With the worldwide popularity of Downton Abbey and the reboot of Upstairs, Downstairs, stories about live-in servants back in the day are just aboutÂ the hottest thing since sparkly vampires. The Maid’s Tale, a memoir, professes to revealÂ “life below stairs as it really was” – and, wonderfully, it delivers on this promise.
Rose Plummer was born in 1910 in a London slum. She grew up on the streets, went into service at 15, dabbled in communism at 25 and watched the world change around her over the course of her life. Tom Quinn compiled The Maid’s TaleÂ from conversations he had with Plummer in her retirement home before she sadly passed away. Although she wasn’t around to see the book published, QuinnÂ seemingly remained faithful to her voice. This is her tale, and she tells it with a vivacity and sense of authenticity that is remarkable. While her memories are tinged with a sense of poignancy, she’s wary of romanticising the past; indeed she openly states that she’sÂ happy thatÂ much of the old world is gone. It’s this perspective – of a woman who has lived through the rapid changes and turmoil of the 20th century, and is glad of it – that gives the reader a unique insight into our recent history.
The Maid’s Tale begins with Plummer’s earliest memories of life in the East End, in the two-room flat she shared with her family and on the streets she roamed endlessly with her mates. Though she recalls many events with fondness, she’s clear about how hard life was. What’s perhaps most surprising is the way her life became harder still when she went into service. She relays in vivid detail the drudgery of life as a housemaid, the eccentricities of her employers, and the bizarre social hierarchy that ruled over all their lives. The most mundane aspects of the everyday(the harsh cleaning methods, the smells, the routines) are made fascinating, partly by their complete foreignness to our modern ways, and partly thanks to Rose’s voice. But it’s her description of her relationships – the increasingly distant one with her mother, the dalliances with men in the dancehall, and especially her friendship with fellow maid, Mary – that give the book its heart.
The Maid’s Tale is a touching, humourous and fascinating story that has one major downside – I’ll never be able to look at Downton Abbey in the same way again.
Available now: Hachette RRP$19.99
Meet Belle: I’m a 25-year-old writer and book addict from Sydney, Australia. I love fiction of all shapes and sizes – so whether it’s young adult, classic literature or anything in between, you’ll find me with my nose stuck in it. You can see more of my book reviews and other word-nerdy fun at bellesbookshelf.