The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House by Tessa Boase,
Aurum Press, 314 pages
In January, the BBC premiered its latest season of Downton Abbey — the popular show depicting 20th-century life in a grand English country house — by introducing to its American audiences social and political themes focusing on the changing status of the serving class.
The fifth season’s first episode opens in 1924 with the election of a new Labour government, much to the dismay of Lord Grantham and Carson, his devoted, oldfashioned butler. Resistance to change and a sometimes illogical adherence to tradition have been part of Downton Abbey since its beginning, but season five sees the most significant advances for those below stairs: Daisy, the kitchen maid, is tutored by a local schoolteacher and is at once inspired by books and frustrated by her abbreviated education. Even stalwarts like Carson and Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, who’ve made their careers in service, contemplate life beyond the house, assessing their savings and considering purchasing property. Part of the reason Downton
Abbey is compelling is that it shows the opulence of the age and the lives of the Crawley family in lush detail but also illustrates the massive cultural and industrial shifts over time, partly through its portrayal of the servants who run the house. For viewers interested in the changing relationship between economic classes and evolving social mores, it’s fascinating to watch Downton ’s characters grapple with World War I, the purchase of a gramophone, and sexual dalliances above and below stairs.
The Housekeeper’s Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House , a new book by Tessa Boase, is absorbing reading for Downton Abbey devotees. The book spans two centuries, and in five chapters tells the true stories of five housekeepers of English country houses: Dorothy Doar, who worked for the “abominably rich” Staffords in the 1830s until she was evicted, accused of stealing, from the household in her ninth month of pregnancy; Sarah Wells (mother of the writer H.G. Wells), who toiled into her seventies, serving the sister of a former milkmaid who married well; Ellen Penketh, who became known in perpetuity, perhaps falsely, as “the thief cook” after she ran afoul of her employers; Hannah Mackenzie, who worked at a great house that became a military hospital during World War I and who was later employed by the Vanderbilt family; and Grace Higgens, who spent 50 years working for the bohemian, snobbish Vanessa Bell (sister of Virginia Woolf) and dealing with her eccentric band of artistic friends. Like the television series, The Housekeeper’s
Tale explores these women’s inner lives, which are almost without exception set against work that was difficult and unrewarding. Boase wants to set the record straight — or at least augment it. She writes, “In researching this book, I was less interested in the minutiae and logistics of running a country house than in the human stories: the women entrusted with that weighty job. ... These women lived precariously. They were given immense responsibility in a world with few choices.”
Despite Boase’s claim that she is less interested in minutiae, there is a good deal of it — such details were part and parcel of such women’s lives. Boase describes the complex organization of the linen cabinet and the china stores, vast repositories that held everything from beeswax and linseed oil to guest towels and fancy soaps. The supplies of the household proved the undoing of two of the book’s subjects. The removal of several crates of goods (plus dozens of bottles of sweet wine) from the linen cabinet at Trentham Hall led to Dorothy Doar’s downfall, even though the rules about what servants could take or expect from their employers were fuzzy. Many upper servants were regularly given their employers’ old clothes and other castoffs, including items from the linen cabinet; retirement pensions and an estate cottage were rarer but not unheard-of. More than half a century later, in 1907, cook-housekeeper Ellen Penketh was accused of stealing money from the Yorkes, her employers at Erddig, in Wales, and was imprisoned for the crime. (The reality may have been that her mistress pressured her to curtail the budget while still expecting Penketh to carry off frequent spontaneous house parties for hundreds of guests.)
“When the expenses tipped over her self-imposed budget, Louisa [Yorke] would write ‘Overspent’ at the bottom of the page and take out her guilt and anxiety on the cook-housekeeper,” Boase writes. “Regular ‘scoldings’ had become part of Ellen Penketh’s life, and she began to dread them.” In response, Penketh tried to pay off suppliers gradually with the money she was allotted, which backfired when the Yorkes hired a new estate agent, who actually bothered to examine the accounts. Boase reconstructed Penketh’s story through Yorke’s personal diaries and court documents, which, in addition to letters and census records, form the bulk of her book’s research. The stories for which Boase had access to more original source material are invariably the best — thus, the one about Sarah Wells, who worked at Uppark, in West Sussex, in the 1880s and ’90s, is in some ways the best of the bunch because Wells kept her own daily records for decades. Her entries are brief but revealing. During her last years at Uppark, when she spent most of her time in the basement, she wrote often about the outdoors and the weather: “Walked the garden. Cold winds. Primroses.”
Wells’ anxiety about her survival after she was dismissed from Uppark, simply for being too old, is palpable. She wonders where she will live, if she’ll have to go to the poorhouse, and speculates to herself about finding another position, though she isn’t fit or healthy enough to work. Wells’ plight illustrates The
Housekeeper’s Tale ’s most prominent theme: the great inequality among the classes, at once blatant and never spoken of, that infected every facet of these women’s lives. At one point, Wells writes of her employer in her diary, “Miss F never asks if I am tired.”
This existential imbalance between housekeeper and employer is most evident in the book’s last chapter about Grace Higgens, who worked at Charleston for the Bell family from 1920 to 1971. While Higgens and Vanessa Bell were intimate — friends, even — and lived together for roughly 50 years, the contrast between their stations is stark. Bell’s letters were numerous and well-preserved, and we are granted a glimpse into the particulars of her relationship with Higgens, one in which Bell was both dependent and aloof.
On holiday in France in 1927, Bell writes to her sister Virginia that Higgens is “like all the uneducated, completely empty-headed really, and after a bit it gets terribly on one’s nerves. ... However my enquiries into the lower class mind will come to an end in a few days now I’m glad to say, for I shall relegate her to the kitchen again when Duncan comes here.”
Bell was fond of Higgens, but saw her as inherently lesser and lacking. Still, with the Bells, Higgens found purpose, as well as exposure to culture and art through mere proximity. When Higgens went into service, real careers for women were few. She was not unappreciated, though she was most certainly underestimated. Near the end of her life, Higgens and her husband moved into their own home for the first time. As a tourist, she visited country houses that had been turned over to the National Trust, and she knew that for her son John’s generation, service was an unlikely career path. But even John, who resented the Bells and how hard they expected his mother to work, conceded that they had loved her.