Book Reviews

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

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List Price: £8.99


Paperback: 336 Pages.

Published: 12 March 2015 by Aurum Press

Edition: Reprint

ISBN: 9781781314104

EAN: 9781781314104

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. The Housekeeper’s Tale reveals the personal sacrifices, bitter disputes and driving ambition that shaped these women’s careers. Delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain’s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.

There is Dorothy Doar, Regency housekeeper for the obscenely wealthy 1st Duke and Duchess of Sutherland at Trentham Hall, Staffordshire. There is Sarah Wells, a deaf and elderly Victorian in charge of Uppark, West Sussex. Ellen Penketh is Edwardian cook-housekeeper at the sociable but impecunious Erddig Hall in the Welsh borders. Hannah Mackenzie runs Wrest Park in Bedfordshire – Britain’s first country-house war hospital, bankrolled by playwright J. M. Barrie. And there is 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.


4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars4.0 Stars  by Debra Found

Basicallyh Good but Lacked Solid Evidence

This is the story of five women who were housekeepers at varying points

throughout the twentieth century. We begin in 1890 at Trentham Hall and

finish in 1971 in Sussex, though there is an epilogue looking at a

housekeeper today.

The biggest problem with a majority of this book

is how little information about these particular woman the author

actually had. There are snippets from newspapers, diaries, letters and

housekeeping paperwork but in reality this didn't really amount to a

large amount of evidence. There are plenty of occasions when the

thoughts, feelings and everyday life are surmised by the author. On

these occasions the information is padded out with very general comments

on life below stairs in that period of history. I am aware that it is

difficult to obtain this solid information but perhaps the author needed

to write in a different way.

The final section concerns Grace

Higgens who was housekeeper for Veronica Bell who was part of the

infamous Bloomsbury Group. She kept extensive diaries and there many

mentioned of her in letters of the time. There was plenty of evidence

concerning Grace's life and this made for a good read. It was

interesting and factual rather than full of padding.

The epilogue of

this book was also interesting looking at Nicky who is the housekeeper

at Holkham Hall. This is a very different way of being a housekeeper and

I found it fascinating. I would have liked more detail surrounding her

everyday life.

This was an interesting book and I did enjoy it.

However I would have liked far more evidence and concrete fact

concerning these ladies or perhaps a more general approach. If you

choose to write a book which centres on specific people then you really

need to have plenty of information about them.

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