My great-great-grandmother, La Centenaire (The Centenarian, guess how long she lived…) was a cook in a large country house in the French village of Paray-le-Monial. In the vocabulary of Tessa Boase's The Housekeeper’s Tale, a cook is an upper servant. As is the housekeeper, the second in command in any country house, and the hero in Boase’s book.
The Housekeeper’s Tale features six women, all housekeepers in National Trust and English Heritage houses that date back as far as the Regency period: Dorothy Doar (Trentham Hall), Sarah Wells (Uppark), Ellen Penketh (Erddig), Hannah MacKenzie (Wrest Park), Grace Higgens (Charleston) and Nicky Garner (Holkham Hall). Boase took Regency as a “starting point because the role of the housekeeper began to subtly change from Victoria’s reign; also because The Reform Act of 1832 seemed like a good year to begin a book about the gradual enfranchisement and emancipation of the working classes.”
The six housekeepers have service to a mistress and to a big house in common. They all start out loyal, yet four out the six get the sack. Doar was kicked out after the house agent realised she had been stealing. Twist: Doar was pregnant. It’s likely that she only started stealing after she was relieved of her duty; a married housekeeper with children was not acceptable in 1832. Wells was kicked out without much notice after 13 years of service. Twist: Wells and her mistress Frances Fetherstonhaugh had been friends, back when Fetherstonhaugh was just a dairy farmer’s daughter.
"I didn’t set out to look for this, but it did become a bit of a theme", Boase explains when I ask her why she features so many careers that turned sour. "These stories are far more interesting to unpick than that of the ‘treasure’ buried in the family graveyard after half a century of loyal service. Why did they get dismissed? Was it fair? Were they working in an impossible situation? What were the fault lines of this job? I enjoyed the sense of settling scores, of rewriting history, of giving them back a voice. But I also think this was perhaps a reasonable ratio of successes to failures. If you look at the bundle of application letters for the top job at Hatfield House, it seems to have been a surprisingly insecure profession, beset by in-house politics. It’s the ‘treasures’ that have been remembered by history as they show the aristocracy/upper classes in a flattering light.”
Housekeeping wasn’t just hard because of the responsibilities and workload. The job was what we would today consider a managerial or a leadership position. Housekeepers were second in command to their mistresses, entrusted to large sums of money, managing groups of maids, responsible for hiring…
At the heart of all of Boase’s stories is the relationship between the housekeeper and her mistress, a relationship that often went bad. “If it goes wrong for a housekeeper, it’s often because of a clash with a mistress,” Boase reveals about the four housekeepers who get the sack in her book. One of the reasons is that training to run a country house seems impossible. “Marrying into a big house, with its own particular regime and way of doing things, seems always to have been a bumpy ride for the incoming mistress”, she explains.
Boase is an Oxford English graduate working as a freelance feature writer, yet The Housekeeper’s Tale is a first class example of how to do social history. She credits the skills gained in her degree and through her job for her knack for the genre. “Context is everything, when you’re studying English Literature. That ability to try to get under the skin of a text – to extract nuance, new meaning, to hypothesise – I’m sure I owe this to my degree. But more, probably, to 20 years in journalism writing human-interest stories, honing my eye for telling detail and a good quote. I approached the historical research as I would any piece of contemporary research: like a detective.”
You can feel the human interest in the first class research, done “in those houses where there are particularly good archives”, that’s interwoven with more fictional passages. For example, Boase writes about potential encounters between MacKenzie, housekeeper at Wrest Park when it was a World War I hospital, and author J.M Barrie, a friend and benefactor of the house.
Including these passages was important to Boase but she had to fight her editor who “wanted to cut all the imagined stuff as it wasn’t strictly history. But there are such gaps in servant narratives that I wanted to try a new way of writing about them. With women like MacKenzie – where I had photos, a great story and even a living relative, but nothing actually in her own voice – I needed ways in which to bring her more vividly before our eyes. This is true for all of them: I wanted to hear them talk, to see them go about their business, to know their mannerisms. All my imaginings are flagged up in the text, and firmly based on the bald facts that I had sleuthed into place.”
The more fictional moments succeed in bringing the housekeepers to life, but even when retelling facts, Boase is never arduous to read. Her writing flows, the type of writing which surprises at every turn of phrase thanks to the beautiful and evocative way words are assembled. A random example, on the solitude of the housekeeper: “too senior to fraternise with her maids; too dignified to let her hair down.”
