I’m pleased to be part of Jim Webster’s blog tour today to help promote two of his new books – ‘Maljie – Just One Thing After Another‘, and ‘Tallis Steelyard – Preparing the Ground and Other Stories‘. Here below is one of the stories from ‘Maljie- Just One Thing After Another‘; it’s entitled ‘All Perfectly Respectable‘:
All Perfectly Respectable
What people always forget is that the houses of my patrons, (and the houses of others of their class) are full of single young women. Before anybody gets the wrong idea, they are entirely respectable single women. But what has to be admitted is that they are largely at an age when respectable single women often transition to being entirely respectable married women. This is a wholly natural process and has been going on for an awful long time.
On the other hand, standards have to be maintained. My patrons are responsible ladies managing ostentatiously respectable households. The last thing they want is scandal. The endless curtain-twitching as your downstairs maid bestows a chaste (or not so chaste kiss) on a gentleman admirer at your back gate could be ignored. Vastly more irritating are the insinuations from neighbours that you are running a disorderly house. Even more disturbing is when the downstairs made starts looking nauseous in the morning, weeps for no apparent reason and starts letting out her skirts.
Now I cannot speak for every patron I have worked for but those whom I hold in highest esteem are ladies who have all had to deal with these situations. Obviously the lady herself cannot really step into the situation. Equally obviously the butler cannot be expected to deal with these matters. It falls on the broad shoulders of the housekeeper, an older and often married lady, who can be relied upon to explain to young women just how matters should proceed. A good housekeeper can keep the younger ones safe. Not only that but ideally she can warn you of scandal before it becomes embarrassingly obvious.
Should things reach the stage of pregnancy, then in a good house, the housekeeper will spot it, find the name of the young man involved, and will arrange to interview him. Apparently it is at this stage you involve the butler, or senior male member of staff. It’s at this stage that nascent and nebulous plans for matrimony in some distant future are firmed up, a home acquired, and job security ensured. Or alternatively if the young man involved seems more worthy of a horse-whipping than a wife, a fall back situation is sought. Sometimes the girl has a supportive mother who wishes to become involved. Sometimes it can be arranged for her to take a post on the family’s rural estate for a while. These tend to be far more child-friendly. But obviously the idea is that things never come to this pass.
Now given that young women in service have limited amounts of time off, cannot socialise during working hours and obviously cannot have gentlemen calling formally upon them, how are these liaisons managed in the first place? This is where the go-betweens have their place. There are many almost respectable tradespeople who have legitimate reasons for knocking on the door of most houses. Quelia, seller of baskets, is one of these. Any house might need a new laundry basket. She not only takes orders and makes baskets to fit your circumstances, she always has a few of the useful standard designs available. But when she knocks on the door, word will pass almost silently among those below stairs. “Quelia is here.”
So all those with notes for a loved one, arranging the next triste, will find time to pass through the kitchen where Quelia is displaying her wares. At the same time Quelia may well produce replies to previous notes, or even little gifts or tokens send by some lovelorn youth. Obviously all this is done in great secrecy lest anybody should notice. Given that the housekeeper was sixteen herself once, she is unlikely to be deceived as to why Quelia has ‘just dropped round’ three times this week. Indeed I’ve known one lady of the house who spotted a downstairs maid taking every excuse to be outside where she could see the road. Finally, when the maid had scrubbed the front step to a mirror polish for the third time that morning, she finally asked the girl if she should send the boot boy to find Quelia and see if there was a message for her.
There are other things a young lady might need. When in service, the Housekeeper will ensure that all the staff have clothing which reflects well on the house they serve. Uniforms are common, but even in those houses which are less formal, there will be a strict dress code, and the housekeeper will supply appropriate garments. It has to be said that the lady of the house will often have strong feelings in this area. Should she have a son who is at a difficult age (probably over fourteen) or a husband whose eye tends to wander, that uniforms are worn long and buttoned to the neck.
Now let us not beat about the bush, the blouse which is entirely appropriate when you serve the master of his house his morning coffee is not necessarily the blouse you would want to wear when a gentleman admirer invites you to go dancing. So the go-between will be summoned. Sometimes, if the young lady is an accomplished needle woman, she will merely be asked to provide material. Sometimes there will be a discussion as to sizes and styles and the go-between will reappear some days later with two or three suitable garments secreted in a basket. The prospective customer will choose the one she wants and give the go-between the money.
Now I have specifically excluded the master of the house from discussion as to how matters are remedied, as he so rarely has a part to play. Still the tale would not be complete without mentioning Old Bluffer Cockeren. A cheerful, happy-go-lucky chap; casual, easy come-easy go, happy to stand anybody a drink and a leading lawyer. Now obviously I didn’t know him when he was young. But his wife, Madam Cockeren seemed to regard him as somebody who couldn’t be trusted alone with eligible ladies. Personally I feel that she as a bit harsh in her judgement. I have worked in their house and know most of their domestic staff. Trust me, I have been in houses where the ‘gentleman’ regards the maids as fair game. The house has an atmosphere, the maids are taciturn if not actually nervous, and the staff ensure that no maid is left on her own in the master’s presence. The Cockeren household was not like that. Indeed the staff seemed to have a genuine affection for Old Bluffer and some of them would treat him almost as a confidante.
