Skip to main content

LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 | Vaccines | Racial Justice

Visit the Midday Edition homepage

Author Brings Real Stories Of English Housekeepers To San Diego

We're sorry. This audio clip is no longer available.

November 19, 2015 1:07 p.m.

Author Examines The History Of English Housekeepers

GUEST:

Tessa Boase, author, "The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House"

Related Story: Author Brings Real Stories Of English Housekeepers To San Diego

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

This is KPBS midday edition I Maureen Cavanaugh. The sixth and final season of the wildly popular PBS Downton Abbey is set to debut after the holidays in January. Any people are caught up with the saga of the aristocratic family as their world of privilege changes in the modern age. There are others who tune in because they are fascinated with that incredible lifestyle. The close call furnishings, opulent dinners, the servants. Now a new book asks the question how accurately does a show depicted what went into and maintaining that lifestyle and what those servants really did. What did it take to keep the floors clean, the dinners cooked, the chambers pot and did in the lady of the matter -- manner happy. Joining me now is Tessa Boase . Tessa, welcome to the program.
Hello.
This fantasy of being catered to its very seductive is that the allure of Downton Abbey?
Yes it is a complete fantasy. I'm sure I would be like Lady Mary if I had people attending to my every whim. An immense amount of visible work went into this work. These aristocrats usually have more than one house. Some I looked at had five houses and they may be in these houses for only six weeks a year. The house had to be ready all the time in case these highly mobile families dropped in. So the housekeepers job was difficult and had to be a bit of a swan.
Do you think the writers of shows like this deliberately make life seem easier for the staff or is it just they simply don't know?
Maybe it would be less watchable if they made it realistic. We want to see the chamber pots the -- being carried and flopped down? Apparently the urine conserved because it was good to cleaning writing britches. For me is there's a cozy relationship between upstairs and downstairs. There confiding in each other. The reality was much harsher in many country houses would put you on the spot if they saw you. I've made was glimpsed in a core door that could cost her her job. They wanted the fantasy of the invisible servant.
Speaking with Tessa Boase and she's the author of the housekeepers tail; women who really ran the English country house.
I would love to see them doing work. They drink a lot of T. They do a little bit of sewing and they chat. There would not have been time for this in a real country house. You had your work absolutely cut out for you and it was seen sinful to have any time on your hands. Not only the housekeeper and the mistress of the house would make sure that you are constantly occupied. It would not of hurt in the series to see for example housemaids or chambermaid in pairs at 5 AM in the dark sweeping carpets on their hands and knees lit by candle. Maybe again on their knees scrubbing -- scrubbing a fireplace to get it shiny.
In your book it focuses on the housekeeper. The highest female employee in the staff of these great English houses. What was the relationship between the housekeeper and the lady of the house?
It was a complicated relationship. Much like working in a corporation. If your boss is female and you are female is second to be smooth running. It's about personalities. The things that might throw offkilter happened regularly. For example when the monster of the house married down I found plenty examples of this. She could've been pretty and young or had a lot of money. In the case of one house incest sex it was a dairy farmer's daughter and this put the nose out of joint for the housekeeper.
Who died a lot back then particularly in childbirth. He marries and another mistress comes in and wants to get her own right hand women just like every boss wants to appoint their own deputy took it was an unstable profession. We think of Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey incredibly secure. My research shows that these women constantly placing and answering advertisements. It would save due to restructuring of the household a great use -- euphemism.
A set store you found out was a housekeeper who had a great relationship with her employer until she became pregnant.
This is a terrible story. She had the plum job in service for the day. We are talking 1830. She was the housekeeper of the main house for the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. Europe's richest family. Some was a richer than royalty. Very powerful. They had five houses. Mrs. Dole looked after their main house. She was married but as was the way she was not allowed to live with her husband. He was in some village outside. She supported him. He was unable to work. And she fell pregnant. On one of the letters she says Mrs. Dole has announced her pregnancy. She waited till six months and that shows me how nervous she was. What is so set in the story all she asked for is six weeks leave. That's all she wants and that she will put the baby out to nurse and pay for it to be brought up by another woman. It's the principle of the thing even though they are not at this house for six weeks a year that's not going to happen. The Duchess says a housekeeper bearing children with set a bad example to the maids.
So I don't know job security. How well where these women paid?
Not well. They were paid more than the maids beneath them. For example in 1819 the Duke of Salisbury who was Victoria's Prime Minister is hunting for a new housekeeper. Some of the letters I found state about their wages. 40 pounds, 55 pounds and to give you some idea the Duke of Salisbury annual income is 60,000 pounds. This is back then so today would be millions.
The housekeeper gets her bed and board. She does not have to spend anything. It's very hard to say for any type of retirement on wages the slow. You get the prestige.
You found one in Domino housekeeper. Hannah McKenzie?
Hannah was my favorite. She was a detective story. I started with a photograph taken in 1914 when a wonderful house were [ Indiscernible ] and everyone in the country wanted to do their bit. Hannah McKenzie in her 30s moved to a insecure job. She cross swords with the matron. She had a very controlling autocratic mistress who spotted -- Hannah was a bit of one for the men. [ Indiscernible ] felt widely in love with her. He stupidly confessed to the lady running the house and said she is the only thing that stops me from going mad. [ laughter ]. So who got it in the neck? Hannah got it -- in the sack.
I can't believe that she cross the Atlantic and went to work for the Vanderbilts. I found her in the shipping records. He showed me this portrait of her downtown studio. She's now 40 and has a look of satisfaction in her eyes.
She actually lived to the age of 102.
If any listens are wondering what the secret is -- it is 100 server today and a bottle of whiskey.
How did you do your research?
It was hard. I thought it was going to be easy and lots of juicy diaries out there and bundles of letters and I'll be spoilt for choice but after reading for a year solid and scratching around archives in our various many country houses I began to decide -- a follows a look at a dozen women but I wanted to absorb an engaging story so I narrated down to six women with there was enough material in the material had survived because something had gone badly wrong in the household. There had been scandal or a court case or an affair. I use diaries written often by the mistress. I use contemporary newspaper reports. Any contemporary material I could get my hands on. To my house keepers where diarists. One was the mother of the [ Indiscernible ] HG Wells. And one worked for the Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell lived with the gay artist [ Indiscernible ] and Grace Higgins worked for this family for 50 years. She gave him her life. Her diaries are When she retired in 1971. When she died her son he realized the value of her diaries and are held by the British Library today.
Finally, Tessa, when you think about these hardly
Hard lives do you think it might be a bad thing to romanticize these things too much?
I think we romanticize them because they seem to represent a fall in great security. Particularly Britain where everyone knew their place. There was no pushing up from underneath. What I discovered this is a bit of a fantasy and particularly in the 20th century service they will not content in their place. They want to better things.
Tessa Boase will be speaking about her book the housekeeper's tail the real women who ran the English country house and that's tonight at 7 o'clock at Timkren Museum of Art in Balboa Park. Tessa, thank you.
Thank you.