Tuesday, 2 August 2016
20 November 1880 - 'A Young Housekeeper's Difficulties and How She Overcame Them' by Dora Hope - Chapter Two
"My dear Madge - you will be surprised to have another letter from me so soon after the last. But it has occurred to me that, as you have always been at school hitherto at this time of year, you may not know exactly how to arrange for your Christmas preparations. It seems very early to begin to talk about Christmas on the 10th of November, does it not? But having only yourself and one rather inefficient helper (as I fear Betsy will prove) to depend on, you must allow yourself plenty of time.
"There will not be very much to do by way of preparation in our little home, as you may imagine, but last year I was quite busy about this time. I suppose you have already put away most of the summer things, curtains, linen sheets, &c.? I generally begin that the first week in November, as it takes a long while to look over and mend each article before putting it away. I hope you remembered my advice to have all the curtains and other things which are usually starched rough dried before the winter, as they are apt to become rotten if laid by starched.
"The next step in my preparation was to look over the inventory of glass and china, replacing the missing articles, so as to start with my list complete for the next year. And I generally found that the sets of pudding-cloths, and sometimes knife, glass, and tea-cloths wanted renewing. Should you have to buy new ones, be sure you get them stamped, 'Glass,' 'Tea,' and so on, according to their use. They are sold at most good linen-drapers' now. If too dear, mark them very plainly yourself, and be sure that Betsy keeps each to its own proper use. It is a curious phase in the character of some servants the fondness they have for using one cloth for all sorts of purposes, but the habit is always slovenly, and often disgusting, and should never be allowed.
"Then the cooking utensils ought to be inspected. If you do not know exactly what you have, I advise you to hold a grand parade in the kitchen some leisure morning. I fear I forgot to give you the inventory I made last year, so perhaps the easiest way for you to ascertain if you have all that is necessary will be for me to send you a list of what I think requisite for a household of our size and means. Dear me! I must leave off talking about 'our household,' as if I still belonged to it, but it is so difficult to get out of the old way all at once. I actually signed my name 'Joanna Colville' yesterday in a letter to Arthur's mother, and did not discover what I had done till the letter was posted. Well, now for the list. Two frying-pans, one large and one small for fish; four saucepans of different sizes, including an enamelled one; a colander; one chopper; one small meat saw; one gravy strainer; one suet chopper; one toast fork; one egg whisk; one dozen skewers, different sizes; one fish kettle (for any extra-sized fish, particularly turbot, you can hire a kettle from the fishmonger); one preserving pan; one read grater; one nutmeg grater; pestle and mortar; mincing machine; kettle; one flour and one sugar dredger; pasteboard and rolling pin; chopping-board; salt-box; one funnel; spice-box; one dozen patty pans; two tartlet pans; meat jack and appurtenances; one large and one small cake tin; two wooden spoons; one baking tin; one paste cutter; one hair sieve; two wire covers (to protect meat from flies); one bread pan; four pudding basins; a set of six pie dishes; one jelly mould; one salt cellar; one pepper pot; one mustard pot; weights and scales; one fish slice; one egg slice; one flour pan or box.
"This sounds like a long list, but I have put down nothing but what is really necessary, and there are many other little contrivances which you would find very useful, but which I refrain from mentioning as being outside the pale of absolute necessity.
"If your enamelled saucepans are worn out, get the common brown earthenware instead of them; unfortunately the largest size they sell at most china shops is only three pints, or I should recommend you to use them for all cooking purposes; but that size is large enough for most purposes which you generally use the enamelled pans, and the earthenware s incomparably superior in many respects; besides their cheapness (the quart size can be bought anywhere for one shilling and fourpence, often for less), they are easy to keep clean, and do not allow the contents to burn so easily as iron.
"While on the subject of saucepans, I must say a word about cleaning them. You say you do not like cooking much yourself, because 'saucepans are such dirty things,' which remark gives me the impression that Betsy does not look after them properly. Saucepans need not be dirty things if properly dept, but you must see that they are washed directly they are done with, and upon no account allow them to be put away dirty from one day's use, to be cleaned the next. Have them well scrubbed with your saucepan brush, and occasionally some silver sand, and if you do not wish to run the risk of getting the next thing cooked in them spoilt and burnt, be careful that all the soot on the outside is well brushed off too. When they are washed, stand them before the fire for a few minutes to get thoroughly dry inside, before putting away, to prevent rust.
