My mother, who had been passionately enthusiastic for education for girls, had now, characteristically, swung round to the opposite view. No child ought to be allowed to read until it was eight years old: better for the eyes and also for the brain.
Here, however, things did not go according to plan. When a story had been read to me and I liked it, I would ask for the book and study the pages which, at first meaningless, gradually began to make sense. When out with Nursie, I would ask her what the words written up over shops or on hoardings were. As a result, one day I found I was reading a book called The Angel of Love quite successfully to myself. I proceeded to do so out loud to Nursie.
‘I’m afraid, Ma’am,’ said Nursie apologetically to mother the next day, ‘Miss Agatha can read.’
My mother was much distressed–but there it was. Not yet five, but the world of story books was open to me. From then on, for Christmas and birthdays I demanded books.
My father said that, as I could read, I had better learn to write. This was not nearly so pleasant. Shaky copybooks full of pothooks and hangers still turn up in old drawers, or lines of shaky B’s and R’s, which I seem to have had great difficulty in distinguishing since I had learned to read by the look of words and not by their letters.
Then my father said I might as well start arithmetic, and every morning after breakfast I would set to at the dining-room window seat, enjoying myself far more with figures than with the recalcitrant letters of the alphabet.
Father was proud and pleased with my progress. I was promoted to a little brown book of ‘Problems’. I loved ‘Problems’. Though merely sums in disguise, they had an intriguing flavour. ‘John has five apples, George has six; if John takes away two of George’s apples, how many will George have at the end of the day?’ and so on. Nowadays, thinking of that problem, I feel an urge to reply: ‘Depends how fond of apples George is.’ But then I wrote down 4, with the feeling of one who has solved a knotty point, and added of my own accord, ‘and John will have 7.’ That I liked arithmetic seemed strange to my mother, who had never, as she admitted freely, had any use for figures, and had so much trouble with household accounts that my father took them over.
The next excitement in my life was the gift of a canary. He was named Goldie and became very tame, hopping about the nursery, sometimes sitting on Nursie’s cap, and perching on my finger when I called him. He was not only my bird, he was the start of a new secret Saga. The chief personages were Dickie and Dicksmistress. They rode on chargers all over the country (the garden) and had great adventures and narrow escapes from bands of robbers.
One day the supreme catastrophe occurred. Goldie disappeared. The window was open, the gate of his cage unlatched. It seemed likely he had flown away. I can still remember the horrible, dragging length of that day.
It went on and on and on. I cried and cried and cried. The cage was put outside the window with a piece of sugar in the bars. My mother and I went round the garden calling, ‘Dickie, Dickie, Dickie’. The housemaid was threatened with instant dismissal by my mother for cheerfully remarking, ‘Some cat’s got him, likely as not,’ which started my tears flowing again.
It was when I had been put to bed and lay there, still sniffing spasmodically and holding my mother’s hand, that a cheerful little cheep was heard. Down from the top of the curtain pole came Master Dickie. He flew round the nursery once and then entered his cage. Oh that incredulous wonder of delight! All that day-that unending miserable day–Dickie had been up the curtain pole.
My mother improved the occasion after the fashion of the time.
‘You see,’ she said, ‘how silly you have been? What a waste all that crying was? Never cry about things until you are sure.’
I assured her that I never would.
Something else came to me then, besides the joy of Dickie’s return, the strength of my mother’s love and understanding when there was trouble.
In the black abyss of misery, holding tight to her hand had been the one comfort. There was something magnetic and healing in her touch. In illness there was no one like her. She could give you her own strength and vitality.
The outstanding figure in my early life was Nursie. And round myself and Nursie was our own special world, The Nursery.
I can see the wallpaper now–mauve irises climbing up the walls in an endless pattern. I used to lie in bed at night looking at it in the firelight or the subdued light of Nursie’s oil lamp on the table. I thought it was beautiful. Indeed, I have had a passion for mauve all my life.
