Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase

This book isn’t so much about fashion history as it is about social history. I loved it.

Cover of The Housekeeper's Tale by Tessa Boase. Please do not copy.

Cover of The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase. Please do not copy.

It really is “gripping!” Deeply researched, written in a lively manner (but not “dumbed down”,)  The Housekeeper’s Tale covers the period 1832 to 2013 by going into the stories of five women who managed English Country Houses, great and small. (Confession: When I think of a “Housekeeper” I still think of Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, rather than Mr. Darcy’s devoted old housekeeper at Pemberley. This book made me more sympathetic to both of them.)

“This was the top job for a working woman in the nineteenth century. You could do not better, nor live more comfortably or with greater security…. Uniquely, it was a life that had no need of a man…. She ended the century in a black silk dress, a senior management figure of absolute authority…. She answered only to the mistress of the house, hiring and firing dozens of maids and controlling the entire household budget.” — Boase, pp xii-xiii.

The Housekeepers’ Tale is well-footnoted from some famous and some obscure sources, with a bibliography that promises more engrossing reading for the armchair time-traveler, but Boase wears her scholarship lightly. It reads like a series of novelettes. If you love the downstairs part of “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey,” there are great stories here.

After Victorian Working Women and Munby, Man of Two Worlds reawakened my interest in the lives of 19th century servants, Boase’s Housekeeper’s Tales provides additional evidence that real lives are much more riveting than those on TV.

The subtitle of The Housekeeper’s Tale is The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House — and some of their stories are quite dramatic.

Boase first tells the story of Dorothy Doar, Housekeeper at Trentham Hall from 1818 to 1832.

Trentham Hall, as it was. From Boase, The Housekeeper's Tale

Trentham Hall, as it was in the 1800’s. From Boase, The Housekeeper’s Tale

Unusually, Mrs. Doar was already married, and the mother of a child, when she was hired. She lived at the Great House; her husband moved to a nearby village, and she used her salary to support him and put her daughter through school. Her employers, the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, moved among their five houses (one was a castle) during the year, and were among the wealthiest landowners in Britain. They spent just a few months per year at Trentham Hall. Tessa Boase uncovered the story of Mrs. Doar (“like a gnat squashed between the pages of a book”) in packets of correspondence between two land agents working for the Marchioness of Stafford (as she was then titled.) One of them wrote that he considered “Mrs. Doar’s wages too small for the faithful discharge of such a trust,” but she didn’t get a raise. In fact, she was fired, after 14 years of service, for becoming pregnant by her husband.

“It is quite impossible in such an establishment to permit of her breeding,” an agent said. What happened when Mrs. Doar asked for six weeks’ maternity leave makes for painful, page-turning reading.

Uppark, West Sussex, from the book The Housekeeper's Tale by Tessa Boase

Uppark, West Sussex, from the book The Housekeeper’s Tale by Tessa Boase

Sarah Wells, housekeeper at Uppark, West Sussex from 1880 till 1893, had a different problem. The owner of Uppark, an old bachelor, had married his dairymaid ( he was 71 and she was 18.) They wanted everyone to forget that she had once been a servant. The former dairymaid eventually left the estate to her humbly-born sister, who hired Sarah Wells — who had once been a lady’s maid at Uppark — as housekeeper in 1880; perhaps the two old ladies then living at Uppark still found it hard to command the respect of servants, themselves. It wasn’t an easy job; servants came and went with depressing frequency — 10 cooks in 12 years, for instance — and by 1893 Mrs. Wells was 69 years old, hobbled by rheumatism, and with no prospect of saving enough money for retirement. Boase can use Sarah’s own words, because Sarah was a lifelong diarist, and her son, the writer H.G. Wells, also wrote about her. Both Sarah and her employer became deaf. “They were two old deaf women at cross purposes. The rather sentimental attachment between them evaporated in mutual irritation and left not a rack behind,” wrote Wells. Nevertheless, they entertained royalty late in 1892: first the Duchess of Connaught, and later Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught “with his demanding retinue of valets and coachmen.” And then ….  Another tale of one-way loyalty:

“What shall we do for a living? Please God find me work to do. How cruel of that woman.” — Sarah Wells’ Diary, early in 1893.