The English grad in Boase is also present through the book’s title. Its structure makes it hard not to recall Margaret Atwood’s seminal novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. The reference wasn’t something Boase had planned on, although she doesn’t reject the comparison: “Atwood’s focus on the subjugation of women and the corrupting potential of power has definite relevance for this book. Though my story arc is, thankfully, one of emancipation.”
The best proof of this emancipation? Garner, the last housekeeper featured, shows how the job really is all about management. Her boss, mistress of Holkham Hall, recognises this, and sends her on HR courses. Garner’s job is to make sure the house runs smoothly for the 30,000 visitors it welcomes every year rather than focusing on making sure the family has food every evening.
Featuring a contemporary housekeeper was important to Boase “because this is the only job to have survived from the old country house world, along with the butler. Housekeepers are currently having a resurgence due to the growth of the new rich and the influx of Eastern European labour. It would have been odd to end the book in the 1970s, when the country house was in decline, and servants had all but fizzled out. The successful reinvention of the English country house, and the new roles for its staff, is very much a part of this story
Housekeepers aren’t just topical for those reasons. Every autumn, the job is present on our screens though Downton Abbey's formidable Mrs Hughes. Boase is a self-confessed Downton watcher. Her book’s press release name-checks the series in its first paragraph (“A far cry from the Downton fantasy, the real life Mrs Hughes was up against capricious mistresses…”). She also references the series on her Twitter to promote the book: “Love Downton Abbey? Read real stories of grand housekeepers #thehousekeeperstale by@TessaBoase out on Thursday”; “Love Mrs Hughes? then read fascinating stories of housekeepers in #thehousekeeperstale by @TessaBoase out now” etc.
Although Downton Abbey might help with the book’s sales and marketing, Boase believes the convergence of events that made it possible goes far beyond the ITV series. “I don’t think this book would have been possible 20 years ago, but it’s not just Downton that’s got everyone focusing on servants (though it’s certainly helped, for all its maddening inaccuracies!),” she reflects.
Other reasons range from our growing interest in how people used to live to our interest in genealogy: “The feminisation of history led by women like Amanda Vickery, Lucy Worsley, Alison Light, Judith Flanders and Mary Beard – all women with a brilliant, popular touch – has turned our interest in the Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian eras indoors. The home is where it all happens; we’re now all agreed. Servants are very much a part of this story – but not just those working for the aristocracy. Every archive office I visited was filled with grey-haired couples researching their ancestry online – another relatively recent phenomenon. More of us will have servants in our past than masters and mistresses. Many people have contacted me with their own stories of a great grandmother or great aunt in service. The fact that the National Trust & English Heritage are now re-imagining the visitor experience to take in the service quarters isn’t just down to Downton: people were, apparently, asking for this before it aired. It gives us a sense of ownership of the local big house; so many of us have connections, but not posh ones.”
As a child, influenced by stories of my great-great-grandmother, present through her cookbooks and her pans, so heavy we rarely cook anything in them, I went through a phase of reading books about servants in the early 20th century. My readings around domesticity weren’t limited to non-fiction. Mrs Danvers, Rebecca’s housekeeper in Daphne du Maurier’s novel, fascinated me and millions of other readers.
Boase thinks we are obsessed with housekeepers “because they know all the secrets. The combination of absolute power, a bunch of keys, a black silk dress and a whalebone corset seems to be a seductive one. Is it a part-sexual fascination? Dominatrix-esque women guarding the door, safeguarding the aristocracy’s scandals… Of course the truth is far duller, but for fiction she’s a ripe character and a useful go-between linking upstairs and downstairs.”
The Housekeeper’s Tale busts the myth and like the best social history books, it left me wanting to keep researching the subject. The potential extensions to the book are many. An organised tour of the National Trust houses featured is an obvious one and this is the kind of book that will end up in all good country house gift shops. It’s also easy to imagine The Housekeeper’s Tale being turned in a six-episodes TV series, to be broadcast in parallel to an upcoming series of Downton Abbey. Boase isn’t against the idea: “it would make for great television I think, and there’s been some interest. Part documentary, part drama, set in the houses themselves. As an ex-thespian, I might even struggle into a whalebone corset myself…”
A complimentary copy of The Housekeeper’s Tale was provided to me by Quarto Publishing Group UK. Email interview with Tessa Boase 10 June 2014.