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The Housekeeper's Tale - The Women Who Really Ran the English Country House

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  392 ratings  ·  60 reviews
The story of The Housekeeper’s Tale follows the lives of five women to delve into the secret existence of these powerful yet invisible women who ran our great English country houses.

From the 19th- to the mid 20th-century this was the most important professional job an uneducated woman could aspire to; the female equivalent of the butler. But we know very little about the w
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published August 12th 2014 by Aurum Press (first published January 1st 2014)
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Petra X $200 for an exhaust leak! Daylight robbery
Updated due to a change in circumstances, the lockdown. My house is dirty. I grew up in a country house with a housekeeper. It wasn't a grand country house and it wasn't in England, it was in the Welsh valleys and had three bedrooms. Ironically she really did end up as the Lady of the house as my mother went out to work.

What happened was that the family business went belly up as did many businesses in Wales when the coal and steel went. Rather than declare bankruptcy my father and his brother a
British author and freelance journalist Tessa Boase writes of six housekeepers, six different women, each from a different time period, each responsible for the running of an English country house.

Dorothy Doar was the Regency housekeeper of Trentham Hall, Staffordshire, from 1820 to 1832 for the uberwealthy first Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

Sarah Wells , mother of author H.G. Wells, was the Victorian housekeeper of Uppark, West Sussex, from 1880 to 1893 for Frances Fetherstonhaugh, a
This is an engaging popular history of English country-house housekeepers from the early 19th century to the 21st, told via the stories of five or six women who worked at different houses. (The sixth, present-day, example is in an epilogue.) With an emphasis on 'stories'. There is quite a bit of speculation, more in some cases than others, with at least one, I would say - that of Hannah Mackenzie - veering into whole paragraphs of historical fiction. There is original archival research here, but ...more
Mar 25, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book traces the story of English - and, despite the title, in one case Welsh - country houses from 1820 right through to the 1970s. Author Tessa Boase makes the journey by focusing on the lives of five very different housekeepers, with an appendix looking at the work of a present-day housekeeper in a stately home.

I found it a fascinating read, and enjoyed listening to the audiobook read by the author. She has a warm, expressive voice, and is good at doing different voices for the different
I’ve always had a fascination with the workings of the English County House. This book takes you on a unique and interesting trip into the past to get to know five housekeepers from various timeframes of English history. I’m simply amazed at all that I learned. She has a cozy way of writing. I listened to the audio read by the author. She did a phenomenal presentation of the book. I most heartily recommend it and plan to revisit this book again in the future.
Interesting look at Housekeepers from the Victorian era to modern day
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book; really really interesting. The author obviously put in a LOT of work to research these fairly invisible housekeepers, and it is surprising that she managed to get as much evidence as she did. These were the women who kept the whole 'machine' of the large country house turning and yet attitudes towards them by the rich people they served were shockingly dismissive; as one ex-butler said, 'we were just human furniture' - there to serve a purpose but not really seen as individuals. They ...more
Feb 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
The Housekeeper's Tale is the history of the traditional English housekeeper, told through the painstakingly-researched histories of five housekeepers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The author has done a heroic job of digging up details about the lives of these five women who were otherwise invisible to history, and often to the aristocrats they worked for. It was a role with significant power and financial responsibility, but also endless drudgery and lack of personal freedom. Each woman's sto ...more
The only thing that really put a dampener on things with this very good audiobook are the frequent annoying musical jingles that are played at the end of every (short!) chapter, which were played MUCH louder than the normal text, which is horrible at louder settings (such as the setting I used while walking along the road. Thanks for the ear ache). Other than that, the stories of the women introduced in this book are well-researched and captivating. I was especially pleased to find the story com ...more
Bethany Swafford
Aug 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle
Being a housekeeper was a job was one women in service sought to attain. Here are presented examples from the early nineteenth century to the present day, which show that this job is perhaps harder than any applicants ever imagined.

From start to finish, this was a fascinating book to read. I am accustomed to the cliche portrayals in literature, so I was interested to see what history has to say on the matter. Reading of the difficulties these women faced as they worked hard, for better or worse,
Aug 04, 2019 rated it really liked it
The book removes much of the romance from the Housekeeper role portrayed in TV shows such as Downton Abbey. The truth is far more gritty and often heartbreaking. As a long and factual book about a niche historical topic, I was prepared to be bored. Instead, the life stories were gripping, involving stolen jewels, unexpected pregnancies and milkmaids rising above their station.

The author inserts herself often in a history channelesque manner; “I imagine that she must have felt...” which could bec
Feb 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2017
I've been wanting to read this book after visiting Uppark and seeing HG Wells words about his mother on the wall and I'm so glad I finally did.

This is a fascinating set of stories about women who usually disappear into the background and I love the way Tessa Boase has resurrected them, sometimes from scant evidence, and how she makes space for them even where the evidence is missing.
Jenni Keer
Sep 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Bought this as research but it was simply enchanting and I couldn't put it down. It follows the lives of various housekeepers through the ages and was totally gripping - even more so because these were true stories. Very readable. ...more
Stanley Trice
Apr 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
The author follows the lives of five women who were housekeepers for large English country homes from the early 1800s to the 1950s. The story of these women span several changes in English culture and society and through two world wars.

The lives of housekeepers were mostly unknown to history even though they were responsible for the success of many English houses and manors. Some of their responsibilities included managing the staff, balancing the books, and keeping inventory.