The story of Ellen Pesketh, housekeeper at Erdigg in North Wales from 1902 to 1907, ended in the law courts. This chapter gives an idea of how incredibly hard the work was.  Ellen’s employers, the Yorkes, were trying to economize, so, instead of hiring a housekeeper and a cook, they hired Ellen to do both jobs. Normally, Boase tells us, each of these employees would earn a salary of about sixty pounds per year;  Ellen was hired as cook/housekeeper at forty-five pounds. When Boase gives us this description of the amount of food prepared in addition to regular meals — and Mr. Yorke was a vegetarian who required different dishes from his guests’ — we get some idea of Ellen Pesketh’s proficiency as a cook:

Meals served -- in addition to the usual four a day -- during roughly three weeks in 1905.

Meals served — in addition to the usual four a day — during roughly three weeks in 1905. Louisa was Mrs. Yorke, Ellen’s employer. Text from The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase.

Sixty people for tea one day, sixty-six people the next! Followed by a party two days later, and 121 people to tea the day after that! At the end of each of these days (after stupendous amounts of baking,) Ellen would take off her cook’s apron, drag herself into the Housekeeper’s room, and do the accounts. Her job involved paying the servants and the tradesmen’s accounts in cash. Sometimes the equivalent of ten thousand pounds cash in today’s money would pass through her hands, while she earned the equivalent of 2,500 pounds per year.

The Yorkes insisted that Ellen spend less on household expenses, but the number of house parties and other entertainments they gave increased every year. If their expenses were “too high,” Ellen was scolded — although the decision to stock the cellar with fine wines and feed dozens of house guests, weekend after weekend, was not hers. In 1903, they entertained 68 house guests; in 1906, there were 120. Most of these brought their servants with them– more mouths to feed. The Yorke’s household expenses came to 694 pounds in 1903 (about 40,000 pounds in today’s money;) by 1906 it had risen to the equivalent of 88,500 pounds.

When it turned out that some tradesmen’s bills had not been paid, Ellen was arrested for theft. This is a more complex story than can lend itself to television drama — but it is engrossing reading! Was Ellen ruined? Vindicated? Was Louisa Yorke forced to testify in court? Did Justice triumph?

In great houses, the housekeeper had to keep the Railway Guide, Crockford’s Clerical Directory, and Burke’s Peerage in her office. In addition to all the other stress of constant inventories, hiring and firing, and making or ordering supplies, she was responsible for seating and housing the visiting servants according to the rank of their employers, and errors in precedence could cause endless turmoil and ill-feeling.

Not all the housekeepers Boase studied suffered disaster; the formidable Hannah Mackenzie helped to convert Wrest Park in Bedfordshire into a military hospital during World War I, then moved to the United States and became Housekeeper for the Vanderbilts at a time when great houses were struggling for survival in England. She lived long enough to enjoy a cigarette and a glass of whisky on her 100th birthday.

There are two photos of Hannah Mackenzie on the cover of The Housekeeper’s Tale.

Housekeeper Hannah MacKenzie. She worked for the Vanderbilts. Book cover, The Housekeeper's Tale.

Housekeeper Hannah MacKenzie, in the 1920s, and in the kitchen when she was still a cook. She eventually worked for the Vanderbilts. Book cover, The Housekeeper’s Tale.

The story of Grace Higgens, who served a complicated family of Bloomsbury artists and writers at Charleston Farm from 1920 to 1971, and was sometimes painted by them, shows both the unconventional 1920’s and the hardships of World War II. Her 41 diaries are now a resource for biographers of Vanessa Bell and her sister, Virginia Woolf, of Duncan Grant, and costume historian Quentin Bell, among others.

The “Epilogue” introduces us to Nicky Garner of Holkham Hall in Norfolk, a great house now open to the public. “The Family” still live there, but Nicky is a modern woman who has a life and home away from her job, although she takes her work very seriously, too. The relationship of employer and employee is an acknowledged partnership in the 21st century. (A good  BBC documentary about Chatsworth, home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, also depicted this interdependency between a Great House and its local community.)

