Earlier this year a group of undergraduate students studying at Newcastle University's English department visited Seven Stories to find inspiration for a project looking at radical children's literature. The students looked at a range of material from the collection including: material from the archive of the anarchist poet and children's writer, Olive Dehn; items from the collection of the prolific left-wing children's writer, Geoffrey Trease; and some of the very earliest Puffin picturebooks, inspired by Soviet educational books for children. We'll be posting extracts from some of the studies over the next two weeks.

The first of our posts looks at Come In (1946) written by Olive Dehn and illustrated by Kathleen Gell. Very obviously based on Dehn's own experiences (the name of the family in the book is even Markham - Dehn's own married name), Come In is the story of a day in the life of a suburban housewife. In its depiction of the dull and monotonous routine of the housewife (in contrast to her husband's exciting work as an actor), the book shares an explicitly feminist message and pokes fun at traditional family 'roles'. Here Newcastle students Isabel Ashton and Olivia Bland look at how the book challenges the traditional role of the housewife and the idea of the nuclear family.

Come In and the idea of the nuclear family (Isabel Ashton):

"Come In exposes the serious hard work that life as a housewife entails.  Dehn is urging her child readers to appreciate the difficulties that their own mothers face in daily life.  Come In lends a voice to women in society who were expected to fulfil their duties of domesticity and motherhood gladly and without complaint. Written and illustrated by two women, the book focuses on the home as a principally female domain, and Mr Markham is notably absent for most of the story.  His job as an actor is depicted as self-indulgent and frivolous in comparison to the stress of Mrs Markham’s day. Her endless list of menial tasks and the illustrations of her black and white outfit, complete with apron, infer that there is little differentiation between being a housewife and being a maid.  Dehn is creating an authentic representation of family roles by rebelling against the idealisation of the mother figure.

Come In criticises the “nuclear family” as an imposed ideal on society. Following the devastating effect of World War 2 on so many households, the institution of the family was promoted as more significant than ever. However, the Markhams undermine this romanticized image of the “nuclear family”, and Mrs Markham’s fallibility relieves the pressure that women were under to create a perfect home life.  Dehn’s radicalism is evident as she is unafraid to articulate ideas that other, more conventional writers would not. Come In reveals what really goes on behind closed doors in the apparently conformist family home."

Internal spread from Come In (illustrations © Kathleen Gell estate)

'The housewife speaks out’ (Olivia Bland):

"At the start of the book, after complaining about how dull her life is, Mrs Markham (the mother) is asked by her husband to write an account of her day, so that he ‘could read exactly how dull it was’; this she undertakes without objection. Throughout the day the reader bears witness to the unending list of chores and challenges that Mrs Markham undertakes. She is the cook, cleaner and nanny, and appropriately is illustrated to be wearing an apron, and the black and white of a maid’s outfit. The whole text is punctuated by illustrations of, and references to, clocks, drawn by an artist who is requested to portray the day’s events. These show how regulated Mrs Markham’s day is, implying a machine-like routine, though without the expected order of a mechanised environment. Kathleen Gell’s modernist images serve to complement Dehn’s words and add to the radical theme running through the book.

Final page from Come In (illustration © Kathleen Gell estate)

Whilst implying to the child reader that a deeper appreciation for their mother’s work is necessary, there is also a slightly satirical tone, which perhaps only the adult reader would detect. References such as: ‘it’s time somebody began to think about getting dinner ready’, seem to be a wink to the mother reader, as if to say, ‘I wonder who that might be?’ Being that this text was written and illustrated by two women, Dehn and Gell, this outlook is to be expected, thus making it all the more radical.

Dehn challenges the expectation that being a 1940s housewife was a happy and rewarding role, and encourages her readers, whether children or adults, to see that this job alone does not allow for a life of sufficient fulfilment. Although people were conscious that life in the typical suburban home was not necessarily as perfect as it seemed, Dehn’s perspective would have been considered controversial, as, unlike other writers for children, she expresses its realities, thus making this a particularly radical text."

Inscription by Olive Dehn in the cover of the copy of Come In at Seven Stories Collections Department

Olive Dehn's original manuscript of Come In at the Seven Stories archive

The Olive Dehn collection is available to consult by appointment at Seven Stories Collections Department. If you'd like to find out more about this collection or others that we hold you can
email: collections@sevenstories.org.uk or phone: 01914952707.