Incidentally, Madam Cockeren had at one point considered hiring ‘homely’ staff. But there again she has a business of her own, a dress shop where she converts her ideas into fabric. So her maids tend to be picked because they have a figure which challenges the dress designer, or because they have more skill with a needle than is usual. Thus when it is ‘all hands to the pumps’ in the shop, the domestic staff are also drafted in to serve. Old Bluffer once confided to me that he come home from work to discover the house empty, save for the butler and the cook. The cook fed them, and then he and the butler carried a stew pot to the shop whilst the cook stumbled behind with loaves and butter. There he found everybody frantically busy making the final preparations for a wedding. Indeed not long after midnight the bride arrived for a final fitting. Apparently at one point the hairdresser was putting her hair up even as the needle women were putting the final touches to the dress.
But as I was saying before I was interrupted, when one of the maids started to display the first signs of pregnancy, the Housekeeper went first to Bluffer. Bluffer sprang into action. There is nothing like the certainty that you will be blamed for something to goad you into finding the true culprit.
He, the housekeeper and the butler went to see the young man in question. He was an apprentice violin maker. He hoped to be out of his apprenticeship in a matter of months. At the time he had a small room at the back of the shop. At this point Bluffer summoned the young man’s master. After some discussion the master agreed that his apprentice was competent, and in six months would certainly become a journeyman.
A slight shake of the head at this point from his housekeeper intimated to Bluffer than six months, whilst the blink of an eye in the life of a good violin, was rather longer than she could hope to hide a pregnancy. Bluffer tried to negotiate down the length of time the apprenticeship but the master was obdurate. The deed had been signed and the dates were there on the document. Also there was the issue of the apprentice piece. The young man was engaged in making a violin on which he would be judged. Even if the legalities were ignored, this would still take at least four months. From the corner of his eye, Bluffer could see that the housekeeper wasn’t reassured about a drop to four months. Still he detected flexibility. Perhaps, if the apprentice had no other duties, the four months could be reduced somewhat. Say perhaps to two?
It was the master’s turn to offer up a little hope. Such a thing was known and had been done before.
Bluffer then turned to accommodation. Was this room at the back of the shop adequate for a young married couple? The master seemed doubtful. After all there wasn’t a kitchen. At this point the housekeeper asked about cooking. The master admitted that he was widowed and thus did the cooking. Apropos of nothing the housekeeper mentioned that the young woman was an excellent cook, having assisted in the kitchen regularly.
At this point the master seemed to see things in an entirely new light. He asked why there was all this haste to end the apprenticeship when all they really wanted was a marriage. The couple could marry as soon as they liked, live in the room, and the young lady would manage the kitchen. As an earnest of his goodwill he would pay the young man a journeyman’s wage from the day of the wedding.
The housekeeper sighed a little sigh of relief, the butler forgot himself so much as to allow a slight smile to cross his face and Bluffer and the master shook hands on the deal then and there.
The marriage took place that afternoon and the blushing bride introduced her husband to Madam Cockeren that evening as that worthy arrived home from the shop.
Madam accepted the situation graciously and purchased the couple a double bed and a selection of linen as a wedding present.
Yet even men of genius like Bluffer know the value of go-betweens like Quelia. Indeed I’ve seen him lift his hat to her when meeting her in the street. But alas, Quelia will not be plying this trade for much longer, some other will have to step into the gap. It was only yesterday I was privileged to act as Master of Ceremonies at her wedding. She has married Cornelian Vilore, butler to Madam Hael.
And now a brief note from Jim Webster:
It’s really just to inform you that I’ve just published two more collections of stories. The first, available on Kindle, is ‘Tallis Steelyard, Preparing the Ground and Other Stories‘:
More of the wit, wisdom and jumbled musings of Tallis Steelyard. Meet a vengeful Lady Bountiful, an artist who smokes only the finest hallucinogenic lichens, and wonder at the audacity of the rogue who attempts to drown a poet! Indeed, after reading this book you may never look at young boys and their dogs, onions, lumberjacks or usurers in quite the same way again.
A book that plumbs the depths of degradation, from murder to fold dancing, from the theft of pastry cooks to the playing of a bladder pipe in public.
The second book, available on Kindle or as a paperback, is ‘Maljie. Just One Thing After Another’.
Once more Tallis Steelyard chronicales the life of Maljie, a lady of his acquaintance. Discover the wonders of the Hermeneutic Catherine Wheel, marvel at the use of eye-watering quantities of hot spices. We have bell ringers, pop-up book shops, exploding sedan chairs, jobbing builders, literary criticism, horse theft and a revolutionary mob. We also discover what happens when a maiden, riding a white palfrey led by a dwarf, appears on the scene.