Author: Tessa Boase

Publisher :Aurum Press

ISBN: 9781781310434

Modern day existence of antiques - ceramics, textiles and furniture is directly attributable not to days-gone-by owners but to those women of sterling qualities and boundless energy; housekeepers, who worked long hours to preserve the beauty and as near as humanly possible, perfect condition of the objets d’art in their care while running large country houses.

Tessa Boase, the author of: The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House, tells the stories of five British housekeepers who through their labour and devotion to duty made it possible for their employers to live a lifestyle most of us can only dream about.

The factual accounts of these extraordinary women’s experiences – mostly miserable working conditions with upper class penny pinching employers, spans the 19th century, two world wars, ending in the present time with the examination of the duties of a housekeeper employed by an English aristocratic family, who, to survive financially, open their home and surrounding estate to day trippers and tourists.

A housekeeper’s lot may not have been an easy or happy one but in the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was relatively well-paid and with live-in accommodation, a sought after career path for single working women and middle-class widows.

Researching secret diaries, unpublished letters and documenting excerpts from the service archives of British stately homes, Tessa Boase has written The Housekeeper’s Tale in an intimate day-in-the-life of style which empathises with each woman’s daily grind of duties and provides a vivid commentary on the social niceties and customs of the day. The hardships the housekeeper’s encountered to make sure everything was ‘ticketty-boo’ for their employers  evoked in me a response which labelled each and everyone of them ‘domestic goddesses’ - the work they either did or organised daily ‘downstairs’ so that ‘upstairs’ could continue to live removed from the need to clean, cook or shop was amazing.

Thoughts of having a close encounter with the floor polisher or turning out the cupboards enough to bring on a migraine in my good self, I was intrigued and a touch horrified by the tasks the housekeepers were expected to perform without the aid of a robust sprinkle of Ajax or electrical appliances to preserve heirlooms and clean and cater for their employer’s family and an endless supply of guests.

The book begins with Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the fabulously wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. One of five housekeepers in the Duke’s employment, Dorothy was responsible for the smooth running and interior maintenance of  Trentham Hall.

The Duke and Duchess, spent time travelling between their stately piles, housekeepers hastily scrawling letters to allow counterparts to prepare for the arrival of their employers.

After fourteen years of exemplary service, housekeeper, Dorothy falls pregnant and requests six weeks maternity leave. A married woman, she has sacrificed family life with her husband and first born child to serve the needs of the Duke and Duchess.

The request refused, a chain of events starts that leaves Dorothy barricaded in her room and Trentham Hall in uproar. This incident provides a fascinating insight into the lack of rights of the servant class in the 1800’s; Dorothy is forcibly evicted and cast out without pension or reference.

Tessa Boase was unable to discover any record of whether Dorothy Doar was delivered of a healthy baby, or indeed, anything about Dorothy’s life post her role as Trentham Hall’s housekeeper. Sad, and indicative of the upper class habit of discarding servants who were no longer useful.

Sarah Wells, the mother of H.G., at age 63 was quite elderly to begin a career as housekeeper to Fanny Bullock of Uppark in West Sussex. Fanny’s sister, a milkmaid, married ‘the-Lord-of-the-Manor’ and as the union had no issue Fanny inherited Uppark estate. A mean and critical mistress, Fanny exploited Sarah’s need for money to clothe and feed her family by keeping the wages low and the hours long.

All the housekeeper’s stories make involving, compelling reading, particularly Grace Higgens, cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex. Vanessa Bell, her sister, Virginia Woolf and others in the Bloomsbury Set while undeniably talented, tidiness was not a concept they were familiar with.

Grace Higgens, married with a son, gave them fifty loyal, loving years. Unlike the other  housekeeper’s work experiences, Grace’s service was appreciated and acknowledged as the force that made Charleston a happy haven for family and friends.

The Housekeeper’s Tale – a sometimes sad but always interesting, lovely read.   

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