Wednesday, 12 October 2016

26 February 1881 - 'The Difficulties of a Young Housekeeper' by Dora Hope - Chapter Five

Look, Margaret, it's not as though your maidservant's previous employer told you she didn't have a drinking problem.

"My dear Joanna -

Do you know, Spooner has her faults! I know you will be surprised to hear it after the description I sent you of her. I am very loth to confess it even to myself, because I did really think she was so perfect when she first came.

"For one thing, she is unpunctual and procrastinating. Every meal is a few minutes late, and nothing is ever done till the last possible moment. But I cannot blame her very much for that, because I feel too painfully that it would be a case of the kettle scolding the pot for being black. I remember your telling me that was my chief failing, and that I had perverted an excellent proverb into: 'Never do to-day what you can possibly leave till to-morrow.' But I am improving, I assure you, and Spooner is a solemn warning to me. She never does anything thoroughly; the knife handles are always dirty and rough, and the crockery and glass smeary, and when I complain, she says, it is because it is poor glass, but that cannot be true, for under Betsy's reign they were always bright. In strict confidence, I do not know how to wash them properly myself; I suppose there is some particular knack in doing it, but I am afraid you overlooked that departments of my education.

"But that is not the end of my grievances; the table-cloth never looks fit to use a second time, because she has quite a genius for avoiding the proper creases in folding it up, so that it is crumpled and untidy. I have told her and shown her how to do it properly, and it was better for a day or two, but now is as bad as ever again.

"She does not at all approve of the stock-pot, and when I insist, she neglects to scald it out every few days, so the soup is often sour.

"Then the sink! You should see it. It is generally piled up with dirty plates and dishes waiting to be washed, a saucepan standing in a frying-pan, and most of the holes of the sink stopped up because she will empty the teapot straight into it, leaves and all, and even the scraps of the plates are left there till the end of the week, when she has a great clean up for Sunday.

"Perhaps I am not stern enough; I read the other day in a curious old book of maxims that if you are of a hasty temper you should never scold your servants till the day after the offence has been committed, but it does not answer at all in my case, as my rage has quite evaporated by the next day, and Spooner is not in the least affected by my mild insinuations.

"But, to be honest, I am afraid the real cause of my non-success in making her mend her ways is that I cannot teach others what I do not understand myself, and I really have no idea what is the correct thing to do with the contents of a half-empty tea-pot, for instance; nor why some people make glass look quite dazzlingly bright, while others never do, even with the best intentions (for I tried in private myself, and the result certainly was not equal to Betsy's).

"If you could send me a few hints about these matters, and others of the same kind, you would confer the greatest kindness on

"Your loving sister,


"P.S. - I had such a beautiful bouquet sent me on Valentine's Day; I cannot think who it could be from."

A few days after Margaret had written this letter, Mrs. Trent called to ask how she liked her new servant.

"She looks nice, does she not, Mrs. Trent?"

"At the first glance, yes; but feeling rather responsible for her, I took the liberty of looking more particularly at her than I should otherwise have done, and, on closer inspection, I am afraid she is not at all neat. I notice that pins too often take the place of hooks or buttons, or a fold of her dress is carefully arranged to hide a hole which ought to be darned."

"I think that is a very fair index to her whole character; as long as one does not notice details it is all right."

"But the details are just what a good house wife does particularly notice. You know the old saying: 'If you would thrive most prosperously, You yourself must ever corner see.'"

"Yes, I suppose that is true; but Spooner cannot bear my going downstairs and poking about amongst the cupboard, so I shrink from doing so, as it always raises more or less of a tempest. Though I must say that very fact makes me the more uneasy; for, do you know, Mrs. Trent, I hardly like to suggest such a thing, but I am very much afraid she drinks rather more than she ought I found several bottles which I did not remember in a cupboard, and when I smelt them to see what they contained I felt certain it was spirits, and two or three times she has seemed so very strange and excited, that I was quite afraid of being alone in the house with her. But if she had any weakness of that kind, her mistress would have been sure to mention it in her character, would she not?"

"No, I am afraid you cannot depend upon that. So many mistresses, from a false idea of kindness, give most deceptive characters, quite forgetting that honesty and truthfulness are quite as much a duty in domestic affairs as in anything else. They quiet their consciences by not actually stating anything false, but nevertheless they do not hesitate to give an entirely wrong impression by being silent on disagreeable points; and no doubt that is the reason the character you received was so carefully worded."

"But it seems to me absolutely dishonest, and I do not see that it is really a kindness to the servants, for if they are allowed to go from place to place with impunity, a bad habit of that kind is never likely to be checked."

"You are quite right, but people yield to a feeling of compassion without properly considering the facts of the case; of course, it is equally wrong, if not worse, to give a bad character to a servant who has simply been discharged in a temper, or because of some slight fault. What is wanted is a stronger sense of justice and honesty, and a desire to act honourably by both the lady and the servants. But in the meantime I am not helping you out of your difficulties; I would offer to speak to Spooner for you, but she would naturally resent my interference."

