Why Jane Austen Could Have Used A She Shed
She Shed He Shed
I’ve been hearing a lot about ‘she sheds’ and I’m jealous. Stuck on the M25 recently, I listened to a radio show host boast of rushing back home that avo to get started on her flat-pack ‘she shed’ and decorate/furnish it to her taste – a mini fridge, string lights, that sort of thing – as opposed to creating a spidery space to store the lawnmower and a few rusty garden tools (which pretty much sums up the gender-neutral shed in my own back garden).
Apparently, the she shed is the new man cave, though possibly not that new. I tend to pick up on a trend once it’s well-established. After all, the ‘garden office’ has been with us for some time now, and takes the gender angle out of ‘shedding.’ But traditionally, any outbuilding was a male preserve.
However, just as blokes are supposed to need their own space to potter about in and do mysterious things with bits of wood (the sort of blokes who don’t have their own oak-panelled studies, which is most blokes), it’s now universally acknowledged that women hanker after a personalised hut where they can indulge hobbies, have the girls round or just escape the kids and ‘im left indoors.
The psychology behind the man cave was that the house, being a domestic sphere, was a woman’s place and responsibility, and thus chocca with fluffy, girly stuff such as cushions, crockery and tablecloths, reminding a bloke that he needed to get back to what blokes do best in an Iron John sort of way – hammering things together, organising a fly box for the next fishing trip or, in the case of Martin from Friday Night Dinner, hiding away to catch up on unauthorised reading.
Retreats – for women, too few to mention
The roots of this man cave go back to a time when men would withdraw to their studies or libraries for a bit of P&Q, a cigar and an unhindered shufti at their naughty postcard collection. Après-Dickens and his famous writing desk, male writers came up with the delicious wheeze of scribbling in revamped garden sheds, Roald Dahl getting the idea from Dylan Thomas, George Bernard Shaw even having a telephone installed in his ‘Shaw’s Corner’ shed. Very nice too.
In comparison, women, whether writers or not, were regarded as odd for craving privacy. Virginia Woolf was among the few to buck that trend with her converted toolshed at her home in Sussex, as you might expect from the author of A Room of One’s Own. But Emily Dickinson, lacking an official cogitating room, withdrew to her bedroom whenever she felt a poem coming on, and has been depicted ever since as a ‘recluse.’
And when Jane Austen created Mr Bennet in Pride & Prejudice, she must have contrasted the luxurious hours he whiled away in his study-cum-library with her own reliance on a very small table in the family dining room to do her writing, hiding her work under blotting paper whenever a tell-tale squeak of the door announced the latest intrusion.
I’ve often fantasised that Mrs Bennet was Jane Austen’s revenge on Mr B, that put-upon matriarch only becoming shrill and ‘high maintenance’ in response to her husband swanning off to his book-lined retreat the minute they wed (the Georgian equivalent of holding your stomach in until after the wedding). On the other hand, Jane Austen realised that some spouses merited targeted banishment. In the case of Mr Collins, for example, his wife ‘encourages’ him to spend as much time as possible in the garden. It’s not clear if Mr Collins ekes out his exile in a shed, though it would come as no surprise. I’m sure we can all cite similar arrangements today.
Nowadays, you can pimp your shed and enter it into Shed of the Year. Like everything else, shedmanship has become ultra-competitive: why stop at wi-fi when you can instal a glitter ball and revolving disco floor? This is probably just the start. Wait until we’ve got Four In A Shed, Little Shed of Horrors, Better Shed Than Wed (you can see where I’m going here…).
Meanwhile, I’m stuck with the spiders and a three-legged deckchair in which to catch up on my reading. Strictly the authorised kind.
As for the writing, watch this indoor space – it may be minimal but it’s all mine.