"If at any time Betsy is too busy to thoroughly wash the saucepan at once, let her fill it with hot water, and leave it on the fire to boil till she can attend to it; or sometimes, if its contents have not been at all greasy, she should pour off the water, after it has well boiled up, and wipe the pan round with a cloth, when it may be put away safely. The frying-pan should not be scrubbed, as that would roughen the bottom and cause the contents to bur; it should be washed in hot water with a little soda in it, and if done before the pan has cooled there will be no difficulty in wiping it clean with a cloth.
"Always make a rule of clearing up as you go on; it is a habit you will soon acquire, and which will save you a world of trouble. It is quite as easy to put a thing in its proper place when done with as to keep moving it about to make room for fresh requisites.
"You will, perhaps, wonder what the chimney-brush is for? I know there was one in the back-kitchen when I left home, but I do not think I explained its use to you. I was reminded of it this morning by a great commotion next door; their kitchen chimney had taken fire, and alarmed them all very much. It was entirely owing to negligence in allowing the chimney to get blocked with soot, so I determined to send you a word of caution, lest you should meet with a similar disaster. Once a week, or even oftener if you are having much cooking, you should instruct Betsy to sweep away the soot in the chimney, as far up as she can reach, with the brush provided on purpose. Your parlous chimney, and all others with registers which are much used, will require doing oftener, as the soot collects and catches fire so very quickly round the register.
"When all these matters are looked to, and put to rights, it will leave you a little breathing time before beginning the mince-meat and Christmas puddings. You will find such minute directions for both of these in the cookery book that I need say nothing about them, but will only suggest that you begin in good time, first stoning the raisins, because if anything should hinder you from finishing off quickly, these will keep quite well for a little while after stoning in a covered jar, while if you began with the other ingredients and were hindered from mixing them quickly the mince-meat would be spoilt.
"One word more, dear Madge, before closing. I hope you understood what I meant in my last letter about Tom and Dick. I have been afraid since I wrote it lest I had not explained it clearly.
"What I think you should aim at is, not to have to tell them to do this or that, but to have such a good influence over them that a hint will be enough. And until you have acquired this influence I think you should ask rather than order them to do what you wish; boys are generally quite willing to oblige others, if asked politely, but they naturally resent being told peremptorily to do anything, particularly by one so nearly of their own age, and their faults are from want of thought, not want of will. You will find that love works wonders. Take the words of the Bible for your motto: 'Love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous,' even to young brothers. Above all, do not lose your temper, for all boys (and girls, too) feel they have the best of the argument if they succeed in ruffling the temper of their elders.
"Do not be offended at my speaking so plainly. I appreciate your difficulties, and know that it is no easy task to keep order without giving any cause for offence to boys gifted with so large a share of mischief and good spirits as ours are; but be assured, dear Madge, that in your efforts you will always have the sympathy of your loving sister
"P.S. - I must tell you that in a letter a day or two ago father spoke of your management with the highest prise, and you know he never says anything like that unless he feels it very strongly."
The chilly days at the end of October were over, and November had set in damp and cold, proclaiming that the very threshold of winter was reached. A week or so before Margaret had performed the task of putting away all the now cast-off summer garments, and had prepared the household for the approach of winter by getting out the warm clothing. This piece of work had been anticipated with some trepidation, and it did truly seem to be a formidable undertaking.
There were two boxes among the winter stores which Margaret approached with some curiosity. They contained some of her father's and brothers' winter flannels, and her own fur jacket, muff and so forth. She had been at home the previous spring for a day or two, in consequence of sickness in the school, and in helping her sister to pack these things away there had been some discussion as to the best means for preventing months, with which they were a good deal troubled.
"I am going to try something new this year, Madge. I cannot bear the smell of camphor, and Arthur say that bitter apple or lavender would do just as well," said Joanna.
Margaret was firmly of the opinion that nothing could be so good as camphor, having heard it mentioned in a chemistry class, or some such lesson at school, that this substance was absolutely fatal to insect life, if sufficiently strong. She was, however, too wise to argue the point, when her sister's opinion was strengthened by that of her betrothed, but agreed to an experiment. One box was accordingly packed with two large lumps of camphor (bought at an oil shop for twopence per ounce); the other was to be dependent on bitter apple and two lavender bags.
It was these rival cases that Margaret felt some excitement to examining. First the lid of the camphorated box was carefully lifted, the top article removed, the next, and on through the box. "No," she cried exultantly, "not a sign of a living thing; now for the other one."
