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The Housekeeper's Tale - The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House

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The story of The Housekeeper’s Tale follows the lives of five women to delve into the secret existence of these powerful yet invisible women who ran our great English country houses. From the 19th- to the mid 20th-century this was the most important professional job an uneducated woman could aspire to; the female equivalent of the butler. But we know very little about the w The story of The Housekeeper’s Tale follows the lives of five women to delve into the secret existence of these powerful yet invisible women who ran our great English country houses. From the 19th- to the mid 20th-century this was the most important professional job an uneducated woman could aspire to; the female equivalent of the butler. But we know very little about the women who filled these posts. In the fictional view, the housekeeper was invariably a spinster in black silk: cold, remote and calculating. But what of the real lives? Tessa Boase turns domestic detective to take the reader on a journey of investigation, unearthing secret diaries, bundles of letters and neglected archives from the service wings of great houses – the housekeeping accounts, the doctor’s bills, the shopping lists, the character references. Mrs Doar, Mrs Wells, Mrs Penketh, Mrs Mackenzie and Mrs Higgens are forgotten women, but each had an intriguing personal story. Through meticulous research and imaginative reconstruction, their tales are told here for the first time. There is a pregnancy, a court case, a love affair, a scandal. These were real women, with real problems. But they were also determined, ambitious and single-minded. Whatever their era – Victorian, Edwardian, the roaring Twenties, the liberated Sixties – without these women the world’s that they kept in order would have stopped spinning altogether.


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The story of The Housekeeper’s Tale follows the lives of five women to delve into the secret existence of these powerful yet invisible women who ran our great English country houses. From the 19th- to the mid 20th-century this was the most important professional job an uneducated woman could aspire to; the female equivalent of the butler. But we know very little about the w The story of The Housekeeper’s Tale follows the lives of five women to delve into the secret existence of these powerful yet invisible women who ran our great English country houses. From the 19th- to the mid 20th-century this was the most important professional job an uneducated woman could aspire to; the female equivalent of the butler. But we know very little about the women who filled these posts. In the fictional view, the housekeeper was invariably a spinster in black silk: cold, remote and calculating. But what of the real lives? Tessa Boase turns domestic detective to take the reader on a journey of investigation, unearthing secret diaries, bundles of letters and neglected archives from the service wings of great houses – the housekeeping accounts, the doctor’s bills, the shopping lists, the character references. Mrs Doar, Mrs Wells, Mrs Penketh, Mrs Mackenzie and Mrs Higgens are forgotten women, but each had an intriguing personal story. Through meticulous research and imaginative reconstruction, their tales are told here for the first time. There is a pregnancy, a court case, a love affair, a scandal. These were real women, with real problems. But they were also determined, ambitious and single-minded. Whatever their era – Victorian, Edwardian, the roaring Twenties, the liberated Sixties – without these women the world’s that they kept in order would have stopped spinning altogether.

30 review for The Housekeeper's Tale - The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House

  1. 4 out of 5

    Petra X thanks everyone for their good wishes xxx

    Updated due to a change in circumstances, the lockdown. My house is dirty. I grew up in a country house with a housekeeper. It wasn't a grand country house and it wasn't in England, it was in the Welsh valleys and had three bedrooms. Ironically she really did end up as the Lady of the house as my mother went out to work. What happened was that the family business went belly up as did many businesses in Wales when the coal and steel went. Rather than declare bankruptcy my father and his brother a Updated due to a change in circumstances, the lockdown. My house is dirty. I grew up in a country house with a housekeeper. It wasn't a grand country house and it wasn't in England, it was in the Welsh valleys and had three bedrooms. Ironically she really did end up as the Lady of the house as my mother went out to work. What happened was that the family business went belly up as did many businesses in Wales when the coal and steel went. Rather than declare bankruptcy my father and his brother and cousins decided that they and their wives would all go out to work to pay off the debts. But my mother who hated housework (perhaps even more than me) couldn't bear to let the housekeeper go. So since my brother and I had left home, the housekeeper had only two people working full-time to look after. She liked baking cakes, did a bit of gardening and some knitting while she watched the soaps in the afternoon and had a hot meal ready for when my parents came in. Eventually my parents sold the house and moved to a small but very nice flat. They got a cleaner in once a week, my mother cooked and my father did the ironing. Such is life. The book is pieced together from diaries, letters and mentions in historical documents of the housekeepers of the grand houses. They mostly had terrible, downtrodden lives and lived in fear of their Mistresses firing them. They were not allowed private lives - husbands and children were forbidden. This was no Upstairs Downstairs or Downton Abbey with a certain affection between the ever-grateful faithful retainers and the selfish though affectionate Them Upstairs. Times change though. The last story of the housekeeper, Grace Higgens, to Vanessa Bell and others of the Bloomsbury set is the most rounded as she left extremely detailed diaries and because we know of the people she writes about - Virginia Woolf, Sir Frederick Ashton, EM Forster et al. The Bells were an evil bunch relegating Grace and her husband (they called him 'the Dolt') and child to an attic room, one of them saying that she was just '‘part of the furniture’". Virginia said that she hated having servants around and longed for a house with a floor above and a floor below separating her from the servants. (See Alison Light's excellent Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: . I felt sincerely sorry for Grace, having to serve these selfish people who pretended that they promoted equality and feminism whilst not wanting to spend money on even installing flush toilets because there were maids to empty the chamber pots. The epilogue is of a modern-day housekeeper to a jumped-up lady who was once a vicar's daughter but has become a user of servants as if to the manner born ie. knows no better, "Do know where there is a roll of .....?" "Behind the kitchen? Do you think you could be a darling and get it?" Gee, get over yourself. The job of housekeeper is a more executive position involving computers and offices but there is still hands-on cleaning and the divide between the employer and employed is emphasised by the housekeeper feeling privileged to work for such people and feeling as though by maintaining the historic house she is 'making a difference'. I hope she is financially well-compensated for the less-than-equal, servile attitude she's delighted to embrace and which keeps her employers so happy. btw I do did have a maid. She comes came once every fortnight and makes made my place shiny again. I pay her what she asked for which is quite a lot. Also I am slightly in fear of her tellings-off so I tidy and do the washing-up before she comes. So now we are locked down and my place is tolerably dirty. The washing up gets done, the toilet gets cleaned, the kitchen counters wiped. The floors are swept but not mopped, the fridge is better not discussed and if I don't look up I can't see the cobwebs. The windows are downright filthy but hopefully it will rain soon (it hasn't for a while) and that will clean them and the cars. I might be a slattern, but at least I'm not a slut! (view spoiler)[No opportunity :-( (hide spoiler)] Updated during Coronavirus lockdown when I long to escape back to work from my frankly dirty house. Also I need to get to the laundrette, we are running out of sheets but not clothes. Especially since the cat has peed on my son's bed twice now. We do keep the cat lit nice so I don't know what her problem is. I just wear house dresses ie. once nice dresses that are long past their best, and my son who has Zoom meetings wears a nice shirt and tie - and shorts. Will this ever end?

