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House of Secrets

Style: Average

Attitude: Unobjectionable

In Brief: Conventional upstairs-downstairs story. Friendship & scorn for a newcomer. Circumspect subplot about an illegitimate child and the suggestion that he be aborted.

Cover of House of Secrets

Author: Jennie Walters

Series: Swallowcliffe Hall

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Published in: 2005

Age Range: Young Teens

Period: Late 19th C

Setting: Rural Kent

Genres:  Historical


Characters:

  • Polly is a 14-year-old serving maid, newly arrived at Swallowcliffe Hall and trying to find her feet.
  • Iris is a more experienced maid and a good friend to Polly.
  • William is a footman who is kind to Polly.
  • Rory & Edward Vye are the two older sons of Lord Vye, both attracted to the American heiress Miss Brookfield.
  • Harriett is the younger of the Vye daughters, keen to become a doctor.

Synopsis:

Polly sets out as an inexperienced maid in the big household of Swallowcliffe Hall, trying to find her feet while helping friends, being helped by others, and trying to ignore the scorn of some more experienced maids.

Notes:

A fairly conventional upstairs-downstairs narrative, from the point of view of a new housemaid in a big hall. The difficulties of hours of hard work for little thanks are compensated by a form of camaraderie among the servants (even though there is a hierarchy there, too). In the way of things, staff are often treated unfairly and with little gratitude by their employers, and are expected to “know their place” even when this is — by any modern standards — unreasonable. An American heiress has a more open attitude and takes Polly under her wing, and the younger daughter Harriett finds in Polly a kindred spirit, lying to take on herself Polly's blame in some mater. Polly in turn gives Harriett the ideas and the courage to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

A subplot involving an older maid who becomes pregnant by one of the sons of the house is straightforward enough, with no real detail, and the mother — offered money by the (unknown to us) father to have the child aborted — instead leaves the house and is taken into a workhouse after her parents have refused to have her back.

Themes:

  • Servants & Masters
  • The shame of illegitimacy.

Two things happened shortly after Master Edward left too which changed my life a great deal for the better. THe first was that finally our third housemaid arrived; I made up a pair with her, and Jemima went back to working with Becky. The new maid's name was Amelia, but Mrs Henderson soon decided that was much too fancy a name for such a position and that she should be known as Jane instead, the same as the girl before. As soon as I saw Amelia/Jane, I thought we should probably get along together perfectly well, and so it turned out. She was a quiet, steady sort of girl who worked hard and only spoke when she had good reason to: a blessed relief after having to cope with all Jemima's flouncing about. The two of us soon found our own rhythm and made a very efficient pair, if I do say so myself. Just as well, because the Vyes would shortly be going up to London for the season (Miss Eugenie was to be presented at Court, to complete her coming out), and we would be starting on the srping cleaning when the weather warmed up a little.

Saturday 29th July 2006