The Housekeeper’s Tale is a marvellous book for trivia buffs, as well, since Tessa Boase has put a timeline of events — both huge and trivial — in front of each chapter. Here are just a few samples:

1835:  First pre-packaged baking powder

1849:  Safety Pin invented

1856:  Cage crinoline reaches six feet in diameter

1858:  Can opener invented. Preserving jar with screw lid patented.

1885:  Invention of the motor car, and first “safety bicycle.” Singer “vibrating shuttle” sewing machine patented, “the first practical sewing machine.” [Perhaps she means practical outside a factory setting?]

1901:  Life expectancy for men is 45; for women, 49. First vacuum cleaner patented.

1909:  Persil washing powder arrives in British shops.

1911: 1.4 million indoor servants working in Britain.

1931:  [Only] Five percent of England and Wales employs a resident domestic servant.

Related Online Resource:

You can read the text of the original 1861 Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management complete: click here.

ON THE IMPORTANT SUBJECT OF DRESS AND FASHION we cannot do better than quote an opinion from the eighth volume of the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine.” The writer there says, “Let people write, talk, lecture, satirize, as they may, it cannot be denied that, whatever is the prevailing mode in attire, let it intrinsically be ever so absurd, it will never look as ridiculous as another, or as any other, which, however convenient, comfortable, or even becoming, is totally opposite in style to that generally worn.”  — Advice from Mrs. Beeton, 1861

Recipes, servants’ duties, laundry, budgets, etiquette…. If you need to know how much to pay a butler, or the correct way to pay a call, the duties of a scullery maid, or what tools a Victorian kitchen would have, this is the resource that Victorian households relied on. Unfortunately it is not searchable, but it’s easy to skim chapter by chapter.




Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 19th century, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Resources for Costumers

6 responses to “Book Review: The Housekeeper’s Tale, by Tessa Boase

  1. Nancy N

    THANK YOU! Reading how much work was involved, it’s even more remarkable that Elsie Hughes DIDNT leave Downton to marry her old friend during that first (or second?) season? I think that was the tipping point for me in establishing her on the shelf of my favorite characters.
    I look forward to reading more social histories. Did you read Longbourn? I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the Bennets from downstairs that it offered,
    Nancy N

    • I’ll look for Longbourn. I’m listening to Pride and Prejudice as a bedtime book right now — Every time I re-read Austen, I see a character or a situation in a new light. (I have a well-worn collection of her books on tape.) I realized that I need to read The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne again, for her chapter about living costs. She takes several objects that belonged to Austen, like her writing desk, or a necklace given her by her brother, and uses them for springboards into many aspects of her life and times. Another well-written, well-researched book. And to think I hated “history” when I was in school!

      • Nancy N

        Oh goodie! There’s hope for my history hating daughter yet! You MUST read Longbourn. What a great book!!! I checked it out in my kindle from the NY Public Library — free! Tho I liked it so much I bought it for a friend.
        Love your posts with all their detail. Really helps when imagining what characters should be wearing,
        Nancy N

      • I finally realized that I’m interested in people, so I can learn about history if the emphasis is on how events affected individual people, instead of how it affected nations. Who conquered whom? not so interesting for me. What happened to the people caught in the middle? Interesting. I just discovered The History Chicks who podcast about women in history. They make their podcasts sound like you’re having coffee with two female historians who are gossiping about Catherine the Great, or Marie Antoinette — laughter, personal reactions (“They took away her dog? She was only 14!”) Great to listen to while I’m doing my nails, or washing dishes. Maybe your daughter would enjoy them, too.

  2. It’s a shame that people tend to think of “history” as wars and politics and such. It’s only when we get to the human level that it becomes interesting for most of us!

    Great review.

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Mrs. Pankhurst’s Purple Feather: Fashion, Fury and Feminism — Women’s Fight for Change, by Tessa Boase | witness2fashion

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