  2. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    British author and freelance journalist Tessa Boase writes of six housekeepers, six different women, each from a different time period, each responsible for the running of an English country house. Dorothy Doar was the Regency housekeeper of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, from 1820 to 1832 for the uberwealthy first Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. Sarah Wells , mother of author H.G. Wells, was the Victorian housekeeper of Uppark, West Sussex, from 1880 to 1893 for Frances Fetherstonhaugh, a British author and freelance journalist Tessa Boase writes of six housekeepers, six different women, each from a different time period, each responsible for the running of an English country house. Dorothy Doar was the Regency housekeeper of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, from 1820 to 1832 for the uberwealthy first Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. Sarah Wells , mother of author H.G. Wells, was the Victorian housekeeper of Uppark, West Sussex, from 1880 to 1893 for Frances Fetherstonhaugh, a dairy farmer’s daughter. Ellen Penketh was the Edwardian cook and housekeeper at Erddig, North Wales, from 1902 to 1907 for Squire Yorke and his young and inexperienced bride Louisa. From Inverness, Scotland, Hannah Mackenzie was during the First World War, from 1914 to 1915, the housekeeper of Britain’s first country house turned war hospital--Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. During the war she came in contact with J.M. Barrie. After the war, she worked for the Vanderbilts in New York. Grace Higgens was the cook and housekeeper at Charleston, East Sussex, during the mid-20th century from 1920 to 1971 for artist Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virginia Woolf. For more than fifty years Grace and Vanessa were close; with the passage of years, Grace became as a mother to Vanessa! Deep friendship and respect grew between the two. The Charleston farmhouse was the converging point for many of the Bloomsbury circle. Still today in the 21st century, housekeepers have a roll to fill. Nicky Garner was from 2011 to 2016 the housekeeper of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, for Lady Coke, Countess of Leicester. The hall is open to the public and hosts concerts and festivals. Each housekeeper’s story is tied to the life of a wealthy, renown or in some way well known person. This is because there is much less known about the housekeepers themselves. Some have written diaries. The diaries that do exist have large time gaps, offer little information and are often repetitive. The author has scant information. She postulates and guesses. She tells us she imagines so and so thinking this or that. Instead, she fills in with information about the famed, the well-known figures circling around the housekeepers. The author has done an immense amount of research, but due to the lack of information about the housekeepers themselves, the focus shifts to the social conditions existing during each era. We ae told the author’s intention is to give the human story of these six women. The book is instead a social history of each woman’s era. The history recounted is interesting, but one does not come close to these six women. I felt at times the author waned me to feel sorry for these women, even when their actions were wrong. Stealing occurs. Side by side, the author juxtaposes the immense wealth, bejeweled garments and opulence of a mistress beside the relatively inconsequential value of the goods stolen by a housekeeper. The theft remains, it has occurred, and it is not OK The information is presented in a manipulative way, which I dislike. I just want the facts. These the author does give us. I will decide for myself what is right and what is wrong. I don’t need or want a nudge from the author to judge the facts. The instance I am referring to is related to (view spoiler)[Dorothy Doar (hide spoiler)] . For me, the chapter on Grace Higgens is the best. I got to know her better than the rest. This isn’t surprising since she held her post much longer than the other women. The plight of the housekeepers was in many cases dire. Their jobs were precarious, demanded great responsibility and made them vulnerable. Their position was one of loneliness, yet also independence. How they were treated would be today viewed as unacceptable. The author attempts to define what makes a “good housekeeper.” As I see it, the circumstances and the personalities of the six women differ too widely to draw a conclusion. The author reads the audiobook. Her accent is British. It will be easier to follow for a British than an American person. I decreased the speed to 90%. Three stars for the narration. The book is interesting. It is a work of social history. I would have liked it more if I had been drawn closer to the six women. The author tells us she wants to make these women live and breathe for us. I don’t feel I really know them. ******************************** Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury by Alison Light

