How does an English Lit. graduate and features journalist, like me, approach writing a social history book? What makes a good social historian?
As a journalist I’ve always been incurably nosy about domestic detail when interviewing someone in their home – the soap in the soap dish, the contents of the fridge, the photos on the mantelpiece. I’ve applied that same scrutiny to these women’s worlds, putting their mundane lives under the magnifying glass. The ‘laundry list view of history’, as writer Virginia Nicholson calls it, is for me the most engrossing of them all.
After four years spent researching and writing The Housekeeper’s Tale, I’d also say that time is of crucial importance. Time to read as much as you can. Time to follow stray clues down random alleyways. Time to mentally process your findings. Without time, you won’t be able to take that thrilling mental leap backwards into another century.
These are, for the most part, unchartered waters. Few have really tried to reconstruct servants’ lives before in any detail, least of all pry into their emotions. For the country house housekeeper – soul of discretion – the archives typically yield up dry accounts books, wage ledgers and bundles of receipts. Because of these great holes in servant narratives I wanted to try a new way of writing about them. I wanted, in places, to use my imagination – pegged firmly to the facts I had sleuthed into place. What was poor old Mrs Wells’s job interview at Uppark like? How did Mrs Mackenzie feel, on showing J.M. Barrie to his room? Some of my readers have loved this. Others have found it frustrating. But the dry facts alone were not always enough to give flesh to these woman; I needed ways in which to bring them more vividly before our eyes. I wanted to hear their voices; to see them go about their business, to know their mannerisms. My hope is that they spring vividly off the page.
When I started this project in 2010 my children were aged one and four. It has, at times, seemed a cruel irony to be writing about housekeepers without a housekeeper – but I do have a husband, the TV arts journalist Nick Glass, who has helped pick up the slack.
We move between St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex and the Sabine Hills of Lazio, Italy – where a large olive grove makes me put down my writing tools and get pruning, picking and thinking. I’m currently hard at work on book number two: more social history, women, class, forgotten archives and time travel (mostly Edwardian, this time). Its theme? Very broadly, feathers, millinery – and votes for women.
Tessa is an experienced speaker, recently touring the USA as a Royal Oak Foundation lecturer. She has appeared at literary festivals from Rye to Harrogate, lectured for the National Trust and English Heritage, and enjoys unusual one-off venues and events.
After reading English at Oxford, Tessa worked as a voiceover artist, a children’s scriptwriter, and a commissioning editor for The Daily & Sunday Telegraph and The Daily Mail. As a freelance feature writer she contributes to a wide range of national newspapers and magazines. Closer to home, she recently scored 9.3/10 at the notoriously tough Sussex WI speaker auditions...
'Tessa lifted a true story from the pages of her book, bringing it to life in the places where it really happened. Magical and evocative – we can’t wait to have her back.'
– Graeme Clarke, National Trust House and Collections Manager, Erddig
'Not only was she incredibly knowledgable about the subject but she kept the audience at Wrest Park thoroughly engaged and entertained throughout. A very successful event!'
– Elizabeth Jarlett, Assistant Events Manager, English Heritage
'Tessa provided us with a fascinating and insightful talk and had the audience captivated with tales of the housekeepers from her book.'
– Elaine Bailey, Events and Exhibitions Manager, Hatfield House