The Housekeeper's Tale: The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House
'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.' Fay Weldon: Novelist, playwright – and housekeeper's daughter
Revelatory, gripping and unexpectedly poignant, this is the story of the invisible women who ran the English country house.
Working as a housekeeper was one of the most prestigious jobs a nineteenth and early twentieth century woman could want – and also one of the toughest. A far cry from the Downton Abbey fiction, the real life Mrs Hughes was up against capricious mistresses, low pay, no job security and gruelling physical labour. Until now, her story has never been told.
Revealing the personal sacrifices, bitter disputes and driving ambition that shaped these women’s careers, and delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain’s most prominent households. From Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the obscenely wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, to Sarah Wells, a deaf and elderly Victorian in charge of Uppark, West Sussex. From Ellen Penketh, Edwardian cook-housekeeper at the sociable but impecunious Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders to Hannah Mackenzie who runs Wrest Park in Bedfordshire – Britain’s first country-house war hospital, bankrolled by playwright J. M. Barrie. And finally Grace Higgens, cook-housekeeper to the Bloomsbury set at Charleston farmhouse in East Sussex for half a century – an era defined by the Second World War.
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