  3. 5 out of 5

    Antonomasia

    This is an engaging popular history of English country-house housekeepers from the early 19th century to the 21st, told via the stories of five or six women who worked at different houses. (The sixth, present-day, example is in an epilogue.) With an emphasis on 'stories'. There is quite a bit of speculation, more in some cases than others, with at least one, I would say - that of Hannah Mackenzie - veering into whole paragraphs of historical fiction. There is original archival research here, but This is an engaging popular history of English country-house housekeepers from the early 19th century to the 21st, told via the stories of five or six women who worked at different houses. (The sixth, present-day, example is in an epilogue.) With an emphasis on 'stories'. There is quite a bit of speculation, more in some cases than others, with at least one, I would say - that of Hannah Mackenzie - veering into whole paragraphs of historical fiction. There is original archival research here, but The Housekeeper's Tale is history as entertainment, and the author has an English degree, rather than a history degree (something I felt was noticeable in her approach). Especially if you are doing your own research, don't be swayed by the imaginative parts of the narrative and go for the sources in the bibliography instead. As an audiobook used primarily to accompany housework and tidying, however, it was an excellent companion. (It's on this basis I'm rating it.) The author was a lively reader who always kept my interest, and she can do a variety of accents but doesn't overuse them. (Albeit in the first section, some Black Country people sounded like Cockneys, but by the end of the book she had proved herself reasonably adept at quite a range, including Scots and East Anglia.) Though I was surprised that an Oxford graduate (yes, they do get a disproportionate number of books published) who had done all this historical research had nevertheless repeatedly said 'Fetherstonhaugh' - a surname well known for its curious pronunciations, and which even used to be in the Guinness Book of Records - as an English speaker might read it off the page, rather than its traditional 'Fanshawe'. (This also loses a rhyme - in the second housekeeper's story, that of H.G. Wells' mother Sarah, whose employer was named Fanny Fetherstonhaugh - at Uppark, Sussex.) Or what if she realised shortly after recording or release and is unable to change it? That wouldn't be fun. Typos can be corrected in a further print or ebook edition, but there perhaps isn't the opportunity with audio. The book makes its story arc around the ultra-strict standards of the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and shifting attitudes to married housekeepers. Dorothy Doar, appointed in the 1820s to Trentham, Staffordshire, by the ageing Duchess of Sutherland, herself a creature of the 18th century, was, unusually, married (her husband and child living off-site). Records suggest Dorothy may have been a London employee of the family who had, not long earlier, had a shotgun wedding - but when she found herself with a late pregnancy, pregnant for the first time since her appointment, it was 1832 and mores were changing. It was simply not done for one of the grandest aristocratic households in the country, and she had to go. The ageing Sarah Wells, appointed in the 1870s, also had a family living off-site, but she was too old for new children to be an issue - and she was employed by an unusual and almost reclusive household whose maid she had been nearly 30 years earlier. Again back in the 1820s, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, then in his 70s, had married a twenty-year-old dairymaid, who, needless to say, survived him by decades. They had had no children, and she in turn left the house to her younger sister who had already lived with her for many years. The local gentry looked down on these women and as a result, they had a limited social life. Skipping two housekeepers, who were, conventionally, spinsters (though they had far from conventional stories), Grace Higgens, who from 1920-1971 worked for the family of Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell, was able to move her husband in when she married - though the Bells and their hangers on, in typical Bloomsbury style, dealing uneasily with the clash between their upper-middle-class Victorian childhood conditioning and their socialist or liberal political beliefs, were never terribly comfortable with this. In 2013, the housekeeper of Holkham Hall, Norfolk, lives out with her family, driving in daily, and is an amalgam of museum curator, event manager and PA. Another theme woven through these stories is that even where these housekeepers are remembered by the historical record, it is often somewhat unfairly. H.G. Wells, a 13-year old apprentice draper living in a dormitory at the time his mother gratefully took the offer to be housekeeper at Uppark, after 27 years as a housewife of very limited means, described her as "the worst housekeeper ever thought of". Boase concluded from her research that Sarah was indeed inexperienced, but needed the job to survive, and was also working in very difficult conditions, for a pernickety employer who nevertheless seemed to have limited understanding of housekeeping, in a house which had been practically fossilised since the 1820s. She was also ageing - in her 70s by the time she was dismissed with no pension, only able to survive adequately due to her son's increasing success - and as an apparent SAD sufferer, found it something of a struggle living and working in a basement. At the time the book was written, the National Trust info at Erddig repeated the former owner's family stories that Edwardian housekeeper Ellen Penketh was not only a thief but a drunkard. The latter seems to have been made up from whole cloth - and the case against her for theft, as described here, has plenty of room for reasonable doubt; one can understand why the jury chose not to convict. Grace Higgens, at least, has had plenty of acknowledgement from documentary makers and biographers researching the Bloomsburies - though an exhibit at Charleston reportedly indicated she was frumpy, yet she was strikingly beautiful when young, Vanessa reportedly taking a chance employing her because even if she wasn't any good as a maid, she would make an excellent model. Her husband, Walter, was always called 'the Dolt' in Vanessa Bell's letters. A Conservative-voting Express reader who took on work such as brickmaking, he wasn't exactly Vanessa's type of person - though he was said by his wife and son to be a caring husband and father - and publication of personal letters isn't flattering to anyone when people are sounding off about those whom they find irritating. The Bloomsbury material was an unexpected bonus. For years, I've wated to read Mrs Woolf and the Servants (not available as audio) while knowing it was unlikely I'd get round to it. The Housekeeper's Tale brought two and a half hours on Mrs. Woolf's sister and her servants. (Incidentally, Grace's early diaries mention Woolf being frivolous and amusing, someone whose visits she looked forward to, something of a contrast to Bell, who tended to be reserved with the staff.) In another connection with early 20th century material elsewhere, I found it impossible, I daresay like many readers of this book, not to imagine the WWI conversion of Wrest, Bedfordshire, into a military hospital, along the lines of series 2 of Downton Abbey. (I never got beyond the first couple of episodes of series 3.) The real people at Wrest sound more exciting than most of the TV characters. There were the young modern liberal brother and sister owners of the house, he away on an ambassadorial posting, exempt from fighting as he lost a leg as a Times correspondent on the Boer War; she described as a mannish cigarette smoker who liked being in control; she deposed an ineffectual Matron and taking over her job. J.M. Barrie was a friend and frequent visitor, and, Boase speculates, probably also took a shine to his fellow Scot, housekeeper Hannah Mackenzie - a strong and flamboyant character, remembered by a nephew as a chain-smoking whisky drinker with great personal charm and a love of practical jokes, who lived to be 102. Mackenzie was only at Wrest for about a year; the chapter seems to be here to illustrate the social change associated with the war, as injured Tommies filled up aristocratic houses. She seems to have clashed with her employer, and awkwardness ensued from an older steward's crush on her (which may well not have been reciprocated). Mackenzie went on to get one of the world's top jobs in her field, as New York housekeeper to Grace and Cornelius Vanderbilt III during the 1920s and 30s - quite possibly on the recommendation of Barrie, who had also become a friend of theirs. (Rather illustrating a quote from one of his plays which the author mentions, 'There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make.') One gets the impression the author would have loved to include more on this glamorous episode - but has to stick to the unifying theme of English country houses. As you have probably guessed, this is not really a radical work by current standards. It is clear on the point that household staff were often poorly treated in the past, and believes that their lives were just as interesting and worth remembering as those of the rich. But its agenda does not include questioning structural wealth distribution or the class system, nor discussing ill-treatment of contemporary domestic staff, or critical engagement with the continued fascination and nostalgia for the pre-war English country house. For that sort of thing, you'd need a different book. However, if you have a use for some infotainment in the form of history-from-below, and some interest in the country-house setting, this one passes the time very nicely. There are detailed notes visible below in the status updates, if you are browsing on desktop. (Listened Nov 2019 - Jan 2020; reviewed Jan 2020)