Nursie sat by the table sewing or mending. There was a screen round my bed and I was supposed to be asleep, but I was usually awake, admiring the irises, trying to see just how they intertwined, and thinking up new adventures for the Kittens. At nine-thirty, Nursie’s supper tray was brought up by Susan the housemaid. Susan was a great big girl, jerky and awkward in her movements and apt to knock things over. She and Nursie would hold a whispered conversation, then, when she had gone, Nursie would come over and look behind the screen.
‘I thought you wouldn’t be asleep. I suppose you want a taste?’
‘Oh, yes please, Nursie.’
A delicious morsel of juicy steak was placed in my mouth. I cannot really believe that Nursie had steak every night for supper, but in my memories steak it always is.
One other person of importance in the house was Jane our cook, who ruled the kitchen with the calm superiority of a queen. She came to my mother when she was a slim girl of nineteen, promoted from being a kitchenmaid. She remained with us for forty years and left weighing at least fifteen stone. Never once during that time had she displayed any emotion, but when she finally yielded to her brother’s urgings and went to keep house for him in Cornwall, the tears rolled silently down her cheeks as she left. She took with her one trunk–probably the trunk with which she had arrived. In all those years she had accumulated no possessions. She was, by today’s standards, a wonderful cook, but my mother occasionally complained that she had no imagination.
‘Oh dear, what pudding shall we have tonight? You suggest something, Jane.’
‘What about a nice stone pudding, Ma’am?’
A stone pudding was the only suggestion Jane ever vouchsafed, but for some reason my mother was allergic to the idea and said no, we wouldn’t have that, we’d have something else. To this day I have never known what a stone pudding was–my mother did not know either–she just said that it sounded dull.
When I first knew Jane she was enormous–one of the fattest women I have ever seen. She had a calm face, hair parted in the middle–beautiful, naturally wavy dark hair scraped back into a bun in the nape of her neck. Her jaws moved rhythmically all the time because she was invariably eating something–a fragment of pastry, a freshly-made scone, or a rock cake–it was like a large gentle cow everlastingly chewing the cud.
Splendid eating went on in the kitchen. After a large breakfast, eleven o’clock brought the delights of cocoa, and a plate of freshly-made rock cakes and buns, or perhaps hot jam pastry. The midday meal took place when ours was finished, and by etiquette the kitchen was taboo until 3 o’clock had struck. I was instructed by my mother that I was never to intrude during the kitchen lunchtime: ‘That is their own time, and it must not be interrupted by us.’
If by some unforeseen chance–a cancellation of dinner guests for instance-a message had to be conveyed, my mother would apologise for disturbing them, and, by unwritten law, none of the servants would rise at her entrance if they were seated at table.
Servants did an incredible amount of work. Jane cooked five-course dinners for seven or eight people as a matter of daily routine. For grand dinner parties of twelve or more, each course contained alternatives–two soups, two fish courses, etc. The housemaid cleaned about forty silver photograph frames and toilet silver ad lib, took in and emptied a ‘hip bath’ (we had a bathroom but my mother considered it a revolting idea to use a bath others had used), brought hot water to bedrooms four times a day, lit bedroom fires in winter, and mended linen etc. every afternoon.
The parlourmaid cleaned incredible amounts of silver and washed glasses with loving care in a papier mache bowl, besides providing perfect waiting at table.
In spite of these arduous duties, servants were, I think, actively happy, mainly because they knew they were appreciated–as experts, doing expert work. As such, they had that mysterious thing, prestige; they looked down with scorn on shop assistants and their like.
One of the things I think I should miss most, if I were a child nowadays, would be the absence of servants. To a child they were the most colourful part of daily life. Nurses supplied platitudes; servants supplied drama, entertainment, and all kinds of unspecified but interesting knowledge.
Far from being slaves they were frequently tyrants. They ‘knew their place’, as was said, but knowing their place meant not subservience but pride, the pride of the professional. Servants in the early 1900s were highly skilled. Parlourmaids had to be tall, to look smart, to have been perfectly trained, to have the right voice in which to murmur: ‘Hock or sherry?’ They performed intricate miracles of valeting for the gentlemen.
