I've just finished reading a really interesting book called The Housekeepers' Tale by Tessa Boase, and I wanted to pass on the recommendation to read it.
The book takes five different housekeepers, of varying periods and tells of their lives below stairs, the sometimes complicated relationships between them and their employers and what happened to them if they fell foul of these employers. It really shines a light on how hard their work could be, especially when hired as a cook slash housekeeper, which wasn't uncommon when the gentry were trying to tighten their belts. What surprised me is the age that many of these women worked until - and no extra consideration apparently thought of with their age in mind. Yet many of these women continued to work for the house for decades, even though they may note their frustrations in their private diary. It is easy to see how servants could be almost institutionalised within the walls of the house when you think that they lived in, working often seven days a week, with time off only for church attendance, and perhaps one afternoon a week. With the ease of travel today, it is easy to forget how limited movement was the servants of these great houses, which were often situated miles from towns.
I was especially interested to read of one of the housekeepers of Uppark. We know more of Sarah, this housekeeper, perhaps because she was mother to H G Wells. This grand house is now in the hands of the National Trust, and one we visited several years ago. It has a run of underground tunnels, lit by skylights, for the servants to go about the house without the fear of bumping into one of the family. It was chilly the day we went and the tunnels felt a little dank, despite the light streaming down. A great fire tore through the house in 1989, destroying much, but the 'below stairs' area was pretty much untouched, with thoughts that the dampness of the area made it much harder for the fire to gain any ground here. And yet this was where people lived and worked every day - it makes you wonder for their health, both physical and mental. Having read this book, I am now keen to go and revisit the house with this extra insight into Sarah's life.
This book was a gift, and I think it is always wonderful to be given a book that you then thoroughly enjoy. I am a lover of visiting these great houses, so it was intriguing to read about the people who haven't got their paintings on the wall, (for the most part - some families had a quirky tradition of having some of their staff painted), and how a life could depend on the whim of a mistress.
I really recommend this book. It is an enjoyable, and interesting read. My only quibble was that the author did occasionally drop in her 'imaginings' of what the housekeepers were thinking, etc, but it was only on occasion and not enough to ruin the book by any means. Should you be writing any sort of historical novel, I think this would be a great read to get a information and a feel for how servants were treated, and also an insight into the lives of those employing such staff. The trials and tribulations of trying to find a good housekeeper are in fact illustrated in one of the chapters.
If you do get a chance to buy or borrow this book from the library, I do hope you enjoy it and I'd love to hear your opinion on it.