As scientists uncover the essential elements of a woman's ideal day, Hannah Betts ponders her own
'The perfect day' -- the very phrase is enough to make your head turn skyward, a wistful smile playing about your face. Adult life's mess of obligations and responsibilities means that such reveries are the stuff of universal imagination. More so, perhaps, for women -- being the great multi-taskers and fantasists that we are.
If we were to believe advertising platitudes, the perfect feminine day would be whiled away on chocolate, in baths surrounded by candles, with immaculate children hovering somewhere in the middle distance.
Our heroine would then hit the sack to read about a rich, ginger sadist with a penchant for slapping about gormless virgins, written in barely literate prose.
Happily, a group of German and US researchers from the University of Bremen and the Georgia Institute of Technology have discovered that our wants are slightly more sophisticated. Writing in the Journal of Economic Psychology, the scientists explained that what we are really after is 24 hours of well-slept, vaguely social simplicity.
Yes, to achieve the dream balanced life, 38-year-old Ms Average Western Woman begins her day on a foundation of eight hours' sleep -- the most fetishised of all contemporary activities.
After this, she enjoys 16 different pursuits, taking up to 106 minutes each. There is a nifty 33-minute commute, 98 minutes spent on the computer, email or internet, and a brisk 36 minutes of paid employment.
Shopping would take up just less than an hour; relaxation a sybaritic 78 minutes. She would achieve 68 minutes of exercise (surely a good 67 minutes too many?), followed by 57 minutes talking on the phone.
Socialising would be enjoyed for 82 minutes, and 50 minutes would be spent preparing gourmet food for friends or family, followed by an hour-and-a-quarter to eat the carefully constructed feast.
The 900 women surveyed also expressed a desire for a whopping 106 minutes of "romantic" time, making this the chief diversion after sleep.
I consider it to be the gift of feminism that we can even begin to harbour such flights of fancy, with the practicalities of contraception and labour-saving devices thrown in.
For professional purposes, I once spent 24 hours living the life of Mrs Victorian Average, and, let me tell you, between chopping wood, skinning eels, thumping carpets and emptying chamber pots, there was not much time for flouncing about with friends.
Moreover, there is a heartening note of realism and self-assertion in the fact that even women invited to build castles in the air expect to work -- if only for a mere half-an-hour a day. Revealingly, there is no specific mention of children, the raising of which is still too often relegated to women's work.
When I ask Justine Roberts, powerhouse co-founder of the parenting website Mumsnet, for her fantasy 24 hours, she sighs: "Zero minutes of socialising, about 15 minutes of romance, and roughly 1,000 minutes of time alone to sleep, potter about undisturbed and eat peanut brittle."
The novelist Wendy Holden muses: "My perfect day would start with both my children getting up, getting dressed, making their beds, cleaning their teeth and doing their music practice without me having to nag once . . ."
As a non-parent, I am not beset by such issues. But childlessness doesn't make one's quotidian life any less prosaic; non-mothers muse on their perfect pinnacles every bit as much as matriarchs.
My own dream day runs thus: wake up feeling rested and content. I may have been accompanied during the night, but am now on my own, in freshly laundered, high thread-count sheets, a blue Italian greyhound at the end of my bed.
Autumn sun is streaming through the shutters, and the room is scented with Diptyque's Feu de Bois. I smell of Chanel's Sycomore, my departed guest of Guerlain's Derby.
I partake of an aromatic bath: lapsang in a Spode mug in one hand, Edith Wharton novel in the other. I dress in pearls, emeralds and a new pair of stockings.
Breakfast is poached eggs, taken over a broadsheet, with an imaginary, non-speaking friend. I enjoy a telephone conversation with my father, then settle to a couple of hours of virtuous work, looking on to a green and bird-filled garden.
A stroll in the crisp late morning -- dog bobbing on lead -- followed by half-an-hour ferreting around an antiques market and a late lunch, again with the option of a companion.
After a visit to a gallery showing Renaissance portraiture, I return home to a swift and successful eBay bid.
My time is then taken up concocting truffled macaroni cheese to a classic serial on the radio, or succession of Handel arias, plus a word on the phone with one of my brothers, niece or nephews.
The lover from the night before, conveniently absent all day, reappears and there is food, wine, tear-inducingly amusing conversation, news, novels, a fire, no washing up, the requisite 106 minutes, then bed for a nightmareless sleep.
But, of course, such schedules are a case of different strokes for different folks. For Elizabeth I, the day would surely have involved a little light Latin and Greek, the odd jig, and a good deal of flirtation.
Elizabeth II would rather have gone for a Highlands hack, the even more queenly Elizabeth Taylor, a spell of petulance resulting in rocks.
Writers, more than most, may have the pleasure of shaping their own existences. The George Eliots occupied their time reading, writing, walking, travelling, attending concerts and talking.
The novelist Susan Hill's perfect plot is more solitary: "The day would be spent entirely alone, and in silence, here in the country, with a Border Terrier and cat for company and a book to write."
As every schoolgirl knows, Virginia Woolf claimed to require merely a room of her own, yet it was a good deal more in practice.
Writing on August 28, 1939, she broods: "We privately are so content. Bliss day after day. So happy cooking dinner, reading, playing bowls. No feeling of patriotism. How to go on, through war? -- that's the question." It was a question she found herself fatally unable to answer.
Woolf's diaries remind us of the precarious preciousness of the everyday, when the world is not collapsing on its axis.
Sue Lawley's 24-hour ideal starts off briskly workaday: "After eight hours' sleep, I would pull on old clothes and spend the morning deep-cleaning any one room so that it looked and smelled completely different.
"Then I'd go around the corner for a long, strong massage, manicure and pedicure.
"Back at home, I would sip champagne listening to Bach's unaccompanied cello music and smelling (beyond the furniture polish) a delicious supper coming together beneath the hands of the best cook I know -- my husband, Hugh." (Compare Ann Widdecombe's decree: "No day can ever be perfect without some down time before a roaring fire.")
A balanced life requires a degree of daily grind that makes the fantasy worth having.
Moreover, as no less a sage than Fay Weldon remarks: "How can one know what would make it perfect until it happens? And afterwards all days would be a disappointment because they didn't live up to it. Here and now is good enough as a feast."
A Good Day In Numbers
106 minutes Romance
8 hours Sleep
82 minutes Socialising
78 minutes Relaxing
56 minutes Shopping
57 minutes On the phone
68 minutes Exercising
36 minutes Working