"Yes, I am afraid I had better speak to her myself, but I do so dislike doing it; and besides, it *might not have been spirits."

"I certainly should not advise you to say anything till you are sure; but the next time you think her manner strange, wait a little while till she has had time to get over it, and then ask her to explain it."

The opportunity Margaret wanted came only too soon. That very evening, on going into the kitchen to give some directions, there was such an unmistakable odour of whiskey, and Spooner looked so confused at Margaret's sudden entrance that there was no choice but to ask the meaning of it. She protested that it was imagination, and that she did not smell anything, but Margaret insisted that she was right, and asked further what were those bottles in the cupboard. At the mention of the bottles, Spooner lost her temper, and putting on an air of injured innocence, said that no one had ever accused her of such a thing before, and if she was not trusted she had better leave.

"Not at all," said Margaret; "I do not want to send you away; and if you can prove that I am wrong I will not only trust you entirely  for the future, but apologise for having accused you falsely now. All I want at present is to know what is in those bottles, so if you will tell me it will settle the matter at once."

This, however, Spooner absolutely declined doing, and answered so rudely that Margaret could not but say she had better leave; and after a private consultation with her father, told her she had better go the next day, and she should have a month's wages, instead of the usual month's warning.

The next morning, Margaret went to tell her troubles to her unfailing adviser, Mrs. Trent, and asked her advice as to how to get another servant.

"I should recommend you," said that lady, "to call at the shops at which you deal, and inquire if they know of anyone likely to suit you. Respectable servants in want of a place very frequently mention it to the tradespeople with whom their mistresses have dealt; and if that does not succeed, you must either go to a registry office, or answer another advertisement; but in any case let this be a lesson to us both; never again to be satisfied with a written character. It is time I had learnt that already, but I confess I was deceived by the girl's quiet, respectful manner.

"Even if it involves a good deal of trouble, you should make a point of seeing the girl's former mistress It is the only way in which you can be sure of getting at the truth, and also by the appearance of the house in which she has lived you will know the kind of work to which she has been accustomed."

"I have heard just the same tale from a bachelor friend of mine," said Wilfred, who had come in during the conversation. "He had a very evasive sort of character for a man servant; but being ignorant of the convenient equivocations practised by masters in giving characters, he supposed it was all right, and engaged the man; but now he finds that as soon as he has gone to bed, this estimable servant slips quietly out of the house, and spends the first few hours of the night carousing with his friends, leaving a window open through which to return quietly, which of course is equally convenient  for the easy entrance of robbers."

Margaret was much impressed, and went to ask of the tradespeople if they could tell her of a good servant.

While she was still prosecuting her inquiries in the neighbourhood, she had a letter from Betsy, saying that her mother was dead, and as she was no longer required at home, if only her "dear Miss Margaret" would take her back, she would work as much as two servants.

This put Margaret rather in a dilemma. She had now learnt to appreciate Betsy's honesty and good temper, but it was a trial to have to go back to her rough ways and untidy habits. Accordingly she wrote her a letter, telling her frankly the state of the case, and saying that she could not take her again unless she would promise to be more careful and thoughtful over her work and neater in herself.

All this Betsy eagerly agreed to, adding that her mother, who was as "gentle as a real lady," had talked about her rough noisy ways, and she had promised her to try to be more "perlite in her behaviour."

So once more Betsy was installed in the kitchen, and peace reigned in the house of Colville.

But before her arrival, Margaret had received a long letter from Joanna, in which, after condoling with her troubles, she went on to answer her questions as follows -

"The knives are very often a difficulty as servants persist in putting the whole knife into hot water and soda, which not only discolours and cracks the handle, but in time loosens the cement which fastens the blade to the handle in cheap knives. The blades only should be dipped one at a time, not left in, and wiped at once; the handle is then washed quickly in warm water without soda. You will find that very few servants are willing to take this trouble, but you should insist upon it, or your knife handles will soon be spoiled.

"As for the glasses, they are generally smeary through careless drying. They should be washed in cold water (Spooner probably used it nearly boiling), and rubbed first with a coarse glass cloth, and then polished for a moment with a soft leather or old cloth. This sounds troublesome, but really takes hardly a minute longer than drying with only one cloth, which probably is wet through before you get to the end of your task. It is a great mistake to be too saving of your cloths.

"Crockery looks dull from various causes. If you were to go into the kitchen some day when your domestic is washing the tea-things, you would very likely find her emptying the contents of the cups into the water she was using; and it is more than possible that there would be a pile of greasy plates at the bottom of the pan; of course if that is the case you cannot expect to have china bright. There should always be a basin at hand into which to drain all the cups and jugs. The plates should be put aside till the smaller things are finished, and then when all the pieces have been collected and thrown into the fire (failing a pig or fowls who will devour them with a relish), wash the plates in hot water, not luke-warm, give them one rinse in a pan of cold water, and put them on the rack without drying them. If they are very greasy a little soda or soap may be added, and above all, do not be sparing of water, but change it frequently.

