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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 Delving into secret diaries, unpublished letters and the neglected service archives of our stately homes, Tessa Boase tells the extraordinary stories of five working women who ran some of Britain’s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. Revelatory, gripping and unexpectedly poignant, The Housekeeper’s Tale champions the invisible women who ran the English country house.
This is Dorothy Doar’s story, one of five stories that make up The Housekeeper’s Tale. As one of the cabal that ran the estate of the Duke of Sutherland, this is an evocative and poignant story providing a moving insight into the life of a woman whose life was lost amongst account books and inventories. Her defining moment is that she was a housekeeper who, after fourteen years’ loyal service, fell spectacularly foul of her employers. The year was 1832, a time of great political upheaval in Britain. Dorothy Doar was a small but vital cog in the enormous machine servicing the wealthiest, most powerful and probably most disliked family of her day. Her uniform was the black bombazine dress and bunch of keys that symbolized all that Victorian society held dear. Though Mrs Doar proved that these symbols of sobriety, dependability, and morality were just a cloak. Inside, she was human.
This is Ellen Penketh’s story, one of the five stories that make up The Housekeeper’s Tale. Erddig – or Erthig, to the Welsh – was an anchor in a fast-changing world. For five years it was home to Ellen Penketh, whose infamy remains in the estate’s archives as ‘the thief cook’. In 1907 the Yorke family were caught up in a very public scandal – a scandal that did deep and profound damage to their patriarchal belief in staff loyalty. Mrs Penketh’s tenure before this domestic unraveling bore all the signs of a long and most successful one and tells the tale of a women who was cherished for her Charlotte russe and even, initially, held a close relationship with her mistress. Just how this significant fall from grace came about is one that remains shrouded in mystery, but its impact was laid bare for all to witness.
This is Hannah Mackenzie’s story, one of the five stories that make up The Housekeeper’s Tale. Hannah Mackenzie’s career in domestic service encompassed the Victorian industrialist middle classes, the Edwardian conservative nouveau riche, the liberal aristocracy during the Great War and the American super-rich of the Roaring Twenties. This story shines a spotlight on one year of Hannah’s profession – 1914 to 1915. Wrest Park in Bedfordshire was the first country-house war hospital to receive wounded soldiers from the Great War. This first year of the war, with a lifetime’s worth of experience, exposed the Honorable Nan Herbert and her housekeeper to all of the horrors of modern warfare. Ultimately, it provides a moving story of great hardship and loss as well as glimpses of happiness and even love, and is a powerful testament to the actions of women when their country needed them most.
This is Sarah Wells’s story, one of the five stories that make up The Housekeeper’s Tale. Mrs Wells was bad at accounts, bad at managing her girls, ill experienced in buying stores and economising – and this was only the opinion of her son, the writer H. G. Wells. Despite this accepted view of her housekeeping abilities, Sarah Wells managed to maintain her tenure at Uppark, West Sussex, for 13 years, having arrived in 1880. It was during this half of the nineteenth century that was the era of wealth creation for the Victorians: the railway age. Presiding over a home where the master of the house had married the estate dairymaid, this transition from downstairs to upstairs was most unusual and risked sending the household into chaos. What followed was positively stranger than fiction, as her own son expressed in some of his published works.
'Shocking and entertaining. The surprising story of the campaigning women who changed Britain.' Virginia Nicholson ‘Full of fascinating historical detail and colourful characters… A great story, beautifully told.’ Kate Humble When Mrs Pankhurst stormed the House of Commons with her crack squad of militant suffragettes in 1908, she wore on her hat a voluptuous purple feather. This is the intriguing story behind that feather. Twelve years before the suffragette movement began dominating headlines, a very different women’s campaign captured the public imagination. Its aim was radical: to stamp out the fashion for feathers in hats. Leading the fight was a character just as heroic as Emmeline Pankhurst, but with opposite beliefs. Her name was Etta Lemon, and she was anti-fashion, anti-feminist – and anti-suffrage. Mrs Lemon has been forgotten by history, but her mighty society lives on. Few, today, are aware that Britain’s biggest conservation charity, the RSPB, was born through the determined efforts of a handful of women, led by the indomitable Mrs Lemon. While the suffragettes were slashing paintings and smashing shop windows, Etta Lemon and her local secretaries were challenging ‘murderous millinery’ all the way up to Parliament. This gripping narrative explores two singular heroines – one lionised, the other forgotten – and their rival, overlapping campaigns. Moving from the feather workers’ slums to the highest courtly circles, from the first female political rally to the first forcible feeding, Mrs Pankhurst’s Purple Feather is a unique journey through a society in transformation. This is a highly original story of women stepping into the public sphere, agitating for change – and finally finding a voice.

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