The lid was opened, and a cloth coat raised. Pouf! Out flew a moth! "Catch it, catch it, Betsy," she cried, "I must send it to Miss Joanna." And, alas for the dignity upon which she prided herself! Mistress as well as maid started round the room in pursuit of the offender, who was finally flicked down by a duster and captured. Now this was a very foolish proceeding, as in the meantime the other moths, had there been any, might have followed their leader, and gone in search of new fabrics in which to take up their abode. But happily there was but one more to be found, in spite of the most diligent searching, though these were quite enough to convince Margaret of the superior merits of camphor. In her heart of hearts she had a shrewd suspicion, which was really the truth, that any other aromatic substance would do equally well, provided the scent were only strong enough, the great superiority of camphor being due to its retaining its strength such a long time, and being cheap and convenient. She discovered afterwards another property of scents, that of preventing the formation of mould on ink, paste, leather in all its shapes, even seeds and very useful she found her discovery, for by putting amongst such things, kept in a damp cupboard, a piece of cotton wool dipped in any perfumed oil, she effectually preserved them from mould, that pest of housekeepers.
In looking over the winter things, she found that some new quilts would be required for the boys' beds; instead of the white ones, she was wise enough to buy Crimean blankets, which have a better appearance than any cheap quilt, and are also much more health, being lighter, though quite as warm, and the boys were delighted with their bright red colour. Margaret was in the habit of gleaning any little ideas of this sort from all kinds of sources, and always when reading books or articles kept her eyes open for any which would be likely to be useful; if it did not apply just at the time of reading, she would make a note of it in Joanna's miscellany book for future use.
At the same time Margaret took the opportunity of looking over the house and table-linen. She found, as Joanna warned her, that one or two sheets were wearing thin in the middle; these she cut in two lengthwise, sewing together the sides, that the strongest part might come into the middle, which always wears out first. Several dinner napkins, too, which seemed beyond darning for table use, were degraded to the rank of fish or potato napkins; the worn table-cloths she darned so neatly with flourishing thread that she flattered herself no one would notice the holes, but lest any fastidious visitor should come with prying eyes, these were reserved for breakfast use, and a couple of new ones bought for grand occasions.
In mending the summer clothes before putting them away, Margaret had frequent recourse to the patch drawer, a most useful institution founded many years before, in which were kept pieces and patches of all sorts and sizes rolled up in neat little bundles, which, however unlikely it might seem, were sure to come in for use sooner or later.
It will be readily believed that with this amount of mending to do, Margaret had her hands quite full for some days. Betsy proved to be one of those good-tempered, willing girls, who, though slow at learning and requiring constant looking after, seemed to be capable of an almost endless amount of work. With her assistance, cheerfully given, the mending was soon accomplished, and Margaret was recovering from her exertions when Joanna's letter came. It was at breakfast, and she groaned aloud when she read it.
"Why that heartrending sound?" asked Mr. Colville. "Has Joanna discovered that Arthur is not the perfect man she supposed; or have either of them broken their arms, or what?"
"Oh, no, father; nothing of that sort. Only - well, I do think Joanna is really too particular and methodical for anything. Truly, if everything has to be looked after and bothered about to the extent she says, galley-slaves would have an easy life compared to mine and the unfortunate Betsy's."
"'Who shall decide, when doctors disagree?'" laughed her father. "I do not feel myself competent to act as go-between for two such accomplished housekeepers. But I do not want you to do too much, dear, on any account; have a charwoman in to help you at any time when you feel you have rather more than you can manage."
"Oh no, father, there is nothing more than I can do perfectly well," she replied, scorning the idea of a charwoman, "and I have no doubt at all that Joanna is right; but it was rather a blow, just when I thought there was nothing that could want doing for the next week, to be told by my mentor that the pots and pans have to be looked to at this identical time."
"As you are so overwhelmed with work for the next day or two I suppose I must send a refusal for that?" remarked Mr. Colville, with a twinkle in his eye as he tossed over to her a letter enclosing tickets. It was signed Wilfred Trent, and its purport was to request Mr. Colville's acceptance of tickets for himself and his daughter for a concert to be given in the town hall some few days later.
"How delightful!" she cried, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks rosy with pleasure. "Just look at the list of singers; it will be perfectly lovely, and it is such an age since I have been to a good concert!"
"But what about those pots and pans?"
"They will be all finished and settled by this time to-morrow, I'll engage, father. Oh, boys, I wish you were coming too!" she added, turning to them with a burst of kindliness, in the exuberance of her pleasure.
"I should not have gone, even if Trent had sent me a ticket," said Tom, grandly; "there is a match on that evening, our eleven against Southall Grammar School, that I am compelled to be at. Thanks all the same, you know."