"I am very sorry to hear of your difficulties about the sink, because it is really an important matter. Take great care that nothing that can possibly clog the holes is ever thrown in. The tea-pot may be drained through the spout into the sink, if it is really necessary to waste the tea, then the leaves should be taken out and thrown behind the fire, unless you are likely to want some for sweeping the carpets, in which case you should lay them in an old plate or basin, till they are required, but they must have the air on them or they will go mouldy. Do not use more than are quite necessary, as they are apt to leave a stain on the carpet. The tea-pot must then be rinsed out with hot water, but not emptied into the sink, as the water will wash out the small leaves which have remained in the pot, and they will certainly clog the holes.

"There are very nice little wooden sink tidies to be bought now, with a division for soap and others for sand or flannel, which would help you to keep the place in order. I suppose you have a sink brush, if not, you should get one at once, and insist upon its being used every day. They are made very much like those for saucepans, but an old scrubbing brush does quite as well.

If, as you say, your kitchens are left in a dirty disorderly condition, I advise you to have a charwoman before your new servant comes, to thoroughly clear up everything, and rearrange it all according to your own taste, you will find it much easier than making alterations after she has arrived.

I think that it is the end of your questions. But there are one or two other suggestions I have to make to you on other domestic matters.

"The first is that pork is just in season. I am quite aware that you do not like it, but probably the boys do, and at any rate it is less expensive than other meat, and it is considered unwholesome after March, so I should advise you to have it once or twice before it is too late. But you must take especial care that it is very well done; when undercooked it is most indigestible. I always have a little sweet oil rubbed on the pork with a brush or feather, it makes the crackling more crisp and brown than dripping does. Do not forget the apple sauce; besides being a nice addition, it also renders the pork more wholesome by assisting its digestion.

"Certain vegetables will soon be over too, in particular savoy cabbages, celery, and beetroot, though the latter may sometimes be obtained all through the year. Beetroots are cooked in so many different ways, nearly every family who eat them have a favourite mode of their own. They need careful handling or they will lose all their beautiful colour. After washing, they must be put into a saucepan of boiling water, and boiled till tender, which will take about an hour and a half; then lift them out very carefully, so as not to break the skin, and lay them in a dish till quite cold before attempting to peel them, unless they are to be served hot as a vegetable, in which case they must be peeled and cut into slices as quickly as possible, and sent to table covered with melted butter. They are sometimes strewed with onions, but perhaps the nicest way, and one which I am sure you will find will please the boys, is to boil a little vinegar with some spice in the proportion of a small half ounce of peppercorns and three cloves to a pint of vinegar. Many people add pounded ginger, and horseradish or capsicums, but I do not think you would care for it. When cool, strain this, and pour it over the sliced beets. This pickle can be used at once, but is improved by keeping two or three days.

"The particular attraction of this dish for boys is, that they feel they are eating pickle, which they always like; but at the same time they may be safely allowed to take as much as they please of it, which is not generally permitted with ordinary pickles.

"You must remember the pancakes on Shrove-Tuesday. Lest you have not a recipe for them, I send you mind, which is a good one. Put a quarter of a pound of flour into a basin, break into it two eggs, with a little nutmeg, and half a pinto f milk. Mix as smoothly as possible; the consistency should be like cream. Put a little butter in the frying-pan, and when melted pour in two tablespoonfuls of the batter. As soon as one side is done toss over to the other. When well browned lay on a dish, one on the other, till all are done, then sift sugar and squeeze a little lemon juice on each, roll them up, cut them in two, and serve directly. Should there chance to be any snow at the time of year, it takes the place of eggs, allowing two heaped tablespoonfuls to one egg. In this case the batter should stand an hour or two in a cool place before cooking.

"As to marmalade, which you asked me about, you must watch your opportunity for buying the Seville oranges when they are cheap and good. The best time is usually about the end of March or beginning of April. Choose the largest oranges, with nice clear skins; cut them into thin slices, carefully removing all the pips, of which there are innumerable small ones. Put the sliced fruit in a pan, cover with water, and leave for twenty-four hours. Then boil till the pieces of rind become soft, and let stand another twenty-four hours. Now add sugar in the proportion of one pound and a half to one pound of fruit and juice together. Then boil up again for about an hour, or until the peel looks transparent and the juice thickens. This is a much simpler recipe than that ordinarily used, and will, I think, please you better.

"I have neglected to tell you before to look occasionally at the covers on the sides of the mattresses, to see that they are not dirty. You will notice, if you have not already done so, that before I left home I made new covers of glazed Holland, which I tacked on with strong thread, to cover the edges of the mattresses. They are sewn with long stitches, so that they are easily taken off to be washed when necessary. I did not use them when I first began housekeeping thinking them one of the unnecessary fads of housewives, but I soon changed my mind,  for the sides of one bed became so dirty that I had to take the whole bed to pieces to wash the tick."

This letter came just in time to allow Margaret's following the advice it contained, to have the kitchens well cleaned and re-arranged before Betsy's return.

She bought a sink-tidy and brush, and arranged the kitchen drawers and cupboards according to her own fancy, so that on Betsy's around she was able to take her round her domain, and show her that there was to be a place for everything, and everything in its place.

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