  4. 4 out of 5

    Judy

    This book traces the story of English - and, despite the title, in one case Welsh - country houses from 1820 right through to the 1970s. Author Tessa Boase makes the journey by focusing on the lives of five very different housekeepers, with an appendix looking at the work of a present-day housekeeper in a stately home. I found it a fascinating read, and enjoyed listening to the audiobook read by the author. She has a warm, expressive voice, and is good at doing different voices for the different This book traces the story of English - and, despite the title, in one case Welsh - country houses from 1820 right through to the 1970s. Author Tessa Boase makes the journey by focusing on the lives of five very different housekeepers, with an appendix looking at the work of a present-day housekeeper in a stately home. I found it a fascinating read, and enjoyed listening to the audiobook read by the author. She has a warm, expressive voice, and is good at doing different voices for the different characters. I did just notice one or two strange (to a British listener) pronunciations, possibly requested by Audible for the sake of listeners worldwide. Before getting into the stories of the women, there is a very poignant long introduction. This looks at the huge range of women who applied for just one job as a housekeeper, revealing how many were desperate for work and how limited the opportunities were. The five featured housekeepers are: Dorothy Doar, Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, 1820-1832; Sarah Wells, Uppark, West Sussex, 1880-1893; Ellen Penketh, Erddig, North Wales, 1902-1907; Hannah Mackenzie, Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, 1914-1915; Grace Higgens, Charleston, East Sussex, 1920-1971 - plus a short section about Nicky Garner, Holkham Hall, Norfolk, 2011-2016. For more, see the author's website: https://tessaboase.com/books/the-hous... I enjoyed discovering all the ins and outs of what happened to the five housekeepers, including their often fraught relationships with their mistresses and other members of the household. There are rows, scandals and personal tragedies, including accusations of theft, and a possible love affair. I liked the way that we see these events from different angles and sometimes cannot be sure exactly what happened. The book definitely shows how hard life was for these housekeepers, with their long hours, often gruelling physical work and competing demands - far beyond anything imagined in portrayals such as Downton Abbey. "I'm so tired," is a frequent cry, especially from Sarah Wells, who was already at retirement age when she took on her job at the great house Uppark. However, the women's personalities do remain rather shadowy, since few of their own writings survive (apart from diaries which are often little more than lists of tasks.) At times their stories do get a bit repetitive and sometimes the author resorts to filling in gaps via imagination - there are perhaps too many sentences beginning "I can see her now." As with another book I read recently, Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, we often glimpse the housekeepers through the letters and diaries of their mistresses and other famous personalities. These include Sarah Wells's son, H.G. Wells, whose novel Tono-Bungay is drawn on along with his memoirs, and J.M. Barrie, a frequent visitor to Wrest Park, which had been converted into a First World War hospital, during Hannah Mackenzie's time as housekeeper. Then the section on Grace Higgens, the "Angel of Charleston", extensively quotes the letters of her employer, Vanessa Bell, as well as other famous names of Bloomsbury. However, in the cases of both Grace and Hannah, there are also quotes from members of their own family and people who knew them, and I think we do get more of a feel of what their own personalities were like than with the other women where there was no living memory to draw on. All in all, I really enjoyed this and look forward to reading more by this author.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Shiloah

    I’ve always had a fascination with the workings of the English County House. This book takes you on a unique and interesting trip into the past to get to know five housekeepers from various timeframes of English history. I’m simply amazed at all that I learned. She has a cozy way of writing. I listened to the audio read by the author. She did a phenomenal presentation of the book. I most heartily recommend it and plan to revisit this book again in the future.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Lois