The prospect of the pleasure in store kept Margaret in the best of spirits all that day, and the disagreeable "grand parade" in the kitchen, which Joanna recommended, was carried through with a light heart. Finding that, as is so often the case, her enamelled saucepan was considerably chipped, and as she meditated having all manner of dainty dishes at Christmas, she went to the extravagance of buying two of the earthenware pots Joanna mentioned, not the elegant but fragile French china lined with white, but common brown ware, like pipkins with covers to them. They proved afterwards most successful, as she could wash them out quickly, and then use them for one thing after another, without the unpleasant result of the flavour of the first thing cooked permeating the whole number. Having been rather economical during the previous weeks, too, and saved a little money, she expended two shillings and sixpence on a frying basket, which soon repaid her for the outlay by the clean and economical way in which rissoles and all other "fries" could be cooked in it, and the quickness and ease of dishing them up from it.
The evening of the concert came at length, and Margaret set out with her father for the hall, being assured by her admiring brothers as she stepped into the cab that she looked "awfully jolly," and ought to be dressed like that all day and every day.
And very sweet she certainly looked in her pretty pale blue cashmere dress, dainty lace ruffles at throat and wrists, and a knot of blue ribbons nestling amongst the shining waves of her soft brown hair. She thoroughly enjoyed the music, and as she sat drinking in every note and expression, many a head was turned to look at the bright, happy-faced girl, who, with glowing cheeks and shining eyes, seemed oblivious of all around her, seeing and hearing only the singers and the floods of melody they poured forth.
At the close of the concert, Mr. Colville suggested that as it was a beautiful starlight night, they should walk home, to which Margaret joyfully assented. As his road lay in the same direction, Mr. Trent joined them, and they walked home together. On reaching the house, Mr. Colville asked him to come in to get a set of engravings which he had promised to lend him, adding, "I suppose there is some bread and cheese or something for supper, Madge, if Mr. Trent will join us?"
By that time they were in the hall, but Margaret's rather dubious and hesitating "Yes, father," made Mr. Trent reply, "I am afraid it will not be convenient to Miss Colville; she naturally does not approve of such late visitors."
"Oh, it was not that; it was very rude of me not to speak more cordially; and I hope you will stay; but - well, the real truth is, I am afraid you will think I am always playing the 'amid of all work,' for the last time you came I was all over flour, and now I told our servant not to sit up for us, as we have to be so early in the mornings, and that I would get the supper myself."
"Then, Miss Colville, I must thank you sincerely for giving me the opportunity of seeing that there is one young lady in the town (which I have had cause to doubt lately) who treats her servant as a fellow-creature and not a machine, and also (which I doubted still more) that there is one who does not consider it derogatory to understand and practice household work herself."
While this conversation was going on, Margaret had slipped off her gloves and bracelets, and donned the large white apron and sleeves which Betsy had put on the table ready for her. On the trivet stood a small saucepan, the contents of which, a savoury stew, she emptied on to a dish put into the fender to warm.
"You see, Mr. Trent," she said laughing, "we are all blessed with such very good appetites, I knew it would be no use providing a few little delicate nothings, or they could have been laid out ready beforehand, and besides, one needs something warm this cold weather. But our kitchen is not only downstairs, but down a very disagreeable flight of stone steps, so Betsy and I invented this arrangement between us. The second course is invisible to the naked eye, until pointed out;" whereat she produced from under the grate a pie dish, closely covered with an inverted tin baking dish. "This is only an experiment," she remarked, "but it seems to have been successful; it is a plain and humble rice pudding, made very milky to allow for some drying up."
"A capital idea, Madge, was it your own?"
"Well, not entirely, father; as Betsy says, 'we goes partners' in culinary matters; I supply the brains and she the experience. I should simply have put the pie-dish on the top of the saucepan, instead of a lid, in most cases, but with the wind in this quarter our chimney has taken to smoking, and of course that would have spoilt both."
Supper over, and after a pleasant chat over the fire about music and musicians, Mr. Trent departed, and Margaret rose to go to bed, tired indeed, but full of delight at her happy evening.
"My child," said Mr. Colville, "I must tell you before you go to bed how pleased I am at the pains you take to make everything comfortable for me and all of us. I think you are a capital little housekeeper, and in your kind thoughtfulness for others you constantly remind me of your dear mother. That you may become in all things like her, my child, is the greatest blessing I could wish for you."
Need we say that Margaret's sleep that night was sweet and her dreams happy?