Helen Charman on ‘In the Pleasure Dairy’

‘Dairy Maid’, after Landseer. Mezzotint with etching and stipple on chine collé, 1853. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

In nineteenth-century Britain, the large country estates of the landed gentry would often include two kinds of dairy: a working dairy, where butter, milk, cheese and cream were made by working-class women, and a ‘fancy’, ‘polite’, or ‘pleasure’ dairy. The latter construction followed an architectural trend from early modern France (enthusiastically adopted by Marie Antoinette) in which a fake dairy was installed, often with extremely ornate décor, so the ladies of the house could pretend to engage in what was considered to be pleasing, domestic, appropriately feminine work, without having to do any actual labour. Often, the friezes that adorned the walls of the pleasure dairies featured depictions of womanly virtue, including childcare and breastfeeding.

The extract from ‘In the Pleasure Dairy’ published in The Poetry Review is the first few pages of a long poem. I wrote it as I was finishing my PhD thesis, which includes a chapter about pleasure dairies and illegitimate pregnancy in George Eliot’s 1859 novel Adam Bede: in the book, the (actual) dairy worker Hetty Sorrell is seduced by a nobleman, who rhapsodises about how beautiful she looks whilst churning butter. The opening section, ‘Life begins’, borrows the phrase “We make butter not profits” from a banner hung by workers who seized the means of production at a creamery in Knocklong, Co. Limerick, during the 1919 Limerick soviet, when a council of workers assumed control of their place of work: “KNOCKLONG SOVIET CREAMERY: WE MAKE BUTTER NOT PROFITS”.

In the poem, I wanted to try and work out how to articulate the connections between the idealisation of feminised labour and maternal relationships and the exploitation of precarious workers. Although I was drawing on my own experience of unstable employment as well as my academic research, I wanted to extrapolate beyond the personal and into the realm of metaphor and allegory: the pleasure dairy, after all, is a site of allegorical work. Rather than use ‘real’ or ‘autobiographical’ characters, I decided to draw inspiration from the links between fairy tales – the first narratives we absorb in childhood – and the subconscious: the figure of the ‘Ur-Stepmother’ recurs throughout the text as a representative of the cruelty that often passes for care under capitalism. In my head, she looks a bit like the Spitting Image puppet of Margaret Thatcher.

An extract from Helen Charman’s ‘In the Pleasure Dairy is published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Poetry Review, Vol. 110, No. 1.