of Victorian England were not hospitals or office buildings; rather, they were middle-class homes. Defining the home as a health issue, and determining what should be done about it, brought doctors and women together in a number of ways which proved significant for both medicine and feminism.
Architecture in the Family Way is structured as five essays, loosely linked in substance, but resonating with one another thematically. The first essay tours the International Health Exhibition of 1884. The highlight of London's hygiene Expo was a walk-in model of the "Insanitary Dwelling" and its counterpart, the "Sanitary Dwelling". To the naked eye the two could scarcely be distinguished. It was the unseen that made the difference: faulty drainage pipes, improperly positioned dustbins, poor ventilation, and toxic building materials. The list of ailments ascribed to the presence of arsenic in wallpaper has a familiar ring: bowel inflammation, diarrhoea, nausea, depression, asthma, headaches, and skin irritations. Significantly, this exhibition was conceived not by architects, but by physicians. Architects, castigated as mercenary and unscientific, were the villains; doctors and housewives became the crusaders who would save the British family from the baleful architectural practices.
How Victorian doctors colonized domestic architecture at the expense of architects is the theme of the second essay. The Domestic Sanitation Movement emerged from the larger public health crusade of the 19th century, and shared its vocabulary of fresh air, pure water, sunshine and soap. The intrusion of the medical profession imbued these ancient hygienic commonplaces with an aura of scientific rationality which strongly appealed to middle-class culture; at the same time, asserting expertise in the design of homes promoted the doctors' own quest for enhanced public recognition. Their closest allies were another group of people ambitious for respect: middle-class women. Chapter 3, "Female Regulation of the Healthy Home," argues that the so-called "separate sphere" of the Victorian housewife was, in fact, a highly permeable labyrinth of ventilation shafts and soil pipes. The angel of the hearth, more sanitary engineer than seraph, held a mandate from the medical pundits to conduct chemical tests for arsenic in the wallpaper, or single- handedly inspect the putty joints of her drains. Surprisingly, control over the physical fabric of her house led directly to more public roles. Pioneering women doctors argued that responsibility for the health of the home made women innately suitable for medicine, especially preventive medicine. Women carved out a niche in the burgeoning hygiene industry as domestic sanitation inspectors, and hung out their shingles as real estate agents, all on the grounds of expertise in the health of houses.
But the nexus of house, woman and doctor was not always liberating. The notion of a "sick building" implies that a building is a body, and historically, woman has also been defined primarily as a body. Equating house with body entails gendering the house as female, and vice versa. In her fourth essay, Adams traces the intensification of women's liability for disease in their houses. When she gave birth, a woman's own body became the most dangerous pathogen in her home, a living sewer of smell, noise, and sepsis. The design of the lying-in room in the Victorian middle-class house demonstrates the efforts of physicians to "quarantine" the birthing body and shield the house from its effluvia.
The final chapter, on domestic architecture and feminism, links movements for female education and liberation to the imprinting of feminine design elements on late-Victorian architecture. Women themselves began to practice as decorators and architects, and women activists patronized architects who promoted interior layouts, exterior styles, and forms of graphic presentation, like the perspective drawing, that spoke to the "feminine point of view".
Adams' study is innovative, intelligently illustrated, and seasoned with a dashing and witty style. Sometimes, however, her strokes are too broad: for example, the portrait of the late 19th century medical profession exaggerates its unity and conspiratorial confidence. The thematic unity of the book also occasionally unravels. The final chapter in particular abruptly abandons medical themes, and asserts that the central motifs of the study converge on the Queen Anne style. Adams also springs her conclusions on the reader with disconcerting suddenness. Somehow the year 1900 "marked the end rather than the beginning of a period when women enjoyed considerable control over the domestic spaces they inhabited." Doctors are inexplicably hustled off the scene, architects for no apparent reason exercise hegemony once more, and "English women returned to motherhood." But these are minor flaws in an otherwise engaging and original study. Annmarie Adams has enriched architectural history, medical history, and women's history by documenting an under-reported episode in the medicalization of the built environment, and by extending the definition of Victorian feminism far beyond votes for women. Above all, she has destabilized the notion of the "separate sphere" by showing how the Victorian private house became an intensely public space.
by Faith Wallis, BA'71, MA'74, MLS'76
Kiss Me, Porcupine's Quill, 1996, $14.95, by Andrew Pyper BA'91, MA'92
The back cover of Kiss Me claims Andrew Pyper has "professed admiration for the writing of Alice Munro," perhaps a dangerous acknowledgment to tie to a first collection of stories, since it begs for comparison. Having taken that bait, some might object that Pyper is no Alice Munro. Which would be true, of course, but unfair to Pyper, whose stories skillfully and quietly explore the lives of the under-thirty generation. His characters, however, are more thoughtful, vulnerable, and real creatures than those who bear that overworked media tattoo, Generation X (Pyper is no Douglas Coupland clone either, thankfully).
The title story profiles a burn victim unable to deal with his horrible disfigurement, alienating his caring girfriend and condemning himself to an apartment-ridden, Phantom-like life of embittered solitude. In "Call Roxanne," a mentally unstable young man hovers delicately between confronting his "mechanical problems", his relationship with a silent, circumspect father, and the fantasy refuge of a woman's name and phone number he has obtained from a bathroom stall.
There are wry, humourous stories in Kiss Me, too. "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home By Now" is the tale of a runaway fleeing his born-again father and joining a household of young Toronto intellectuals by pretending he's a writer, soon finding himself published in a counterculture pamphlet called Piss Pot.
Pyper's characters are lost, not a lost generation so much as individuals in limbo, in moody and uncertain transition. Their stories are the common yet often soul-shaking initiations of youth to the calamities of the adult world--personal tragedy, domestic violence, drug abuse, the departure of loved ones, and all those small yet emotionally thunderous, defining moments that occur between parents and children, lovers and friends. They are well-told, and Ms. Munro would likely approve.
by Andrew Mullins
The Price of a Dream, Simon & Shuster, 1996, $32.50, by David Bornstein, BCom'85
Ever since it declared independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh has been an icon of impoverishment. Yet it's there that western-taught economist Muhammad Yunus has created a minor economic miracle: the Grameen Bank, a micro-lending institution with a radical lending philosophy. Through loans of as little as $1 and no higher than a few hundred dollars, the Grameen ("Village") Bank has over two million borrowers - mostly poor village women - has disbursed about $2 billion since it was founded in 1976, and has a 97 percent payback rate. Its success has effectively reduced poverty throughout the region.
Yunus, who comes from an affluent Bangladeshi family, received a PhD then taught at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. After returning home in 1972, he concluded that with just a few dollars many needy villagers would be able to sustain small businesses. With the help of an established bank, Yunus began lending money, with interest, while ensuring payback by setting up local groups and making borrowers accountable to others in their group.
David Bornstein, a graduate of McGill commerce and New York University journalism, spent four years in Bangladesh meeting the people behind the numbers. In The Price of a Dream he humanizes a potentially dry topic by focusing on many of the villagers whose lives the bank changed. For instance, he tells of Aleya Begum, who initially borrowed 2,000 takas ($70) to buy a cow and sell milk, soon earning enough to increase her loan to purchase more cows. She now owns and operates a small farm. Bornstein also convincingly presents Yunus's contention that the Grameen Bank's method to reduce poverty can be transported to settings throughout the world. It's a lesson which hopefully will be heeded.
Howard Bokser, BCom'82, BA'88