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spring cleaning

 

I used to dread the arrival of spring as the only season to which the word “cleaning” had been attached—until I learned about the erotic implications of not doing housework. Apparently, there’s lust in that dust.You doubt me? You need only look at the fifth-season opener of Mad Men, which featured Don being seduced by the new Mrs. Draper as she began to tidy a filthy post-party living room in naught but her black scanties (at right). Within seconds they’re rolling around on the muck-encrusted white broadloom, all thoughts of virtuous order forgotten.

Mad Men often taps into taboos and this was a perfect salute to spring, not least because it was a relief from the relentless parade of magazine articles, TV shows and merchants campaigning for the war on filth. They remind me of evangelists, and not just because they have the cheery zeal of the devout. Religion’s enthusiasts have long connected cleanliness with moral purity, and both the Puritans and the 18th-century Methodist preacher John Wesley have been credited with some variation on the slogan, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.”

“Around here, it’s next to impossible,” my mother used to snap, pointedly, at my adolescent self as she collected the heaps of clutter strewn in my wake. A promiscuous reader, I delighted in quoting Quentin Crisp’s view on housework to her: “The dust doesn’t get any deeper after the first four years.” But it wasn’t until I was older that I realized that Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, wasn’t merely being witty; his indifference to polishing floors hints at what he was willing to polish to a gleam.
That cleanliness and morality are deeply intertwined in modern life is revealed by the way we talk about dirt as a character failing. We sneer at the filthy rich. We’re advised against washing our dirty laundry in public. And we enthuse over “good, clean fun,” as if we need to distinguish it from the usual dirty kind. The kind the Drapers are having.

Of course, once we’ve established something as virtuous or sacred, it’s never long before someone gets off on defiling it. Trust the Victorians, history’s most prodigious pornographers, to find the kink in a dish-choked sink. Infamous housemaid Hannah Cullwick gave new meaning to getting down and dirty when the diary of her mopping exploits surfaced in the 1950s. All through the 1860s and ’70s she sent saucy letters about her way with a feather duster to a wealthy gent named Arthur Munby, whom she eventually married. Cullwick wiped chimney grates and buffed floors in the buff, and then regaled her upper-class lover with the details. When she visited Munby, she smeared her face with grease and soot as a seductive alternative to conventional lotions. You might think this is an isolated case of repressed Victorian weirdness but, judging by British slang, I suspect not. The point at which sex and housekeeping collide was brought home to me in my youth when a friend’s English mother dropped by, saw the state of her apartment and declared, “Oh Rosie, you are such a slut!” 


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