    Interesting look at Housekeepers from the Victorian era to modern day

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anna

    Great book; really really interesting. The author obviously put in a LOT of work to research these fairly invisible housekeepers, and it is surprising that she managed to get as much evidence as she did. These were the women who kept the whole 'machine' of the large country house turning and yet attitudes towards them by the rich people they served were shockingly dismissive; as one ex-butler said, 'we were just human furniture' - there to serve a purpose but not really seen as individuals. They Great book; really really interesting. The author obviously put in a LOT of work to research these fairly invisible housekeepers, and it is surprising that she managed to get as much evidence as she did. These were the women who kept the whole 'machine' of the large country house turning and yet attitudes towards them by the rich people they served were shockingly dismissive; as one ex-butler said, 'we were just human furniture' - there to serve a purpose but not really seen as individuals. They could serve a family devotedly for decades and then just be dismissed at will; I found myself thinking that these servants, working almost invisibly 'downstairs' were very similar to slaves in the Ancient Roman Empire, they may not have been thrown to the lions on a whim but in all other respects they could be discarded at will by the people they served!! Tessa Boase writes about 6 housekeepers working from the 1830s right up until the present and it is interesting to compare the experiences of these characters and the changing attitudes caused by the 2 World Wars towards working 'in service'. The author keeps the tone light and this is a very readable social history, highly recommended.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    The Housekeeper's Tale is the history of the traditional English housekeeper, told through the painstakingly-researched histories of five housekeepers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author has done a heroic job of digging up details about the lives of these five women who were otherwise invisible to history, and often to the aristocrats they worked for. It was a role with significant power and financial responsibility, but also endless drudgery and lack of personal freedom. Each woman's sto The Housekeeper's Tale is the history of the traditional English housekeeper, told through the painstakingly-researched histories of five housekeepers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author has done a heroic job of digging up details about the lives of these five women who were otherwise invisible to history, and often to the aristocrats they worked for. It was a role with significant power and financial responsibility, but also endless drudgery and lack of personal freedom. Each woman's story is different and fascinating - for anyone interested in British history or a view of the less glamorous side of the great English country houses, this is a surprisingly fascinating read.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Mothwing

    The only thing that really put a dampener on things with this very good audiobook are the frequent annoying musical jingles that are played at the end of every (short!) chapter, which were played MUCH louder than the normal text, which is horrible at louder settings (such as the setting I used while walking along the road. Thanks for the ear ache). Other than that, the stories of the women introduced in this book are well-researched and captivating. I was especially pleased to find the story com The only thing that really put a dampener on things with this very good audiobook are the frequent annoying musical jingles that are played at the end of every (short!) chapter, which were played MUCH louder than the normal text, which is horrible at louder settings (such as the setting I used while walking along the road. Thanks for the ear ache). Other than that, the stories of the women introduced in this book are well-researched and captivating. I was especially pleased to find the story come full-circle with a modern house keeper. Even though the wife and I are not that interested in Grand Houses, they do come up and we do visit them in our attempt of getting the most of our English Heritage membership. They always fill me with a sense of awe at whoever dusts and cleaned these immaculate places. The servants quarters, if they are part of the exhibition, usually freak me out. I cannot imagine living in such an environment or what it must be like to live so in the shadow of another's existence. This relationship seems to never be beneficial for the subordinate, result in the exploitation throughout the engagement of these women and ultimately end in hardship. There were very few examples to the contrary. This sense of loyalty expected and enforced between master and servant in this kind of arrangement is so fascinating to me, like those earlier concepts of homage and fealty. Especially homage is a concept that seems to have disappeared from our world. Here, it shows what might be the last vestiges, though I suspect that it might exist still in the format of people being loyal to organisations (the media have taught me to expect this sort of relationship between troops and their branch of the armed forces).

  10. 5 out of 5

    Bethany Swafford

    Being a housekeeper was a job was one women in service sought to attain. Here are presented examples from the early nineteenth century to the present day, which show that this job is perhaps harder than any applicants ever imagined. From start to finish, this was a fascinating book to read. I am accustomed to the cliche portrayals in literature, so I was interested to see what history has to say on the matter. Reading of the difficulties these women faced as they worked hard, for better or worse, Being a housekeeper was a job was one women in service sought to attain. Here are presented examples from the early nineteenth century to the present day, which show that this job is perhaps harder than any applicants ever imagined. From start to finish, this was a fascinating book to read. I am accustomed to the cliche portrayals in literature, so I was interested to see what history has to say on the matter. Reading of the difficulties these women faced as they worked hard, for better or worse, at their occupations. In each case, it was all too easy to see each side of the matter. After reading this, I have a great deal of respect for the women who made "housekeeping" their career, and the trials they had to face in the course of their work.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Sue

    The book removes much of the romance from the Housekeeper role portrayed in TV shows such as Downton Abbey. The truth is far more gritty and often heartbreaking. As a long and factual book about a niche historical topic, I was prepared to be bored. Instead, the life stories were gripping, involving stolen jewels, unexpected pregnancies and milkmaids rising above their station. The author inserts herself often in a history channelesque manner; “I imagine that she must have felt...” which could bec The book removes much of the romance from the Housekeeper role portrayed in TV shows such as Downton Abbey. The truth is far more gritty and often heartbreaking. As a long and factual book about a niche historical topic, I was prepared to be bored. Instead, the life stories were gripping, involving stolen jewels, unexpected pregnancies and milkmaids rising above their station. The author inserts herself often in a history channelesque manner; “I imagine that she must have felt...” which could become annoying in time, but frankly there’s too little data available to fill in the blanks any other way. She was at least clear where she was filling in from her own supposition. I feel informed and entertained, as well as a bit devastated by the lack of humanity shown towards these women.

