Well, mostly downstairs.
In this day and age, most of us will never understand the role that domestic staff had in our lives. Over time they represented status, provided basic comforts of life, offered companionship and freed up others for a creative or leisured life. Largely ignored, the servants of past had a unique and privileged perspective of their employers lives.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
In the words of Stockett’s Abileen “The help always know.” Abileen has lost her own precious son and makes her living raising other people’s children. Minny has a mouth on her and, though an incredible cook, has a hard time keeping a job. Set in the South in the 1960s, it is a novel about friendship and race relations during a time when a black woman could raise a white child but not use the family’s bathroom.
Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk
Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hazie Coogan is Katherine Kenton’s maid and confidante. Think Bette Davis and Joan Crawford as you imagine Katherine Kenton’s marriages, rise to fame and fall from grace. All the while, she is watched over by Hazie Coogan who is not about to let her be betrayed by the latest gentleman caller who has wormed her way into her life.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
A woman accepts a position with a retired mathematics professor. He was in an accident many years before and only retains memories for eighty minutes. The professor, the housekeeper and her son develop a touching relationship while they learn to live in the present. (for more see an earlier post.)
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Now into the world of nonfiction. This is a look at domestic service in England in the first half of the twentieth century, illustrated by Virginia Woolf’s relationship with her servants. During and between the wars, employment options opened up for women and it became increasing difficult to maintain a staff. Woolf was dependent on her servants to free up her time to allow her to write, yet resented their intrusion into her life.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Stevens, an elderly butler in post-war England, rigidly adheres to his self-delusions regarding service and his employer. As her approaches the end of his career, he reflects back on his unquestioning loyalty to his not-so-nice employer and lost opportunities.
See also the award winning film starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins.
1892: a novel by Paul Butler
A love story set in 19th century St. John’s. Kathleen, an Irish servant, and Tommy a stable hand engage in a romance in this mystery that explores the origins of the Great Fire of 1892.
“1892 combines both lyrical writing and telling detail. It is a novel written by a sure and confident writer in his prime.“
The Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
Vermeer employs sixteen year old Griet as a servant. She is a keen observer of the 17th century household. Griet’s daily chores are described with such intensity to make you feel grateful for your home with your mod-cons. Once she begins to pose for Vermeer, her lowly and tenuous position becomes clear.
See also the award winning film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Lady’s Maid by Margaret Forster
Elizabeth Wilson is lady’s maid to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In her letters home to her mother, she describes her daily activities and her place in this unique household. She gives up her life to support and sustain Barrett Browning and comes to understand the true divisions amongst social classes.
Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander
Leonka, a kitchen servant, tells the story of the Romanov’s final days in captivity. Because of his lowly status, Leonka was ignored and privy to the family’s intimate moments. He keeps his secrets until his final days, satisfying our seemingly endless need for all things Romanov.