Through her extensi
Nov 11, 2020 rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book tremendously. The subject matter is a great area for social history, unearthing forgotten female lives. But I was frustrated by the amount of speculation and supposition. A shorter book with fewer flights of fancy would have rated higher for me.
Jun 07, 2019 rated it liked it
Read this after mention at the end of The Address. I expected more information about the role and duties of classic English housekeepers. It really is a collection of five very different personal profiles. I had a problem with the style which in the middle of a profile the author you insert her own personal research, experience or view. This seemed very intrusive and disrupted the flow of the story. Would have like to see this as a separate entry at either the beginning or end of each profile. W ...more
Bryn (Plus Others)
Jul 01, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, anglophilia
Why have so few people read this? It is very solid, well-written popular history; Boase grounds her stories of five real women who worked as housekeepers (from the 1830s to the 1950s) in English country houses in excellent research, but with that grounding she is unafraid to speculate about everyone's interiority, teasing out possible thoughts and emotions that might have motivated some of the events she documents. It took me some time to read it because often the stories were sad -- women who h ...more
Orinoco Womble (tidy bag and all)
This book could have been much better if the writer had remained in the background and narrated the stories in an unobtrusive way. Instead, she opted for "filling in the blanks" with "I can imagine..." and other assumptions, as well as telling us all about how "I researched this and that, I sat in the archives, I did this, look at me!" Yes, we know that, you wrote a book about it. Unfortunately, by about halfway through it turns into less a historical overview and more a novel-wannabe. By the ti ...more
Oct 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting - well told. The book is structured around the stories of five English country house housekeepers, each in a different time (stretching from the early 1800s to 1971 -- and an epilogue from 2013). In the course of it the author examines broader questions of evolving class structure, the position of women, etc. She also provides a lot of detail on how people lived in the different periods (both the wealthy, middle class and poor) -- the food they ate, the houses they lived in, how they ...more
May 30, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: british, 2016
This book suffers from the lack of source material. There is so much speculation. Do I think THIS happened? Or THAT? It is obvious that the author did a ton of research to try to flesh out the lives of these people, but there just isn't enough to make a story. I think it's interesting to try to imagine what the lives of these women were like, but I just felt that the author was handcuffed by the very thing she was trying to overcome, the fact that the lives of these servants were dismissed as no ...more
Apr 10, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is social history at his best. As Boase says in the epilogue:

"This book has shone a light on a handful of women who, for the most part, did not make it into history. It has resurrected them as human beings rather than as footnotes in the archives; real women with opinions, hopes, anxieties and crises....Read together, they form a salute to the dedication, tenacity and sheer hard toil of the housekeeper, and an attempt to give back the dignity she was largely denied in life."

On behalf of al
Lora Shouse
Jan 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The Housekeeper’s Tale is a non-fiction book. It is sort of a group biography of five housekeepers at five large country houses between the years of 1820 and 1971 with an epilog detailing a ‘day in the life’ of a modern housekeeper in 2013. It is well researched and makes an excellent reference for anybody interested in the historical position of the housekeeper. The author also does a good job of bringing the housekeepers in her tale to life.

It also tells the stories of five very different wome
This book wasn't what I was expecting. I was expecting a historical non-fiction about the housekeeper's role in the country house and how it related to the family and the soceity at the time. And we did get some of that but we also got a focus on a particular woman each time, moving through the 19th and 20th century. It was really interesting to read about how the housekeeper's role has changed throughout the centuries and what they felt about their role. The author had to pick women who wrote d ...more
Having recently discovered an interest in social history, I was looking forward to this book after loving 'Black Diamonds' by Catherine Bailey (5*). However, whilst there were fascinating glimpses into the lives of various housekeepers and some desperately sad accounts of the treatment they received after years of service, I would have preferred more factual references in terms of letters, diaries, etc. and less supposition on the part of the author. ...more
David Szatkowski
We hear often of some lives, less of others. Here is a way to enter the 'other side' of the upstairs/downstairs divide. The book is informative, fun, challenging, and thought provoking. If you're a Downtown Abbey fan, or just seeking to know and hear from voices not normally celebrated, it's worth a read. ...more
Apr 29, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting description of the lives of 5 different housekeepers in England through the last 2 centuries. How life has changed! Since the stories are based on written sources, they might not give a full picture, at least I hope not for some of them are rather tragic and show what a gap there was between upstairs and downstairs in the English mansions.
I couldn't tell from the description whether this was going to be one of those aggregations of obscure previously-written memoirs and articles or a well-researched work of history, and was surprised and delighted to find it the latter. Really engrossing. ...more
Aug 23, 2019 rated it liked it
The author has compiled a ton of research here all for us to enjoy. 5 housekeeper stories from over the years shows in great details the changes that the invisible service had. It also shows that real life wasn't all "Downton Abbey" ...more
Sep 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Interesting and well researched, recommend for those who like to know more about "the real Downton Abbey" people. Although to me the best book on this subject remains Molly Moran's Aprons and silverspoons. ...more
Cindy Anstey
Jun 20, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating! Despite only needing to read the first chapter for research, I read it cover to cover.
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Tessa Boase grew up in the Ashdown Forest, Sussex; studied English at Oxford and Italian in Florence; and has worked for a variety of magazines and national newspapers including The Daily Telegraph.
As a freelance journalist she's written widely on society, the environment, the food chain, and the link between all three. As a narrative non-fiction author, her interests lie in uncovering stories of

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