Loyal cook-housekeeper to artist Vanessa Bell and the bohemian Bloomsbury ménage for half a century.
Grace’s time in service spans a period of hurtling social change. She started working for Vanessa Bell in 1920, when poorly-paid teenage maids were found in every middle class home. She retired in 1971, a throwback to another era, the same year that Upstairs, Downstairs made its UK debut on ITV. The artist Duncan Grant was distraught at Grace’s departure from Charleston: he considered her not a servant, but a ‘family appendage’.
Grace was promoted to cook-housekeeper in 1934, a year after marrying Walter Higgens (known unkindly as ‘the Dolt’ by Vanessa Bell and family). The two moved into the draughty attic at Charleston farmhouse, and here they stayed with their son John for the next 37 years, their intimate moments squeezed into this narrow space directly above the family she served. Today Grace’s kitchen has been given a tasteful makeover, but her daughter-in-law Diana remembers it as a rather different place of work: ill-equipped, dingy, with an ‘awful sloping concrete floor’.
Grace Higgens was an inveterate diariast. At her death in 1983, a stash of 44 little books were discovered, sold to the British Library in 2007 as background material for scholars of Bloomsbury. What could the diaries tell me that wasn’t already public property? As with Uppark’s housekeeper Mrs Wells, many of Grace’s entries are mundane – but perhaps these give a truer picture of the ‘real’ Charleston than the clever wit and irony of the Bloomsbury set.
I wanted to dig deep into the motivation behind Grace’s intense but conflicted loyalty, so I interviewed her daughter-in-law Diana Higgens, as well as Quentin Bell’s wife Olivier and his daughter Virginia Nicholson. I poked around Grace’s attic home at Charleston, where head gardener Mark Divall now lives. I scoured every Bloomsbury letter and biography for glancing mentions of the servants. I also used WWI Service Records to investigate the fascinating background of her devoted husband Walter. It seemed unjust that he should go down in history as ‘the Dolt’. Through Grace’s diaries, I witnessed the couple cheerfully tick off the modern milestones of the 1950s and 1960s (a TV, a package holiday, a Hoovermatic) while Vanessa Bell clung increasingly to the past.
‘When visitor guides at Charleston today evoke the memory of Grace Higgens, they conjure up the “Angel of Charleston” – a rheumatic woman in flowered overalls with grey permed hair; a “treasure”. They neglect to tell you that Grace was sexy. The Bells and Duncan Grant saw her bloom and then fade over the decades, but the impression she made on random visitors, well into her thirties, was vivid. Friends of Julian Bell, young graduates from Cambridge, remembered the frisson of this astonishingly good-looking woman bringing them cans of hot water in the morning and serving them dinner. She was not your average cook-housekeeper.’
Photo of Grace Higgens is copyright The British Library Board.