This was one of the most prestigious jobs a 19th or early 20th-century woman could want – and also one of the toughest. The housekeeper of an English country house might manage a hundred servants and a domestic budget on a par with a small bank. She had no need of a home of her own – or, for that matter, a husband. But for all her importance, she has been invisible to history.
The Housekeepers’ Tale draws on entirely new sources to tell the extraordinary stories of the women who ran some of Britain’s most prominent households. There is an unwanted pregnancy, a forbidden love affair, a prison sentence and several cases of summary dismissal. Far from the cosy, complacent world of Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, real housekeepers worked surprisingly hard, often in humiliating circumstances, for very little financial reward. This was not, as it turns out, such a cushy job.
‘In researching The Housekeeper’s Tale, I was less interested in the minutiae and logistics of running a country house than in the human stories: the women entrusted with this weighty job. It was, in many ways, an isolating role. She was too senior to fraternise with her maids; too dignified to let her hair down. She was mocked both upstairs and downstairs for putting on the refined airs and graces of her employers. She was trusted with the family’s most intimate secrets; she handled huge sums of money – yet the housekeeper’s position was ambivalent, even supplicatory. She was entirely at the mercy of her mistress’s good humour.’
I so enjoyed your book. It was infinitely informative and very engaging learning of the lives of these (poor!) women – and made me realise how fortunate my Mrs Hughes was.
A fluent study… Boase builds a deep, rich account of their individual lives, returning from the archive with some telling tales.
Boase makes history sing, packing her stories with details of family life and class distinctions and the minutiae of everyday living in a house with 10 or 30 or even 100 servants. A great read.
While we wait for Mrs Hughes and the rest of the cast of Downton Abbey to return to our screens, Boase’s charming book on the real lives of housekeepers should temporarily stave off the hunger… The diary kept by Grace Higgens, housekeeper to Vanessa Bell, offers a particularly fascinating peek into the Bloomsbury set.
A compelling and beautifully-written account which tells fascinating stories of some very different, and intriguing, women. One of the great strengths of this book is how Boase gets under the skin of the real side of country house life.
Fascinating. Tessa Boase has teased out the subtleties of Grace Higgens’ daily life and relations with the family with great skill. A clear-eyed study of the practical limits of bohemianism.
Tessa Boase has done an excellent job piecing together the stories of these five lives through her painstaking research into letters, memoirs and accounts. A highly readable new book.
The truth is more scandalous than film or fiction – this is one of those social history studies that makes the reader howl with rage.
Wiped clean of romantic sheen, this is a fascinating perspective into our upstairs/downstairs history, immaculately researched.
Absorbing reading for Downton Abbey devotees. Like the television series, The Housekeeper’s Tale explores these women’s inner lives, which are almost without exception set against work that was difficult and unrewarding. Boase wants to set the record straight – or at least augment it.
Boase has written humanistically, and opened a door to a profoundly Feminist Marxist understanding of modern English history.
Boase’s writing highlights the joy of using old records and bundles of letters in archives. Where the records are lacking, reasoned argument is used to complete the story. This book is a fascinating read and a great contribution to understanding the social history of domestic service in Victorian, Edwardian and modern times. Highly recommended.
Her writing flows, the type of writing which surprises at every turn of phrase thanks to the beautiful and evocative way words are assembled. A first class example of how to do social history.
A gripping popular history.
I read The Housekeeper’s Tale with huge enjoyment. Boase has chosen the five stories very cleverly; each is fascinating in itself, but they also show different facets of the job, and take the reader unobtrusively through the social changes of a century and a half. Very good on the nuances of class distinction and resulting unease between mistress and servant.
It’s fascinating stuff, moving too, written with great brio and such a light but confident touch, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
One of the many pleasures of Boase’s book is its sensitivity to the feelings of those who rarely had a chance in life to express them… Servants tend to be footnotes to well-documented lives, but here Ellen, Dorothy, Sarah, Hannah and Grace are put back in the main narrative, where they belong.
Thoroughly researched and written in an engaging manner… an admirable social history. I hope Boase goes on to produce more of her excellent work in the not too distant future.
I read the book with enormous appreciation. Tessa Boase brings all these long-ago housekeepers so movingly to life and her excitement in the research is palpable.
Sympathetic, gripping and thought-provoking… admirably researched and beautifully written. A most worthwhile book.
It’s a great subject – and she handles it so well. I particularly like the opening chapter which introduces the whole subject in such a poignant way.