  12. 5 out of 5

    EspeciallySarah

    I've been wanting to read this book after visiting Uppark and seeing HG Wells words about his mother on the wall and I'm so glad I finally did. This is a fascinating set of stories about women who usually disappear into the background and I love the way Tessa Boase has resurrected them, sometimes from scant evidence, and how she makes space for them even where the evidence is missing. I've been wanting to read this book after visiting Uppark and seeing HG Wells words about his mother on the wall and I'm so glad I finally did. This is a fascinating set of stories about women who usually disappear into the background and I love the way Tessa Boase has resurrected them, sometimes from scant evidence, and how she makes space for them even where the evidence is missing.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Jenni Keer

    Bought this as research but it was simply enchanting and I couldn't put it down. It follows the lives of various housekeepers through the ages and was totally gripping - even more so because these were true stories. Very readable. Bought this as research but it was simply enchanting and I couldn't put it down. It follows the lives of various housekeepers through the ages and was totally gripping - even more so because these were true stories. Very readable.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Stanley Trice

    The author follows the lives of five women who were housekeepers for large English country homes from the early 1800s to the 1950s. The story of these women span several changes in English culture and society and through two world wars. The lives of housekeepers were mostly unknown to history even though they were responsible for the success of many English houses and manors. Some of their responsibilities included managing the staff, balancing the books, and keeping inventory. Through her extensi The author follows the lives of five women who were housekeepers for large English country homes from the early 1800s to the 1950s. The story of these women span several changes in English culture and society and through two world wars. The lives of housekeepers were mostly unknown to history even though they were responsible for the success of many English houses and manors. Some of their responsibilities included managing the staff, balancing the books, and keeping inventory. Through her extensive research, the author brought these women alive. Ms. Boase showed how the housekeepers many have felt and what they would have thought as they did their duties to the upper class of English society.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Rosamund

    I enjoyed this book tremendously. The subject matter is a great area for social history, unearthing forgotten female lives. But I was frustrated by the amount of speculation and supposition. A shorter book with fewer flights of fancy would have rated higher for me.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Read this after mention at the end of The Address. I expected more information about the role and duties of classic English housekeepers. It really is a collection of five very different personal profiles. I had a problem with the style which in the middle of a profile the author you insert her own personal research, experience or view. This seemed very intrusive and disrupted the flow of the story. Would have like to see this as a separate entry at either the beginning or end of each profile. W Read this after mention at the end of The Address. I expected more information about the role and duties of classic English housekeepers. It really is a collection of five very different personal profiles. I had a problem with the style which in the middle of a profile the author you insert her own personal research, experience or view. This seemed very intrusive and disrupted the flow of the story. Would have like to see this as a separate entry at either the beginning or end of each profile. Where are the editors anymore?

  17. 5 out of 5

    Bryn (Plus Others)

    Why have so few people read this? It is very solid, well-written popular history; Boase grounds her stories of five real women who worked as housekeepers (from the 1830s to the 1950s) in English country houses in excellent research, but with that grounding she is unafraid to speculate about everyone's interiority, teasing out possible thoughts and emotions that might have motivated some of the events she documents. It took me some time to read it because often the stories were sad -- women who h Why have so few people read this? It is very solid, well-written popular history; Boase grounds her stories of five real women who worked as housekeepers (from the 1830s to the 1950s) in English country houses in excellent research, but with that grounding she is unafraid to speculate about everyone's interiority, teasing out possible thoughts and emotions that might have motivated some of the events she documents. It took me some time to read it because often the stories were sad -- women who had worked very hard, committed some act that their employers found a transgression, and then were treated quite badly. My favourite chapter was the one on Grace Higgins, the housekeeper-cook at Vanessa Bell's Charleston, who I had encountered in passing from the other side -- she was an interesting woman and I loved the chance to get to know her a little and understand (via her diary) what the Bloomsburies looked like from her point of view. I also really appreciated the final piece, on Nicky Garner, a modern-day housekeeper working at Holkham Hall -- the social dynamics have definitely changed and Garner seems to have a sense that she is not just pleasing the family she works for but also that her cleaning and conservation work is for the public good. I loved that Boase thought to include a contemporary woman in her survey, it added an extra piece of grounding & was a good reminder that the work of the housekeeper has not actually gone away, just changed. This review by Janet Walker includes an interview with Boase at the end: https://www.thecultureconcept.com/the...

  18. 5 out of 5

    Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)

    This book could have been much better if the writer had remained in the background and narrated the stories in an unobtrusive way. Instead, she opted for "filling in the blanks" with "I can imagine..." and other assumptions, as well as telling us all about how "I researched this and that, I sat in the archives, I did this, look at me!" Yes, we know that, you wrote a book about it. Unfortunately, by about halfway through it turns into less a historical overview and more a novel-wannabe. By the ti This book could have been much better if the writer had remained in the background and narrated the stories in an unobtrusive way. Instead, she opted for "filling in the blanks" with "I can imagine..." and other assumptions, as well as telling us all about how "I researched this and that, I sat in the archives, I did this, look at me!" Yes, we know that, you wrote a book about it. Unfortunately, by about halfway through it turns into less a historical overview and more a novel-wannabe. By the time we reach the story of Hannah McKensie, I got the feeling Boase had been binge-watching her boxset of Downton Abbey too long and too late. By Part 4, it started to drag. For some reason which is never explained or backed up by anything remotely like evidence, Boase describes every single male heir of these stately home estates as "effete", "effeminate" or simply "strange." No reason for this judgemental attitude on her part is offered, she just tosses out these adjectives and lets it go at that. The farther the book goes, the more superficial the narrative gets. If Grace's diaries for . 1924-44 disappeared, where does she get the inside information teasers she offers? I doubt the missus would discuss her servants' marriage proposals, especially if they weren't accepted. Also, the chapters are unnecessarily short, making the narrative choppy. What editor thought that was a good idea?

