Author: Tessa Boase

Publisher: Aurum Press Ltd., 2014

ISBN: 978 1 78131 043 4

Having recently toured England’s Petworth House, renowned for its collection of art masterpieces, but more intriguing for its open kitchens, I was thrilled to hear about this book. I urge anyone following the National Trust trail to stately homes to make it their companion. It is much more than a tour guide; it is a colorful patchwork of details based on “Downstairs” characters’ first-hand observations of daily country house life 1832-1971.

Inviting the public to visit an English country house for a token payment is not a new idea. In the 18th century, the housekeeper of a showplace in the counties could expect strangers to call whether or not the owners of the estate were at home, just to look around the premises, guided by the housekeeper, paid a tip. Such houses were decorated and furnished to impress, their care entrusted to the “live furniture,” the staff who, just like the owners’ material possessions, were moved around from place to place as needed. For the owners of these homes were very, very rich, and had more than one place to use as a stage for their social and political events, the success of which depended very much on the humble loyalty of household help. The efficiency of the team on any given day depended on the head housekeeper. Who she was, how she came to give up her life to another family, and how she fared, is the subject of this book.

By scouring scattered archives, Tessa Boase has reconstructed the personal stories of five women in charge of domestic activities for distinguished households, documenting the uncertainties and upheavals of the servant class through their tenuous relationships to aristocrats who were making history as they spent their fortunes.

The Victorian-era housekeeper’s job called for someone not just a superb manager of staff, but also a trustworthy and able accountant. Estate ledgers provide insights by the item by item procurement of household goods and the network of suppliers required to support the status of the family. The housekeepers’ diaries and letters reveal their feeling about their employers and duties. With a mixture of pride (for the job was prestigious, though poorly paid) and exhaustion, they planned elaborate meals for 20, 60, or 120 guests and guaranteed comforts to an intermittent stream of important dignitaries.

Boase includes at the front of each section a timeline of cultural, economic and political changes during that period to help us see life “in service” in the larger, national context. It is well-known that wars, industry, and social policy were instrumental in collapsing the order of things, but small developments along the way incrementally altered expectations. The timelines help us picture the implications in (for example): baking powder (1835), postage stamps (1840), safety pins (1849), the can opener (1858), chocolate bars (1866), London telephone exchange (1879), washing powder (1909), zippers (1917), and instant coffee (1939).

Throughout this period options for women were increasing. The traditional values of aristocracy were falling out of step with advances in technology. The Suffragette Movement and Labour Party raised the hopes of exploited workers. Between 1901 and 1911, the availability of girls 14 and over ready for service decreased by 62 %. And then came the European wars, when the purposes of both country estates and their servants shifted.

The author speculates where there are enticing gaps. She hints at reasons these poor women might understandably have grown resentful toward their mistresses. She leaves room for the reader to imagine, for example, that the “cook thief” was bullied. She reminds us of the inadequacy of coal ovens for baking to perfection, and the temptation of having to carry around large amounts of cash to pay the bills. Riding on the crest of popularity of TV’s “Downton Abbey,” Boase has written humanistically, and (perhaps unconsciously) opened a door to a profoundly Feminist Marxist understanding of modern English history.

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