Sunday, September 3, 2017

"The Maid's Tale: Life Below Stairs as it Really Was" by Rose Plummer with Tom Quinn

This was a well written book, though anyone who is not familiar with older British slang might find some of the language a bit confusing. The author was a woman who was born in the poorer end of London to a large family. She attended school when she was younger, though she left school at the age of 12 to enter into service. Having come from a large family, this was a common practice in poorer homes as it took some of the financial burden off of parents who didn’t earn enough to always keep themselves fed, let alone all of their children.

Though her childhood may have been difficult by today’s standards, Rose considered it a happy one. She loved her parents and siblings, and while food may not have been extremely plentiful, they always managed to get by well enough.

At the age of 12, Rose began work in one of the smaller houses as a “maid of all work.” In other words, she worked hard and did whatever job needed to be done; be it scrubbing the front steps, helping cook with preparing meals, washing dishes, washing laundry, and anything else that needed doing. It was very hard work with extremely long hours every day.

Rose often spent her limited free time walking in the park where she met and became friends with a girl named Mary. The two often spent their half-days off together walking in the park as it was what most young people in service did with their rare free time. After some time working for this family, Mary convinced Rose that she should visit a placement service and seek a better position. Before long Rose was working in a larger household as the 2nd housemaid. Her duties were slightly more specific, but still just as numerous. The pay was also better, even if the hours required were just as long.

There was a strict hierarchy among servants, almost as if they were mirroring the status among the nobility. They didn’t overstep their authority among the other servants in the household, just as they were also very careful about not looking their employers directly in the eye and didn’t question orders given to them. Talking back even once could immediately get a person fired.

There were strict household curfews, and being out past them even on their day off was not allowed. Getting caught walking about regularly with a person of the opposite sex, if lucky earned them a warning that if seen walking with that person in the park again would cost them their position. If they weren’t lucky or their behavior was seen as less than appropriate, they could be immediately fired. Getting pregnant was something that would immediately cost their job, and getting married meant they had to stop working as a servant in the household as well.

That wasn’t to say that maids or other servants never had fun. Besides walking in the park or visiting a tea shop, there were dancing parlors and in the winter they could also go ice skating on their evening off. Rose often went dancing with her friend Mary. They might not have had steady boyfriends to dance with, but there were always a variety of people at the dance parlors looking for someone to dance with.

As time passed it became clear that there were fewer young people entering into service, so finding better positions with better pay steadily became easier. The years described by the author in this book took place mainly in the years between WWI and WWII, though she does go on to describe a bit all the way into the 1960s and 1970s. Having gotten married at a point before then, Rose was not working as a maid the entire time. Learning about her life and reading her descriptions of the many changes occurring during this time period was fascinating. I enjoyed reading her tale and will definitely have to look for and read some of the other books describing the lives of other types of household servants back then.

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