  19. 5 out of 5

    Elisabeth

    Interesting - well told. The book is structured around the stories of five English country house housekeepers, each in a different time (stretching from the early 1800s to 1971 -- and an epilogue from 2013). In the course of it the author examines broader questions of evolving class structure, the position of women, etc. She also provides a lot of detail on how people lived in the different periods (both the wealthy, middle class and poor) -- the food they ate, the houses they lived in, how they Interesting - well told. The book is structured around the stories of five English country house housekeepers, each in a different time (stretching from the early 1800s to 1971 -- and an epilogue from 2013). In the course of it the author examines broader questions of evolving class structure, the position of women, etc. She also provides a lot of detail on how people lived in the different periods (both the wealthy, middle class and poor) -- the food they ate, the houses they lived in, how they travelled and so on. Her selection -- the housekeepers she chooses to write about -- seems based on who she could get information on. These are not "typical" housekeepers of their age; in fact the reason there is information on them is that they weren't typical. The earliest was fired because (though married) she became pregnant, and letters are available dealing with the situation. The second was fired for theft, and there was a court case. The third was the mother of H.G. Wells. The fourth was housekeeper for only one year in the house written about here -- at a time when the house was turned into a WWI soldier's hospital, though she was later housekeeper to Gloria Vanderbild. The fifth was housekeeper to Virginia Woolf's sister and an intimate of the Bloomsbury crowd. Well written and it certainly kept me reading.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Sue

    This is an interesting account of housekeepers in grand houses in the 19th century. It certainly puts my 21st century work/career problems in perspective. They worked long hours and often with no hope of retirement, they just worked until they died quite often. Kitchens were subterranean with little sunshine or fresh air. There was no sick leave, no NHS, no pension. If she got married, she lost her job. If she had a child, she lost her job. If the lady of the manor died and the new lady found th This is an interesting account of housekeepers in grand houses in the 19th century. It certainly puts my 21st century work/career problems in perspective. They worked long hours and often with no hope of retirement, they just worked until they died quite often. Kitchens were subterranean with little sunshine or fresh air. There was no sick leave, no NHS, no pension. If she got married, she lost her job. If she had a child, she lost her job. If the lady of the manor died and the new lady found that the housekeeper's face didn't fit, she lost her job. No security, no unions. One of the reasons that I like social history so much is that it holds a mirror up to the life I lead. It helps me appreciate what I have, rather than just wish for what I don't have. It allows me to compare myself to people who had far less rather than those who have far more than I do.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Susie

    This book suffers from the lack of source material. There is so much speculation. Do I think THIS happened? Or THAT? It is obvious that the author did a ton of research to try to flesh out the lives of these people, but there just isn't enough to make a story. I think it's interesting to try to imagine what the lives of these women were like, but I just felt that the author was handcuffed by the very thing she was trying to overcome, the fact that the lives of these servants were dismissed as no This book suffers from the lack of source material. There is so much speculation. Do I think THIS happened? Or THAT? It is obvious that the author did a ton of research to try to flesh out the lives of these people, but there just isn't enough to make a story. I think it's interesting to try to imagine what the lives of these women were like, but I just felt that the author was handcuffed by the very thing she was trying to overcome, the fact that the lives of these servants were dismissed as not important.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Annalisa

    This is social history at his best. As Boase says in the epilogue: "This book has shone a light on a handful of women who, for the most part, did not make it into history. It has resurrected them as human beings rather than as footnotes in the archives; real women with opinions, hopes, anxieties and crises....Read together, they form a salute to the dedication, tenacity and sheer hard toil of the housekeeper, and an attempt to give back the dignity she was largely denied in life." On behalf of al This is social history at his best. As Boase says in the epilogue: "This book has shone a light on a handful of women who, for the most part, did not make it into history. It has resurrected them as human beings rather than as footnotes in the archives; real women with opinions, hopes, anxieties and crises....Read together, they form a salute to the dedication, tenacity and sheer hard toil of the housekeeper, and an attempt to give back the dignity she was largely denied in life." On behalf of all the women in service in my own family tree, thank you Ms. Boase.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lora Shouse