I doubt if there is any such thing as a real servant nowadays. Possibly a few are hobbling about between the ages of seventy and eighty, but otherwise there are merely the dailies, the waitresses, those who ‘oblige’, domestic helpers, working housekeepers, and charming young women who want to combine earning a little extra money with hours that will suit them and their children’s needs. They are amiable amateurs; they often become friends but they seldom command the awe with which we regarded our domestic staff.
Servants, of course, were not a particular luxury–it was not a case of only the rich having them; the only difference was that the rich had more.
They had butlers and footmen and housemaids and parlourmaids and between-maids and kitchen-maids and so on. As you descended the stages of affluence you would arrive eventually at what is so well described in those delightful books of Barry Pain, Eliza and Eliza’s Husband, as The girl’.
Our various servants are far more real to me than my mother’s friends and my distant relations. I have only to close my eyes to see Jane moving majestically in her kitchen, with vast bust, colossal hips, and a starched band that confined her waist. Her fat never seemed to trouble her, she never suffered from her feet, her knees or her ankles, and if she had blood pressure she was quite unaware of it. As far as I remember she was never ill. She was Olympian. If she had emotions, she never showed them; she was prodigal neither of endearments nor of anger; only on the days when she was engaged in the preparation of a large dinner-party a slight flush would show. The intense calm of her personality would be what I should describe as ‘faintly ruffled’-her face slightly redder, her lips pressed tight together, a faint frown on her forehead. Those were the days when I used to be banished from the kitchen with decision. ‘Now, Miss Agatha, I have no time today–I’ve got a lot on hand. I’ll give you a handful of raisins and then you must go out in the garden and not come and worry me any more.’ I left immediately, impressed, as always, by Jane’s utterances.
Jane’s principal characteristics were reticence and aloofness. We knew she had a brother, otherwise we knew little of her family. She never talked about them. She came from Cornwall. She was called ‘Mrs Rowe’, but that was a courtesy title. Like all good servants, she knew her place.
It was a place of command, and she made it clear to those working in the house that she was in charge.
Jane must have taken pride in the splendid dishes she cooked, but never showed it or spoke of it. She accepted compliments on her dinner on the following morning with no sign of gratification, though I think she was definitely pleased when my father came out into the kitchen and congratulated her.
Then there was Barker, one of our housemaids, who opened up to me yet another vista of life. Barkers’ father was a particularly strict Plymouth Brother, and Barker was very conscious of sin and the way she had broken away in certain matters. ‘Damned to all Eternity I shall be, no doubt of it,’ she would say, with a kind of cheerful relish. ‘What my father would say, I don’t know, if he knew I went to Church of England services.
What’s more, I enjoyed them. I enjoyed the Vicar’s sermon last Sunday, and I enjoyed the singing too.’
A child who came to stay was heard by my mother saying scornfully one day to the parlourmaid: ‘Oh! you’re only a servant!’ and was promptly taken to task.
‘Never let me hear you speak like that to a servant. Servants must be treated with the utmost courtesy. They are doing skilled work which you could not possibly do yourself without long training. And remember they cannot answer back. You must always be polite to people whose position forbids them to be rude to you. If you are impolite, they will despise you, and rightly, because you have not acted like a lady.’
‘To be a little lady’ was well rammed home in those times. It included some curious items.
Starting with courtesy to dependents, it went on to such things as:
‘Always leave something on your plate for Lady Manners.’ ‘Never drink with your mouth full.’ ‘Remember never to put two halfpenny stamps on a letter unless it is a bill to a tradesman.’ And, of course ‘Put on clean underclothes when you are going on a railway journey in case there should be an accident.’
Tea-time in the kitchen was often a social reunion. Jane had innumerable friends, and one or two of them dropped in nearly every day. Trays of hot rock cakes came out of the oven. Never since have I tasted rock cakes like Jane’s. They were crisp and flat and full of currants, and eaten hot they were Heaven. Jane in her mild bovine way was quite a martinet; if one of the others rose from the table, a voice would say: ‘I haven’t finished yet, Florence,’ and Florence, abashed, would sit down again murmuring, ‘I beg your pardon, Mrs Rowe.’