Dear Anglophiles: British manor houses and those who staff them fascinate many of us. We know from watching Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey that what one sees on the surface may be but a highly polished illusion. For instance, Mrs Hughes, the highly regarded housekeeper on Downton Abbey, lives what seems to be a relatively stable life--despite the shenanigans of her coworkers. For real women who held such a position, however, their plight was oftentimes much more precarious--and perilous--as today's guest writer, Tessa Boase, discovered researching her new book, The Housekeeper's Tale.
Why does the housekeeper still fascinate us?
I think it’s because she knows all the secrets. The combination of absolute power, a bunch of keys--and, historically, a black silk dress and a whalebone corset--is a seductive one. Is it partly a sexual fascination? In film, TV and fiction she’s portrayed as a stern dominatrix, safe-guarding the aristocracy’s secrets--from Mrs Danvers of the 1938 novel Rebecca, to Mrs Hughes of TV’s Downton Abbey.
The truth, I discovered, is far more poignant. For three years now I’ve been digging up the past, exhuming the true stories of a handful of country house housekeepers who worked for the great and the good both in England and America over the past 150 years. This was an immensely powerful ‘upper servant’ position, on absolute equal footing with the butler but with more responsibilities. She was the career woman of her day. She controlled whole household budgets and dozens of maidservants. The entire happiness of the household rested on their shoulders.
So who were these women? How did they think? What were their ambitions?
I read many Victorian books on servants’ duties, but I’d invariably find my eyes start to glaze over. The minutiae of household tasks bored me. I wanted to know what it felt like to do, or oversee them--how physically hard, how emotionally demeaning, how monotonous. I wanted to understand the human story, rather than 19th-century recipes for removing stains from riding breeches (steep in urine, in case you’re wondering).
Exhuming the stories of these women, traditionally the souls of discretion, was not easy. I trawled through the neglected service archives of great English country houses--the yellowing bundles of estate letters; the housekeeping ledgers, shopping bills and laundry lists. I longed to stumble upon a racy diary: a forbidden love affair with the master, or a scathing attack on a spoilt Edwardian mistress. But I’m not sure such diaries ever existed: discovery would cost you not just your job, but also your career. The two collections of diaries I did read were preserved because they throw light on other, more interesting people.
Mary Wells, elderly and incompetent housekeeper of Uppark in West Sussex, was mother to the famous Edwardian writer H.G. Wells. Her diaries give a powerful sense of what it was like to be trapped in a dark basement day after day, with an endlessly quarrelling tribe of maidservants. ‘How dark in these underground rooms,’ she writes in 1893, after dosing herself yet again with cod liver oil.
The 44 diaries of Grace Higgens, housekeeper to the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ for fifty years until 1971, are valued today for their sprinkling of famous names--though her writings are largely trivial in content (‘Hen on goose egg’; ‘Water pipes frozen.’). I pounced on any small but telling references to how Grace, ‘the Angel of Charleston’, was treated: dinner spoilt yet again by guests turning up late; mistress Vanessa Bell infuriatingly vague on arrangements (‘Extraordinary woman. Never says the same thing twice.’).
My greatest triumph came in piecing together the story of Hannah Mackenzie, a Scottish housekeeper of tremendous chutzpah and some cunning. Sacked during the First World War from Wrest Park country house hospital because the land agent fell violently in love with her, she went on to enjoy a fabulous second coming. I managed to track down her great nephew Ross – and discovered that his great aunt crossed the Atlantic in 1924 to work for the greatest and most exacting hostess of them all: Grace Vanderbilt III. Here Hannah oversaw a regime so sumptuous that the bed sheets were changed twice a day.
Sending off for death certificates to see how a housekeeper had died always felt tense and exciting because so real: the final piece of the jigsaw, and often a sad one. But not in the case of Hannah. I discovered that she died in 1983 aged 102, enjoying 100 cigarettes and a bottle of whisky a day.
Four of the five housekeepers whose tales I tell ended up getting the sack. I didn’t set out to look for this, but it did become a bit of a theme. In part, because 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? I enjoyed the sense of settling scores, of rewriting history, of giving them back a voice.
The story of Ellen Penketh at Erddig Hall was fascinating: a 32-year-old Edwardian beauty, imprisoned for allegedly stealing £500 of the Yorke family fortune. I felt like a detective with a magnifying glass as I set about resurrecting her side of the story--this villain whose name went down in the National Trust’s subsequent narrative as ‘the thief cook’. As a result of my book, Erddig has now repaired Ellen’s reputation, the guides telling her side of the story to those who visit this 18th-century gem in the Welsh borders.
There is nothing like visiting the house in questions to reappraise a housekeeper’s time below stairs. At Erddig, the servants’ quarters are preserved just as they were in Ellen’s time. She had been purged from the house’s narrative, but I swear I felt her ghost as I paced those chill, flagstone passages. I couldn’t wait to make her flesh and blood again in The Housekeeper’s Tale. For me--and, I hope, for my readers--Ellen Penketh lives.
• The Housekeeper’s Tale (Aurum Press) will be published on 12 August.