    The Housekeeper’s Tale is a non-fiction book. It is sort of a group biography of five housekeepers at five large country houses between the years of 1820 and 1971 with an epilog detailing a ‘day in the life’ of a modern housekeeper in 2013. It is well researched and makes an excellent reference for anybody interested in the historical position of the housekeeper. The author also does a good job of bringing the housekeepers in her tale to life. It also tells the stories of five very different wome The Housekeeper’s Tale is a non-fiction book. It is sort of a group biography of five housekeepers at five large country houses between the years of 1820 and 1971 with an epilog detailing a ‘day in the life’ of a modern housekeeper in 2013. It is well researched and makes an excellent reference for anybody interested in the historical position of the housekeeper. The author also does a good job of bringing the housekeepers in her tale to life. It also tells the stories of five very different women who yet somehow have much in common. Each of the housekeepers whose stories are told in this book is unusual in some way. None of them is quite the stereotypical housekeeper you would normally expect. But it is precisely because of the trouble they got into or the unusual habits they had that they have managed to leave some record of themselves for a historical researcher to find. They had unusual mistresses as well, and that is another reason they have left traces of themselves. Dorthy Doar of Trentham Hall in the early 1800s and Sarah Wells of Uppark in the late 1800s were both married women. And it was unusual for married women to work as housekeepers in the 19th century. Their being married led in each case to why they were remembered, although the specific reasons were quite different. In Dorthy Doar’s case, a request for a six-weeks’ leave to have a baby led, after some turmoil, to her being expelled, and not in a nice way. After she left Trentham there is no further record to be found of her anywhere. Sarah Wells, on the other hand, had been employed as a lady’s maid for her mistress (a lady with an amazing story of her own) and left to get married. When the mistress inherited her sister’s house and title, she and her companion decided they needed some servants, and she invited Mrs. Wells back to be the housekeeper. By this time Mrs. Wells had three nearly grown sons, the youngest of whom (aged 13 at the time) was Herbert George Wells, known to most people now as H.G. Wells and famous for his story The War of the Worlds, as well as many other works, in some of which he gave both factual and fictional glimpses of his mother’s life as a housekeeper. Mrs. Wells also kept a kind of diary during her tenure as housekeeper in which she wrote about a line a day about her life and work. Ellen Penketh was cook-housekeeper at Erddig in North Wales from 1902 to 1907. The records concerning her come mostly from her trial for theft. She was afterward known as the thief-cook and spent time in jail for her supposed crime. Hannah Mackenzie worked at Wrest Park from 1914-1915 when the house was turned into a hospital for soldiers during World War I. She was let go after about a year, apparently for being too close to the men. She went on to work for the Vanderbilts in America for several years and ultimately lived to the ripe old age of 102. Grace Higgins worked for the Bells of the Bloomsbury group. They were apparently famous artists who lived a really odd Bohemian lifestyle. She started out with them in London and traveled with them some, but eventually wound up primarily in a country house called Charleston. Her employers were friends with all sorts of famous people – writers, poets, etc., and Grace knew them too by extension. She also kept a little diary of her own. She eventually married while she was in their employ and had a son. She was with them through World War II and stayed until 1971 before retiring.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lucy

    This book wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a historical non-fiction about the housekeeper's role in the country house and how it related to the family and the soceity at the time. And we did get some of that but we also got a focus on a particular woman each time, moving through the 19th and 20th century. It was really interesting to read about how the housekeeper's role has changed throughout the centuries and what they felt about their role. The author had to pick women who wrote d This book wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a historical non-fiction about the housekeeper's role in the country house and how it related to the family and the soceity at the time. And we did get some of that but we also got a focus on a particular woman each time, moving through the 19th and 20th century. It was really interesting to read about how the housekeeper's role has changed throughout the centuries and what they felt about their role. The author had to pick women who wrote diaries or letters, thanks to there being no other sources, and she had to do a lot of speculation around the women's mindsets, especially since the diaries tended to be on the smaller side. I found this a really interesting look at these various women but not so much at the role of the housekeeper as I would have liked. It also had a lot of speculation about what the women were thinking but not as much as I wanted about the historical context and other housekeepers of the time. I also found the author's writing style really hard to get through. This was a short book but it took me a long time to finish. 3 stars!

  25. 4 out of 5

    Gillian

    Having recently discovered an interest in social history, I was looking forward to this book after loving 'Black Diamonds' by Catherine Bailey (5*). However, whilst there were fascinating glimpses into the lives of various housekeepers and some desperately sad accounts of the treatment they received after years of service, I would have preferred more factual references in terms of letters, diaries, etc. and less supposition on the part of the author. Having recently discovered an interest in social history, I was looking forward to this book after loving 'Black Diamonds' by Catherine Bailey (5*). However, whilst there were fascinating glimpses into the lives of various housekeepers and some desperately sad accounts of the treatment they received after years of service, I would have preferred more factual references in terms of letters, diaries, etc. and less supposition on the part of the author.

  26. 4 out of 5

    David Szatkowski

    We hear often of some lives, less of others. Here is a way to enter the 'other side' of the upstairs/downstairs divide. The book is informative, fun, challenging, and thought provoking. If you're a Downtown Abbey fan, or just seeking to know and hear from voices not normally celebrated, it's worth a read. We hear often of some lives, less of others. Here is a way to enter the 'other side' of the upstairs/downstairs divide. The book is informative, fun, challenging, and thought provoking. If you're a Downtown Abbey fan, or just seeking to know and hear from voices not normally celebrated, it's worth a read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Trine

    An interesting description of the lives of 5 different housekeepers in England through the last 2 centuries. How life has changed! Since the stories are based on written sources, they might not give a full picture, at least I hope not for some of them are rather tragic and show what a gap there was between upstairs and downstairs in the English mansions.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Nightwitch

    I couldn't tell from the description whether this was going to be one of those aggregations of obscure previously-written memoirs and articles or a well-researched work of history, and was surprised and delighted to find it the latter. Really engrossing. I couldn't tell from the description whether this was going to be one of those aggregations of obscure previously-written memoirs and articles or a well-researched work of history, and was surprised and delighted to find it the latter. Really engrossing.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Carol

    The author has compiled a ton of research here all for us to enjoy. 5 housekeeper stories from over the years shows in great details the changes that the invisible service had. It also shows that real life wasn't all "Downton Abbey" The author has compiled a ton of research here all for us to enjoy. 5 housekeeper stories from over the years shows in great details the changes that the invisible service had. It also shows that real life wasn't all "Downton Abbey"

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    Interesting and well researched, recommend for those who like to know more about "the real Downton Abbey" people. Although to me the best book on this subject remains Molly Moran's Aprons and silverspoons. Interesting and well researched, recommend for those who like to know more about "the real Downton Abbey" people. Although to me the best book on this subject remains Molly Moran's Aprons and silverspoons.

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