There have been several books written about domestic service as whole and memoirs from cooks such as Margaret Powell (Below Stairs) and Mollie Moran (Aprons and Silver Spoons), lady’s maids such as Rosina Harrison (The Lady’s Maid) and a butler/valet such as Charles Smith (Fifty Years with Mountbatten) but the housekeeper remains an enigma. During the 19th century, the position of housekeeper was the highest that a working class woman could expect to achieve if she entered service and didn’t marry. Despite the housekeeper looming large in literature, film and television from the malevolent Mrs Danvers from Rebecca to the kindly Mrs Fairfax in Jane Eyre and the perceptive Mrs Hughes from Downton Abbey, the real life stories of housekeepers have remained more or less unexplored.
Tessa Boase attempts to redress this omission with her first book The Housekeeper’s Tale which charts the history of the housekeeper from the early 19th century until the present. Eschewing a conventional chronological narrative, she tells their stories by using case studies to chart the changes in the role of the housekeeper and the diversity of the role from managing a grand household, to having to cope with a major war and to becoming virtually a maid of all works as service as an industry declined – down to the present where the two way radio has replaced the chatelaine as the housekeeper’s main helper.
Boase’s narrative spans nearly 150 years of history from the Great Reform Act in 1832 until 1971 when service was already a relic of an earlier era. She charts the rise and fall of the housekeeper through Dorothy Doar of Trentham Hall, Sarah Wells of Uppark down to Ellen Penketh of Erddig then Hannah Mackenzie of Wrest Park and finally Grace Higgens of Charleston. All these five women were silent witnesses to history and how it impacted their own lives and the houses and families they worked for.
As the five case stories point out, the role of a housekeeper was one of great power and responsibility. She was responsible for hiring and sacking of housemaids as well as seeing to their welfare. In addition she was in charge of the linen cupboard and the supplies, being the public face of the house for tourists when the family were away and in charge of the household budget: and was the mistress’s right hand woman when it came to planning of dinners, balls, house parties and the overall running of the house. In today’s terms, a housekeeper was equal to a line manager, event planner, visitor services supervisor, finance officer and human resources director all rolled into one.
However to be a housekeeper was also to be in a vulnerable position. The power and responsibility that she had been entrusted with could be used against her especially when it came to money, and overseeing the household could leave her open to charges of theft and abuse. Additionally, the position could also be a lonely one – too lowly for upstairs but too senior for downstairs, impossible to fraternise with anyone and personality clashes with her employers and/or colleagues could make her work difficult. In the end, the housekeeper was solely reliant on her employer’s goodwill and if she was sacked the housekeeper would be left with no home and crucially no reference that would enable her to land another position.
And contrary to what fiction and period drama especially would have led us to believe, the housekeeper’s work was hard. She might not be doing the cleaning and scrubbing herself but having to delegate, to set the budget, to balance the books and ensure that the household was running smoothly rested on her shoulders. A mistress’ reputation rested on the quality of her entertaining and the overall appearance of the house – in short, she had to be seen to be “presenting magnificence” in order to entertain and impress so the housekeeper’s role was very crucial here and as Boase demonstrates in her prologue which chronicles the recruitment process undertaken to select a new housekeeper for Hatfield House in 1890, it could be a laborious one. Given who the employer was – the third Marquess of Salisbury,three times Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary – it was a daunting task as the Salisburys (as befitting their rank and status) entertained frequently and were also away from Hatfield for long periods of time. Hence they needed a housekeeper who was effective, efficient and trustworthy.
Out of Boase’s five case studies, only one had more or less a happy ending and that was Grace Higgens who for nearly four decades was housekeeper for Duncan and Vanessa Bell. Despite the sometimes difficult relationship with the Bells (especially Vanessa), Grace was seen as a highly valued member of the Bell household and while Vanessa was unhappy that Grace married and started a family, the Higgenses became part of the household. When she finally retired after decades of service, Grace and her husband Walter were able to live comfortably in a house purchased with proceeds from the sale of an earlier house and a modest dabbling on the stock market, savings and cash presents from her employer. Centrally heated and containing the latest home appliances as well as with a kitchen fitted with the latest gadgets and adorned with paintings that were presented to her as gifts from Vanessa and other artists from the Bloomsbury Group, it was a far cry from the conditions Grace was born into and later had to work in. No way would she retire into an old cottage with an unreliable Aga and no central heating.
Others were not so fortunate. Dorothy Doar and Ellen Penketh left their positions under a cloud with both women accused of theft. In Doar’s case her second pregnancy was the catalyst for the accusations of theft that led her to being sacked while Penketh had to undergo a public humiliation when she was taken to court by her employer, Mrs Simon Yorke. Hannah Mackenzie on the other hand lost her position a year into the First World War when it was decided that Wrest Park, which had been converted into a military hospital, then had to be run on a more businesslike way. There could have been another reason for her dismissal but Mackenzie was able to find better employment in America as housekeeper to a scion of the wealthy Vanderbilt family.
Then there was Sarah Wells, mother of the novelist H.G Wells who was housekeeper to Fanny Fetherstonhaugh, a woman who by her sister’s marriage to a local landowner was able to rise from her humble origins to being a chatelaine of a country estate. The fact that both women knew each other when Fanny Fetherstonhaugh was still Fanny Bullock was not lost on Wells and as Boase writes, eventually this friendship counted for nothing when after years of loyal service both as lady’s maid and housekeeper, Sarah Wells was sacked without much of a kind word much less a pension.
The Housekeeper’s Tale manages to deftly weave social, political, economic and demographic history through these five women aided by meticulous research and delving into long forgotten primary source material. It succeeds in putting the housekeeper back into the main narrative and adds their voice alongside that of the cooks, lady’s maids and butlers on what it was really like to be in service.
Note: This is a review of the paperback edition which was published in 2015.