As we’ve discussed here many times before, most of the heroes and a good many of the heroines in historical romances are wealthy, or at least comfortably off. Oh, there are the occasional governesses, poor relations, and fallen women sprinkled through the ranks of the heroines, but writers generally write what readers like to read, and that’s Characters Above the Middling Sort.
Not that I’m objecting. If one is reading to escape modern life for the late 18th century, then it’s far more enjoyable to end up in a sunny drawing room in a grand country house than to a noisy spot beside a clattering water-powered loom in a textile factory. Yet too often these affluent heroines (and their mothers and sisters) are depicted as frittering their days away: a little reading, a little music, a little riding, shopping, dressing, heading off to Almack’s, and, of course, a lot of doing whatever the hero is doing.
In reality, most ladies of the time spent many hours each day in running their household. A house was like a small business in itself, with the lady of the house (usually the wife, but depending on circumstances, an older daughter, spinster sister or widowed aunt) as the CEO, with duties that included bookkeeping, purchasing, personnel, and receiving. Anyone who casually refers to the “idle rich” didn’t know these women, who could both micromanage the proper way to starch their husband’s shirts and oversee the large-scale social event that was a house-party at a country estate that would exhaust a score of modern professional wedding-planners. They were caretakers of the secret family recopies for pewter polish as well as Christmas puddings, and were as adept at hiring a French governess as they were with coping with a pregnant housemaids.
All of which is an introduction to one of my favorite research books, a slender volume (why are volumes always slender, and not simply skinny books?) reprinted by the National Trust for Historic Places. The Housekeeping Book of Susanna Whatman is a printed version of a handwritten guide kept by the wife of a wealthy paper-mill owner in the late 18th century. The Whatmans weren’t aristocrats, but part of the newly-rising upper-middle-class. Their home, Turkey Court, was near Maidstone, in Kent, began as a sizable three-story brick house, and as Mr. Whatman prospered, gradually expanded to include a larger, more imposing estate and house that included the family’s paper mills (The estate still exists, with the house rented out for weddings and the mills refurbished as office space –– that’s it to the right.) Their family had three children, and their staff included a governess, housekeeper, steward, butler, coachman, gardener, cook, six maids, and a half-dozen “odd men” (which referred not to their personalities, but to the diversity of their duties.)
Mrs. Whatman wasn’t writing her book for publication (like Hannah Glasse’s Servant’s Directory, or Housekeeper’s Companion, published first in 1760), but for her own use as a guide for her staff. Mrs. Whatman knew how things should be properly done, having served as the head of her father’s equally large household after her mother’s death. In her Housekeeping Book, she offers a fascinating glimpse at life in her house.
She expected her servants to be up early, and to bed late, having the rooms of the house ready and the fires set before the family came downstairs in the morning and yet remain awake to assist Mr. and Mrs. Whatman prepare for bed, however late that might be. She expected them to be industrious, too. The book outlines all the daily responsibilities for each servant, a staggering list. Even the cook, the comparative queen of the staff, had far more to do than simply prepare food:
Cook must bake her bread in the mornings time enough for breakfast. She should bake Wednesdays and Saturdays, clean her Larder and Pantries Mondays and Fridays, and rise Tuesday to wash her own things. Thursday morning wipe her pewter . . . and iron her things instead of doing it in the evenings …Cook should see that every saucepan, etc. is well cleaned within, but never scowered without, except the upper rim . . . [as she is also responsible for] filling the hog pails, washing up butter dishes and salad bowls, preserving the water in which meat is boiled, keeping all her places clean, managing her fire and her kitchen linens and keeping it mended.
The cook was also expected to oversee the lesser servants as Mrs. Whatman’s eyes in the kitchen:
Cook should see that heavy things are not set upon plates and dishes. She may always call back a servant whom she sees do it, or if they leave bones or hard things such as spoons in a dish, and then put other dishes on it . . . . As it is very wrong to lay temptation unnecessarily in the way of anyone, the large joints [of meat] should never be left open to the inferior servants . . . .This duty of keeping away temptation is very necessary, as it would be difficult to detect depredations on a large joint, and a dishonest servant might contract a habit of doing injustice.
In other words, no snacking on leftovers. But even with her own key to the wire safe with the roast joints, Cook still wasn’t the highest authority:
The Housekeeper ought always to be present, when the dinner is sent up. Otherwise the Cook is apt to relax, and be longer dishing than is necessary.
Yet as strict as Mrs. Whatman was about duties, she was also (comparatively) indulgent to her servants. They were permitted alternate Sundays off to attend church, given ale at their noon meals, and warm coverlets on their beds. “Broken victuals” (table scraps and leavings) didn’t wind up on the servants’ table, but were given to the deserving poor. The house had modern labor-saving devices such as a water-closet instead of chamber-pots, a mangle for pressing linen, and a range for cooking instead of an open hearth. She even took care with choosing the calico for the maids’ gowns: “It is a finer one than I should have given them, but it is so pretty, that [I am sure they] will fall in love with it as I did.”
The furnishings of a great house were of considerable value, and Mrs. Whatman was ever-vigilant about preserving her husband’s assets. There was a detailed daily schedule for opening and shutting each room’s Venetian blinds to prevent the sun from fading the furniture. Carpets were turned over and swept every few days to clean them, rather than using water, which caused the dyes to run. Mahogany pieces were rubbed, never waxed or polished, and special bellows were used to blow dust from intricate carvings.
Clearly Mr. Whatman’s library was his sanctum sanctorum. The books were to be dusted “only as far as the wing of a goose would go,” and never taken out or disarranged. Apparently with good reason, too, for there is a strained reference to a mislaid “philosophical index”, a casualty of an over-zealous maid: “I never saw her poor master so angry.”
We even learn how household bills were paid: “Mrs. Whatman pays all her house bills weekly, including the Butcher’s bills, and candles and flour when they are brought in. But soap, wax candles, and grocery come down from London, and are paid by draft by Mr. Whatman.” Perhaps most telling of Mrs. Whatman’s thrifty housekeeping is that, while Mr. Whatman’s income was around £6,000 annually, the family’s expenses never exceeded £2,000 –– so certain a recipe for household happiness that Mr. Micawber himself would applaud.
Do you enjoy these more homely details of everyday life in novels? Do you feel they add to the characters’ lives and stories, or would you rather read only about the more glamorous balls and dinners?