Books about Maidservants – The Gilded Lily
I thought I’d share with you some of the other books about feisty maidservants that I came across in my research for THE GILDED LILY, which is a novel about two serving girls who are on the run in the dark alleys of snowbound Restoration London. What makes maidservants interesting to write about is that often they have aspirations to better their lot, and in this respect my main character Ella Appleby is no exception. The only trouble is that she is intent in dragging her more naïve sister, Sadie along with her, even when Sadie has her doubts about her bolder sister Ella’s methods of advancement.
It is a challenge to write a literary novel about sisters who are illiterate. Often writers choose to somehow enable their characters to learn to read and write so that they can tell the story in their own words. I chose to leave my two main characters illiterate, but this meant that hearsay and stories formed a large part of the girls’ education and moral compass, and storytelling became a major theme in the book.
I read quite a few books about maids as part of my research and here are a few I would recommend.
Although this is designated as a young adult book it is a read that will also satisfy historical fiction fans of the medieval period. Set in the 1400’s, it is about Johanna, the maid of Dame Margery Kempe, a Holy Woman who went on pilgrimage to Rome. The Book of Margert Kempe is thought to be the first autobiography in the English language, and in it Margery constantly criticises her maid. It was a wonderful idea to re-write the journey from the maid’s perspective.
Johanna only 14 years old, and has to witness the devotions of Margery – mostly weeping, wailing and ordering her (Johanna) about. But Johanna’s instincts for self preservation are forced to come to the fore when she is abandoned by her mistress in the middle of nowhere.
This book is set in the Victorian era and begins in 1873 in Glasgow, Scotland. One of the best things about this novel is the growing literacy of Bessy Buckley the maid as she grows in confidence through her diary, and her unique and brazen Glasgow ‘voice’ which is both comic and eye-opening.
By chance, and because she needs the work, Bessy starts work as a maidservant at the house of James and Arabella Reid. James is mostly absent, and Arabella - the delicate, somewhat other-worldly mistress - issues a series of strange commands, one of which is that Bessy must keep a journal, detailing her every action and even her innermost thoughts. As Arabella’s behaviour grows increasingly bizarre, Bessy soon discovers that she is the consuming subject of her mistress’s ‘observations’. The changing relationship between the employer and employee is one of the pleasures of this novel.
This is a tiny pocket sized book that packs a powerful punch. Set in 1831, fifteen year old Mary is one of three farm girls, with ‘hair the colour of milk.’ The book beautifully establishes the harshness and matter-of-factness of farming life, and eventually so there is one less mouth to feed, Mary is sent to be maid for the local vicar. Mary is sharp-tongued, but ambitious, and wants to escape her drudgery by learning to read.
The horrifying story of what she must trade during this process, and how it all ends is gradually revealed through Mary’s spartan but clear-eyed journal. Like Bessy in The Observations, Mary’s access to reading and writing is through her employer. Like Bessy, Mary has a price to pay for this knowledge.
Margaret Powell’s classic memoir of her time in service in the 1920’s and 30’s, is the true story of a serving girl who, though she served in the great houses of England, never stopped trying to better her station. Margaret started as a kitchen maid – the lowest of the low. Work started at 5.30am and went on until after dark. Margaret Powell's true story of a life spent in service is a fascinating “downstairs” portrait of the glittering, long-gone worlds behind the closed doors of Downton Abbey. As a genuine biography, this lacks the drama of the other books I’ve mentioned but is none the less fascinating for its period detail.
THE GILDED LILY by Deborah Swift
England, 1660. Ella Appleby believes she is destined for better things than slaving as a housemaid and dodging the blows of her drunken father. When her employer dies suddenly, she seizes her chance--taking his valuables and fleeing the countryside with her sister for the golden prospects of London. But London may not be the promised land she expects. Work is hard to find, until Ella takes up with a dashing and dubious gentleman with ties to the London underworld. Meanwhile, her old employer's twin brother is in hot pursuit of the sisters.
Set in a London of atmospheric coffee houses, gilded mansions, and shady pawnshops hidden from rich men's view, Deborah Swift's The Gilded Lily is a dazzling novel of historical adventure.
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