The House­keeper’s Tale: The Women Who Re­ally Ran the English Coun­try House by Tessa Boase,

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - — Adele Oliveira

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.